Shopping for Gracie Mansion

John Catsimatidis wants to be the next billionaire mayor

Outside the building, the only clue to its owner's wealth is the sleek, late-model Mercedes-Benz that happens to be parked rather blatantly on the sidewalk with a Detectives Endowment Association placard on the dashboard.

Ryan and Michael Palladino, the president of the union, both point out that it's not a parking placard, God forbid—it's just a bumper sticker left there by Catsimatidis's driver, who happens to be a retired detective.

Catsimatidis last mulled a mayoral run in 2003. He was knocking Mayor Bloomberg at the time, saying there was a "clear leadership vacuum" at City Hall. But he backed off when his fellow rich guy decided to run for re-election.

This time, he tells the Voice, he's much more serious about running. These days, his message is that Bloomberg and Giuliani did good jobs. Let's not let the city go to the dogs, he says; let's keep it away from the "professional politicians." What the city really needs is another CEO.

And so he hired Ryan, a veteran campaign manager who headed up George Pataki's first run for governor, and is preparing to form an exploratory committee.

Last time, Catsimatidis said he would spend $15 million and take contributions. This time, he says he'll pay for the campaign himself. He's budgeted about $30 million for the run, though he says he'll spend more if necessary. (Bloomberg spent $85 million, so Catsimatidis's figures might reflect the frugal thinking of a man used to watching the bottom line.)

"I think it's a sin that we have politicians that take taxpayer money to promote themselves," he says. "If they are good enough, they can sell themselves to the public without taking money." (Never mind that without public campaign financing, only rich guys can afford to run for office these days.)

He says he's trying to lose weight and cut back on the cigars. "I get a little sensitive about my weight," he admits, his brow wrinkling at the music still thumping through the ceiling. "I'm trying to work out. I gotta lose 20 or 30 pounds—I'll look better on television."

Catsimatidis once said that the Democrats give better parties. Last October, however, he switched his party affiliation to Republican.

Five weeks later, the man who used his nonprofit foundation to donate $100,000 to the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock was in Astoria to collect—of all things—a Ronald Reagan leadership award from Queens Republicans.

But the Clinton connection goes much deeper. Catsimatidis estimates that he's raised $3 million to $5 million for Bill and Hillary since 1992. He was so close to the Clintons that the president visited him in the Hamptons and at his Fifth Avenue apartment. He visited the Clintons at Camp David. He slept at the White House. His wife danced with Bill. He even threw a surprise birthday party in his apartment for the then president.

On top of that, he has personally given more than $1 million to candidates from both parties at the federal, state, and local levels. Name a pol, and it's more than likely that Big John has given him or her money.

He even has an assistant in his office whose job is primarily to send out invitations to fundraisers. Just last March, the aide sent out an e-mail calling for "friends who will contribute at least $1,000 - $2,300 to Senator Clinton's historic campaign for President of the United States."

Despite his thoughts of running as a Republican, Catsimatidis still donates money to Democrats. On January 11, he sent off a $10,000 donation to Governor Eliot Spitzer's re-election campaign.

Of course, not unwisely, he has also started giving generously to local Republicans. He's handed out at least $17,000 to Republican county organizations since October, and $20,000 to local Republican candidates.

So what did he get for all that generosity? "I never asked anything from anyone," he says. "I enjoy doing it. After you make x amount of money and you have disposable dollars—when the dollars don't matter as much—you can either buy paintings, or you can donate to politicians who you think will do a decent job. I'm not a paintings type of person."


Was there any consternation among Democrats over the party switch? Catsimatidis wouldn't say. The Voice got only a glacial silence from the Democratic National Committee.

On occasion, his largesse has sparked controversy. There was the time he wrote to President Clinton asking for a pardon for William Fugazy, an influential limousine mogul convicted of perjury. Clinton pardoned Fugazy. Catsimatidis says a lot of other people wrote to Clinton on Fugazy's behalf as well.

And then there was the time in 2002 that he flew Representative Charles Rangel and two dozen others to Cuba. They had dinner with Fidel Castro. Rangel eventually had to repay $1,922 in travel costs following an ethics investigation.

If he runs, Catsimatidis likely would face Comptroller Bill Thompson, Congressman Anthony Wiener, or Council Speaker Christine Quinn in the general election.

His Republican allies seem to think that Catsimatidis has a good chance to win against that field. They think his life story will appeal to middle-class New Yorkers. The prospective Democratic field, they argue, is weak on experience.

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