Can Lhota's personality, skill make him electable?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Joe Lhota, chairman &

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Joe Lhota, chairman & CEO, MTA, talk before a press conference to update residents about superstorm Sandy recovery. (Nov. 4, 2010) (Credit: Charles Eckert)

Dan Janison

Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison, Dan Janison

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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For much of the past 20 years, Joseph Lhota has served as a high-profile, high-ranking organization man -- at City Hall during the Giuliani administration, then at Cablevision and Madison Square Garden and, most recently, in the Cuomo administration, as chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

All the Lhota-for-mayor buzz began shortly after he oversaw the mammoth project of getting the region's mass transit system out from under superstorm Sandy's damage with surprising speed. People would come up to him and tell him to run for the top job that opens next year, friends say.

It is, of course, a major question whether Lhota's persona and skill can translate into high elective office. The behind-the-scenes demeanor of an operation-minded boss in a big organization differs markedly from a candidate's solo performance in New York City's political fishbowl -- where every public utterance is magnified and where personal matters draw scrutiny.

A couple of unfiltered public statements during his brief, about-to-end MTA tenure give a good glimpse of a blunt style. At one public meeting he urged a board member whose actions irked him to "be a man." During the superstorm Sandy crisis, he said Mayor Michael Bloomberg was "being an idiot" by making an uninformed prediction about when the Queens-Midtown Tunnel could reopen.

Lhota apologized after both flare-ups (which isn't to say his complaints lacked merit). But many are the successful political figures who have found benefit from such confrontations.

Amplifying the Lhota speculation has been his ex-boss Rudy Giuliani, who pledges his endorsement. For Giuliani, such a run may offer increased relevance. Lhota was active in Giuliani's 2008 effort to turn his own widely hailed performance in the emergency of September 2001 into higher office.

In many parts of the city, the specter of "another Giuliani" or "Rudy's man" could be touted to actually galvanize support for whichever Democrat wins the competitive mayoral primary. Actions Lhota took to serve Giuliani's political agenda will be brought up in a negative light as surely as supporters would cite the deputy mayor's role in reacting to 9/11, his budget skill, and other assets.

As a Republican who's called himself a "libertarian," Lhota supported Bloomberg in his first run in 2001. But his relations with the new administration reportedly soured. Earlier this month, after the "idiot" flap, it leaked out of City Hall that Lhota met with Bloomberg -- who didn't urge him to make the run.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who chose Lhota for the MTA slot, seems to have no problem with his potential candidacy. By all appearances, Cuomo and his father, ex-Gov. Mario Cuomo, have maintained cordial relations with Republican Giuliani. Moreover, as a competitive Democratic primary ramps up, the Democratic governor has said he will refrain from making a mayoral endorsement next year.

Lhota's post-Sandy departure from the top slot comes with the MTA still facing fare hikes, budget deficits and other unsolved challenges.