John Catsimatidis, the tycoon best known for his chain of troubled supermarkets and his real estate empire, has never been elected to anything. But that shouldn’t matter when he’s running for mayor, he says.
“I’m better than that,” the Greece-born and West Harlem-raised businessman told The Jewish Week.
And where he lacks political experience, Catsimatidis says he’s made up for with his business success and position as a top lay leader in the Greek Orthodox Church, in which he has served as president of the Archdiocesan Council and has worked to bring disparate groups together and solve conflicts. He notes that he is also a board member of Rabbi Arthur Schneier’s Appeal of Conscience Foundation.
In 2004, when a controversy erupted over the church’s sale of land to Jerusalem developers, enraging Palestinians who want the land for a future state, Catsimatidis gathered Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian and Greek Orthodox leaders in New York in an attempt to cool tensions. (The church ultimately dismissed the patriarch involved in the deal, Irenaios Skopeliti.)
“I put together the peace treaty between the [American] Jews, the Palestinians, the Greeks and the Israelis,” he boasted.
“When there’s a problem in my company I don’t allow people to bulls–t me. I put everyone in the same room and let them bulls–t me in the same room in front of both parties.”
Rabbi Schneier called him a “bridge-builder” and friend of the Jewish community.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, the 64-year-old Catsimatidis said he had a long history of working with the Jewish community. “I’m not a Johnny-come-lately Jew. I’ve been around. I watch out for the Jews, I watch out for the Catholics.”
However, he declined to retract a controversial statement he made in December on NY1’s “Inside City Hall” program, when he was asked about higher taxes for the rich and said, “We can’t punish any one group and chase them away. Hitler punished the Jews. We can’t have punishing the 2 percent group right now.”
While acknowledging that he could have chosen a better analogy, Catsimatidis, who said on NY1 he supports more federal tax on everyone, not just the rich said, “I don’t think any group should be punished … singling out any group, whether it’s the way [President Barack] Obama did it or the way Hitler did it, I don’t think we should go after groups of human beings.”
Asked what he would say to Holocaust survivors or others who might be offended by his comparison of rich people paying more taxes to the Nazi war against the Jews, Catsimatidis said, “They should read into it deeper.”
But at other points in the interview, he became visibly emotional, such as when he listed four friends who died on 9/11 and when he brought up his recent acquaintance with two Jewish relatives, daughters that survive his maternal grandfather, E. Michael Emmanuelides, and Emmanuelides’ second wife. He said his grandfather remarried after his Greek wife refused to join him in America and that he later converted to Judaism.
The Republican (he also has the Liberal Party’s backing) who wants to succeed Michael Bloomberg polled last with 8 percent in an April Quinnipiac poll looking at the Sept. 10 primary field, trailing former MTA chief and Deputy Mayor Joe Lhota (23 percent) and Doe Fund founder George McDonald (11 percent).
He says Bloomberg has mostly done a good job and that he’d largely stay on the same path, except for freezing taxes and rolling back what critics call a “nanny-state” policing of health issues.
On the city’s attempts to regulate metzitzah b’peh, a circumcision practice believed to be dangerous to infants, Catsimatidis said it was reasonable for the city to intervene and for parents to affirm their consent, as currently required. He also suggested that mohels who perform the oral suction practice should be certified in good health. But when pressed he repeatedly declined to say who should provide such certification, at one point suggesting that rabbis could do it.
“Everyone, whether it’s the Jews, the Greeks, the Catholics, everybody is entitled to religious beliefs and entitled to their traditions,” he said. “But the question is who protects the baby? I think if the mohel is a sick person that could transmit a disease we have to protect the child.”
Asked what he would do in his first days in office, Catsimatidis said he would work to freeze city taxes, warning that New Yorkers are leaving for cities in Florida or Texas where they can keep more of their income.
Asked how the city could continue providing services for the needy without a steady tax revenue stream, he said some services could be halted “until we get the pulse of what’s going on. We can live without it for a couple of months.”
