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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Janison: Lhota makes pitch to discuss commuter tax

Former MTA chairman Joseph Lhota on John Street

Former MTA chairman Joseph Lhota on John Street in Manhattan. (Jan. 22, 2013) Credit: Charles Eckert

New York City's best-known Republican mayoral candidate, Joseph Lhota, says without hesitation that "there needs to be an open discussion" of bringing back a commuter tax on those who work in the city but live elsewhere.

"A lot of people who live outside the City of New York are protected every day by the Police Department and the Fire Department and all of our emergency services," the former MTA chairman says. "There needs to be a way to have that discussion."

Suburbanites would protest the move, which the State Legislature would need to approve. Previous appeals to revive the tax have been blocked in Albany. Worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually, the tax was suddenly and controversially allowed to expire in the late 1990s.

On a national stage, ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for whom Lhota was a top aide, drew fire in 2007 from then-rival GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney for having tried to keep the tax and even raise it.

But at City Hall, support for the tax is widespread. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Democratic mayoral hopeful, would support the tax's return. Same goes for City Comptroller John Liu and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. Democratic former Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. called for its restoration in 2002, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg did so in 2003.

Politics aside, the Bronx-born Lhota, 58, son of a retired police lieutenant, has roots on Long Island, where he attended high school in West Islip. His parents, who live part of the year in Florida, were among those with houses in Lindenhurst damaged in superstorm Sandy (after which Lhota won notice for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's swift restoration of service).

"What happened in Lindenhurst was extraordinary -- horribly extraordinary," he said quietly, speaking also of friends who lost homes.

In his pitch for the tax as a candidate, Lhota puts his background and skills front and center. His quick and blunt answer to an interviewer's spontaneous question characterizes his style.

Lhota also says he'd "absolutely" keep the city a bastion of strict gun-control laws. "The reduction in murders in this city is directly related to taking guns off the street," he says.

From the outset, his party affiliation in a city with a 6-1 Democratic-to-Republican edge makes him an underdog. But Lhota -- who firmly and accurately predicted years ago as he suffered from lymphoma that he would beat the disease -- offers a general scenario for winning this race.

"New Yorkers have never voted party line," he says. "They always vote for the person they believe will do the best job. So as this campaign gets going, I will make it a point to show why I will be different as mayor than any of the other candidates . . . It's going to be about issues. It's going to be about leadership skills.

He expresses confidence he'd win a GOP primary -- even as supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis speaks of spending millions to gain name recognition.

For various reasons, some open to debate, city voters have in fact elected the Republican candidate as mayor five straight times since 1993. And Lhota recalls that the late John Lindsay, elected in 1965 as a Republican, was re-elected in 1969 without either major-party line.

"You know, I've called the City of New York the most complex organization you can possibly imagine. And the mayor is its chief executive," he says. "In this campaign, I will go through and show New Yorkers what they need in their next mayor."

Again he states: "It's about leadership."

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