Lhota Post-Mortem: Chapter One

Let’s be clear, and fair:  The mayoral odds were overwhelmingly stacked against Joe Lhota.  Voter registration and demographics alone put him at an enormous disadvantage, giving him little chance of winning.  Absent a campaign collapse by Bill de Blasio exceeding that of Weiner and Quinn combined, a Lhota victory was improbable.

Lhota nonetheless missed a significant opportunity.  He was slow to accept and capitalize on the notion that he needed to convince voters that, despite safe streets and a fairly stable economy, a crisis was brewing and that Lhota would be the right choice to avoid it. When he did accept that notion, he chose the wrong crisis.

In a July interview I asked Lhota about the challenges for any Republican in this overwhelmingly Democratic city, noting that in 1993 and 2001 a sense of crisis drove voters to the Republican candidate.  Lhota interrupted my question to dispute the premise, characterizing “that conventional wisdom” as “completely flawed.”  It was surprising, and left me puzzled as to how Lhota thought he would convince Democrats and independents that they needed him.

Two potential crises seemed like plausible worries that might drive voters toward Lhota: 1) a spike in street crime and 2) a downward fiscal spiral of budget shortfalls producing deteriorating services and rising taxes.  Lhota ultimately chose the first as his argument, despite the fact that his government experience and true expertise concerned the second. His efforts to convince voters of an impending crime wave that only he could prevent, embodied in an ineffective ad, fell flat.

The second possibility, a deep financial crisis for the city, is both plausible and a problem that would demand talents Lhota possesses.  His city government experience involved understanding the city’s revenue and spending and then bridging the gap between the two.  It’s a likely problem in the years ahead and one that Lhota could convincingly argue that he is prepared to lead on.  Would voters have paid attention and would the argument have worked?  Maybe not, but it would have played to his strengths and might have given him a chance.

~  John Kenny