When asked for more details he said, “Read my lips. It will not affect services to the elderly. The budget is so complex, no one from the outside looking in can understand. We need to freeze them until we can understand and we are able to control costs.”
He also said he hoped the city’s payroll will be reduced by attrition. “We will freeze hiring until we get it under control.”
On the subject of taxpayer aid to private and parochial schools, Catsimatidis said, “We have to do whatever we can to help because some private schools are doing a better job than public schools.” He said he supports some form of credit or voucher but does not yet have a detailed plan.
Disagreeing with Bloomberg’s policies on public health, Catsimatidis said he favored aiming increased nutritional education at kids in “in the seventh or eighth grades” to warn about the dangers of diabetes and other ailments related to food.
He added that he supported continuing to allow City Council members to have discretionary funds for nonprofit programs in their districts, provided those groups pass scrutiny and are found free of conflicts.
“As long as they are legitimate and going to legitimate sources and poor people of our neighborhoods are getting the benefit,” he said. “It’s not about stealing and not about glomming and [politicians] trading among themselves.”
Catsimatidis fully supports the current police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, and has said he should continue serving the next mayor, whomever it may be. Citing his own childhood on 135th Street in Manhattan, he recalled that when kids in those days had street fights it was with water; now, it’s bullets.
“When you talk to women and men in these neighborhoods, they welcome stop and frisk,” he claimed. “They want guns off the street.” He said the city is safer when criminals are afraid to carry guns, but said part of the problem in police-community relations is that “rookie cops” are placed in communities they don’t know. He said emerging technology that can detect guns on pedestrians from afar could one day render the stop-and-frisk issue moot.
Asked about NYPD surveillance of mosques and Muslim communities since 9/11, Catsimatidis brought up his opposition to the location of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero and said, referring to extremists and terrorists, “I resent the fact that very few Muslim leaders have stood up to say what they are doing is wrong.” He added that the police anti-terrorism unit should do what has to be done to keep the city safe.
It remains to be seen if New Yorkers are ready for a second billionaire mayor, considering that Bloomberg — who spent $73 million in his initial 2001 campaign — was narrowly re-elected in 2009 running against a strong Democrat, William C. Thompson, Jr. Though his net worth, about $3 billion, is smaller than Bloomberg’s Catsimatidis has pledged to spend millions. But he may have more negatives to overcome.
“[Anyone] who says it can’t be done is a fool,” says Democratic political consultant Scott Levenson of the Advance Group. “But John Catsimatidis has some problems with his candidacy that are not easily solved.”
Levenson, who represents a group that is opposed to Democrat Christine Quinn but does not work for any mayoral candidate, noted that there’s a contrast between Bloomberg and Catsimatidis’ associations with the public.
Bloomberg’s eponymous New York-based media empire “was a positive reflection on what his candidacy and messaging was about and his company, for many was an example of his success. But for all too many Gristedes is exactly the opposite, at a time when Whole Foods markets and Trader Joe’s are newer, fresher, cleaner.”
Discussing the supermarket chain, which has been described as an albatross around his neck despite having propelled him to wealth, Catsimatidis says the chain is now just 3 percent of his business holdings. The Red Apple Group of which he is CEO now has more substantial holdings in oil, aviation, real estate and finance.
Catsimatidis, who does not mention the supermarkets in his advertising, said he keeps the stores — which have been subject to several class action suits by what he calls “ambulance chasing lawyers” on behalf of workers — open only to provide jobs for some 1,500 workers at the remaining 31 outlets (down from 200.)
“I’ve saved these guys’ jobs,” he said. “They’ve worked for me a long time. The joke I tell at parties is that I’d be higher up on the Forbes list if I didn’t have [the supermarkets.]”
But Levenson said Catsimatidis will need to promote his more successful ventures. “It’s going to cost him some money to get that out,” he says, “and the one thing that is not clear is whether John has any intent or means of spending the kind of money Mike Bloomberg was willing to spend.”