EXCLUSIVE TO THE JEWISH VOICE
The office is humble, to say the least. It’s not on Madison Avenue, but rather way out west on Eleventh Avenue among mostly automobile dealerships. Despite being a billionaire, the man himself is humble as well. The man is John Catsimatidis, 64, the owner of Gristedes, one of the largest supermarket chains in New York City.
In 2009, Catsimatidis explored running for mayor, but after Michael Bloomberg overturned term limits allowing him to run for a third term, Catsimatidis abandoned the idea. Four years later, with Bloomberg out of the picture, Catsimatidis has officially thrown his hat into the ring, running for the Republican nomination for mayor in a field that includes former MTA chairman Joe Lhota, former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr., Doe Fund founder George McDonald, and Manhattan Media publisher Tom Allon.
Catsimatidis was born on the Greek isle of Nysiros. He came to the United States with his parents in February 1949. “I came to America looking for the streets paved with gold [at] six months old,” he says. His father worked as a busboy at Jan Mitchell’s famed German restaurant Luchow’s. It is with great pride that he says, “I ended up buying my father’s boss’ apartment on Fifth Avenue.”
He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1966 and went on to pursue a BS in electrical engineering at New York University. While at NYU, he worked for an uncle in a small supermarket on 137th Street. Catsimatidis ultimately dropped out of college, and in 1971, convinced he could make money in the grocery business, opened his first store on the Upper West Side at 99th Street and Broadway under the name “Seven Eleven” (which was not part of the similarly named franchise). Soon afterwards he opened a Red Apple supermarket on 87th Street just west of Broadway. In 1986 the Red Apple Group acquired the Gristedes supermarket chain.
After twelve years of Bloomberg, whose critics consider him an out of touch billionaire, I asked Catsimatidis if New Yorkers would embrace another billionaire in City Hall. “I’m different,” he says. “I grew up in the streets. I grew up on the poor side of town – 135th Street. I was an altar boy [at] the church on 91st Street… I grew up being a merchant, a store owner… The people that grew up like that never forget where they came from… Mike Bloomberg came with a silver spoon, went to Harvard, went to Yale, and then went straight to Solomon Brothers. I love people, I respect people. I got my training – even though I’m running as a Republican – I got my training from Bill Clinton. I was a Clinton Democrat.”
The walls of Catsimatidis’ office are lined with photos of him with virtually every modern political player, including several with Clinton, most notably one taken in August of 2000 when Catsimatidis threw him a surprise birthday party in his apartment. Photos of Catsimatidis with Chuck Schumer, George Pataki, John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and even Fidel Castro also adorn his walls.
Catsimatidis said he plans to spend a million dollars a month on his campaign, which seems like very little considering how much Bloomberg spent on his first campaign. “My only criticism of Mayor Bloomberg is I think he wasted a lot of money,” Catsimatidis says. “But he also created walls between himself and people. There are no walls between me and other people. I think Mayor Bloomberg by and large has done a very, very decent job. He’s kept the city safe. He’s kept it economically stable along with Commissioner Kelly, and that’s what we need. We need stability because nobody wants to live in fear.”
Catsimatidis says his top priority were he to be elected is safety. “I want to beef up [the police force],” he says. His other concern is jobs. “We have to create new jobs,” he says. “One of our biggest businesses in New York is tourism. [We need to] create inducement to have additional tourism so we could build more hotels and our restaurants should be full and our taxi cabs should be full.”
When it comes to education, Catsimatidis says, “I think our kids are being shortchanged. I plan to fix the education system.”
As for past mayors that Catsimatidis might model himself after, he picks Fiorello LaGuardia. After seeing a play about LaGuardia several years ago, Catsimatidis said, “I was inspired… Wow, what a great job he did. That inspired me to want to run for mayor.” A new production of the one-man show, simply called LaGuardia, is returning to New York for 10 performances starring Tony LoBianco. Catsimatidis is so enthusiastic about the play that he bought an entire block of tickets that he freely gives out to anyone who wants them, including schools, the Police Athletic League, and the Boy Scouts. “I want to inspire these kids to want more,” he says. “What other good can you do [than doing it] for kids?”
