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The temptation is to compare supermarket magnate and mayoral hopeful John Catsimatidis to pre-mayoral Wall St. magnate Michael Bloomberg in 2001. He's a self-made billionaire with a New York-based business, a longtime contributor to political candidates, and along with his wife Margo, a social host and big charity donor, who has ferried big political figures on his private jets.
But the parallel goes only so far.
“I believe in at least 70 percent of what Bloomberg’s done,” says the Greek-born entrepreneur, who was raised on 135th St. in Manhattan and graduated from Brooklyn Tech High School. He says Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly “provided leadership, safety and security for the city.”
Still, he adds: “I don’t like those bicycle lanes. I don’t like the size of those cabs - maybe because I’m a big guy and I put in one leg at a time.” Unlike Bloomberg, he’ll accept contributions, though he’ll personally fund more than he collects. Catsimatidis sees spending perhaps $10 to $20 million mainly to become known.
“I’m not a $100 million guy,” he says. “I think it was wrong that Bloomberg spent that much, because if you need $100 million to get elected, maybe you shouldn’t get elected.”
In a freewheeling interview, Catsimatidis, 64, has this to say of Joe Lhota, seen as the strongest among his putative rivals for the Republican nomination:
“I think he has to realize that this is a Democratic town.”
That comes from a man who switched from Democrat to Republican five years ago, looking to succeed the term-limited Michael Bloomberg as GOP nominee.
“Yes. I’m a Republican, because I am pro-business,” explains Catsimatidis. “But I am also a Democrat because I am pro-social issues. I’m pro-religion, and I’m pro-bringing people together. I’m passionate about that stuff.”
“We’re different kinds of Republicans,” he adds. “[Former Gov.] George Pataki is going to support me. [Former Mayor] Rudy Giuliani is supporting Lhota. Rudy did a decent job when he was cleaning up the streets, but I don’t think there are many Rudy people left in New York from those days.’’
But on the candidate’s prediction of support, Pataki was noncommittal, responding through a spokesman, “…I have great respect for both John and Joe and expect to be meeting with them, and others, soon...
Pataki added, "I think it's important that the next mayor continue policies that are tough on crime, respect the need for an economic climate that lets the private sector grow and continue strong workfare rules to discourage dependency."
His business interests interact with government in ways assured of drawing scrutiny from rival negative researchers. He’s pushed for crackdowns on untaxed cigarette sales on Indian reservations. He once paid a settlement in a suit pressed by state Att. Gen. Elliot Spitzer over compensation to deliverers. He notes his delivery trucks are forced to pay millions in fines serving his stores. His real-estate ventures include plans for a high-rise development in Coney Island.
Inside his warren of workaday business offices in a nondescript building along 11th Avenue, a pink-walled work space is under renovation for his daughter Andrea Catsimatidis, wife of Chris Cox, son of state GOP chairman Ed Cox and Tricia Nixon Cox. He hopes she’ll play a key role in a family business that includes Gristedes stores and United Refining, which owns a 280-acre petroleum storage terminal in Riverhead.
His and hallway walls are adorned with photos of the CEO with a wide mix of notables: President Bill Clinton at a surprise birthday party in Catsimatidis’ Manhattan apartment; President Barack Obama (Catsimatidis backed Mitt Romney last year); various U.S. senators, cardinals, Pope John Paul II, rabbis, Yoko Ono, President Ronald Reagan, Mike Dukakis, King Constantine and Queen Anne-Marie of Greece, Rupert Murdoch, Chris Christie, ex-mayor David Dinkins.
And even Fidel Castro. Not that Catsimatidis supports Castro’s politics; the occasion for their meeting was the 2004 consecration of the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Nicholas, in Havana, by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew -- which Catsimatidis backed and to which he brought planeloads of guests.