Catsimatidis donates to many philanthropic causes. In addition to the Police Athletic League and the Boy Scouts, he is also involved in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and juvenile diabetes. “God has been good to us,” he said. “New York City has been good to us. That’s why I want to give back. I think every successful citizen should give back. Remember what John Kennedy said – ‘Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.’ People don’t believe that anymore. I want to give back [because] in the end I don’t need any money, I don’t need anything. Bloomberg works for a dollar – I’m going to work for 99 cents.”
A poll released last week showed City Council Speaker Christine Quinn with a substantial lead over her Democratic opponents, as well as trouncing potential GOP nominee Joe Lhota. “I like Speaker Quinn,” Catsimatidis says. “I like her as a person. But I think I can do a better job.” As for Lhota, generally viewed as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, Catsimatidis says, “Joe Lhota can’t win, in my opinion, because he’s a pure Republican. Me, I just got started a few weeks ago. We’re going to go out and get name recognition out there… But I’m a combination pro-business Republican but I am also a Clinton Democrat. And a fusion ticket could win in this election.”
Despite the Bloomberg administration’s touting that the murder rate is down in the city, other crimes such as rape and violent assaults are up. How would a Catsimatidis administration handle crime? “One of the things I would do [is] take all of the police out of the police stations [and] put them on the streets,” he says. “I want the police on the streets… There are 335 public housing buildings in the city that account for 20 percent of the crimes in the city. I’d make sure in those 335 buildings that I had a cop there all the time. And if we can get rid of 20 percent of the crime, God bless us… We have to protect the poor neighborhoods and the poor people in those neighborhoods.”
Catsimatidis has enormous respect for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and said he would not run for mayor if Kelly had. Were he to be elected, Catsimatidis made it clear he would try to keep Kelly on. “I’d love for him to stay as police commissioner,” he said. “I’d love for him to come in as first deputy mayor.”
Many New Yorkers feel Mayor Bloomberg has warped priorities, seeming to care more about banning large sodas, salt, and fatty foods instead of focusing on crime, jobs, and the homeless situation. “I think Mayor Bloomberg is getting overzealous,” Catsimatidis says. “I hate those bicycle lanes… But overall Mayor Bloomberg has done a great job. What I would do [through] the education process [is] teach the kids about nutrition while they’re in school. I went to the movies a few weeks ago and I looked up at the board and it said a big Coca-Cola was 1,100 calories. Telling kids what they should eat and shouldn’t eat I think is a better way.”
With New York’s large gay population, a substantial voting block, any candidate for mayor needs to articulate their stance on gay rights and same-sex marriage. Catsimatidis is not passionate one way or the other, but takes a live and let live approach to the matter. “That’s the reason the pilgrims came to America,” he said. “So they could do whatever they want to do. As long as they’re not bothering anybody, this is America. Let them do whatever they want to do. [I was asked], as mayor, would I perform a gay marriage? I said I’m not volunteering to do it, but if it’s a gay couple that’s friends of mine, I may do it.”
As for his own marriage, Catsimatidis has been wed for 24 years to the former Margo Vondersaar. He has a 23-year-old daughter, Andrea, and 20-year-old son, John Jr. “They’re both good kids,” he says. Andrea graduated from the Stern School at New York University and is married to Christopher Cox, grandson of Richard Nixon. John Jr. is a sophomore at NYU. “I wanted my kids home versus going out of state,” he says. “You know why? I wanted to be able to hug them every day. I believe family is very important. I’m a family man.”
Catsimatidis has long been a friend of the Jewish community. “Every year I light the menorah on Fifth Avenue for the last twenty years,” he says. He has formed close friendships with many prominent New York rabbis, and takes pride in a dinner he threw at the ‘21’ Club where he brought together Jews and Palestinians at a particularly sensitive time. “At the end of the night, we all laughed,” he says. “I was proud that I was able to put together a meeting like that to avoid problems that don’t need to happen. I was the head of the Greek Orthodox church at the time. Now I serve as the chairman of the World Congress for Religious Freedom.”
Any mayor is the most important booster for their city. Catsimatidis doesn’t hesitate to say New York is“the greatest city in the world. If you have a choice of working in Kansas or working in New York – some towns where they have one movie theater, one diner – versus New York where you have thousands of movie theaters, thousands of restaurants, you have Lincoln Center, Broadway, Carnegie Hall. Best city in the world.”