As candidate for mayor, John Catsimatidis pledges to restore an emergency room to the West Village
Like me, John Catsimatidis, who owns Gristedes and is a Republican contender for mayor, was, and perhaps still is, a middle class Greek American kid who grew up on 135th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue.
We did not know each other then because I had left 525 West 135th Street long before John was even born. In fact, the year after he arrived from Greece in 1949, I flew to Athens for the first time to stay with my uncle Pantelis and his son John, both journalists (later John’s son also a Pantelis became and is now the Minister of Information for Greece and of course a contributor to WestView News – three generations of newspaper journalists). Greece is a tiny country and when one Greek or one Greek-American meets another, the first thing he says is, “where does your family come from?” and if it is even close, somebody shouts “relative.”
Attorney and now candidate for District Leader, Arthur Schwartz, and I went to the 11th Avenue and 56th Street offices of Red Apple Group to hopefully ask Catsimatidis some of the questions our readers might like to ask him. For example, “If elected, will you restore a hospital and emergency room to the West Village” and before I could get that question out of my mouth, he said “yes.”
However, let’s go back to the beginning. 11th Avenue and 56th Street is so different now, it’s like a new city, one you might have visited in a dream. There are new office buildings and spiffy new auto showrooms, one after another. Arthur remarked that after you get above 57th Street, it becomes elegant and even spectacular. How funny, this once West side wasteland that is too far from the subway is now luxury condo land for the cab set.
The surprise was when we opened the modest aluminium door of the multi billion dollar Red Apple Group empire and discovered a narrow sloping and slanted hall that ended at an improvised desk presided over by a handsome smiling white haired Jamaican in his seventies who assured us, as he obviously had many visitors, that we were indeed in the right place and we need only turn around and hit the 3rd floor button of the small elevator to get to Mr. Catsimatidis.
When we emerged, we were in a narrow cluttered hallway and in five steps, we discovered Mr. Catsimatidis in a small conference room just finishing a meeting (the office was in vintage back of the super market décor).
Catsimatidis conducts all new visitors to a photo wall on which he has shots of himself with just about everybody. I missed the tour, but Arthur said it included Bill Clinton, Andrew Cuomo, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama (in Mr. Catsimatidis’s Fifth Avenue apartment), Fidel Castro, John Boehner, George W. Bush, Michael Bloomberg, and Senator Schumer.
Our link to Mr. Catsimatidis was via Leticia (Tish) James, a Brooklyn City Council woman whom we learned had helped Red Apple deal with the local Myrtle Avenue politicians and activists to complete a market rate and affordable condo complex, a rendering of which was on the wall. Mr. Catsimatidis is also a real estate developer, although, I believe, a modest one and oh, the project was done by Dattner architects, the same firm that just did the Durst Pier 40 concept.
The Daily News reported that the project, in a much larger version, had been stalled for five years by a depressed real estate market while the city housing tenants facing the empty lot waited impatiently for their demolished supermarket to be restored. Leticia acted as intermediary and is now running for Public Advocate (I think she would make a good one).
Being a billionaire is becoming one of the requirements for running for New York City Mayor and John is reported as being worth $3 billion; not just from supermarkets – no, not at all – as he will soon tell us in this article. The food business in New York is not the way to become rich and, as he offered, “even the A&P is in financial trouble.” As his business card catalogues, he is into Real Estate, Supermarkets, Aviation, Leasing, Finance, Refining (oil that is) and that perhaps is how he really has made his money.
Indeed, he began our interview with, “If I wasn’t in the supermarket business, I would be higher up on the Fortune 500 millionaires list.”
“Do you know why I do it? I have people who been working in these supermarkets 10 and 20 years. It is not in my heart to close it – and it is an all union shop – this gray hair wouldn’t be here.” (Mr. Catsimatidis fingered his graying temples.)
“Why” I asked “was a half gallon of milk at Trader Joes $1.99 last week and $2.49 in Gourmet Garage today?”
Mr. Catsimatidis offered that Manhattan real estate costs are the enemy.
“If you go across the bridge to New Jersey, the rents are one percent of sales. If you go across the bridge to Queens, they are two or two and half percent of sales and the energy costs are two, two and a half percent of sales.”
“In Manhattan, rents are 12-15 percent and then you have commercial rent tax. The city gives you an exemption below a certain amount but nobody in Manhattan makes it.”
“That is where you could find relief. This is prejudice against people living in Manhattan.”
Arthur Schwartz opened the question of commercial rent control with, “In our part of the town there is barely a store left that was there 10 years ago,” only to have Mr. Catsimatidis jump in.
“I’m experiencing that. I had 75 stores, seven or eight years ago and I’m down to 32. Talk to me, ok, talk to Mark Green. When I had 75 stores in Manhattan, he said I had too many stores and filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. He forced me to get rid of the stores and now we have 32 and it cost union workers 5,000 jobs that never came back because the business went to drug stores which are primarily non union. Talk to me. I’ve been here a long time. I know the facts. Landlords prefer to have a drugstore or a bank because there is no food stuff – no roaches.”
I reminded John (we were now on a first name basis) that we were “here to interview him as a candidate for mayor” and he stepped on my last word. “And the purpose of that is for me to give back to the city” and followed quickly with some very Greek biographic history.
“I was born on a piece of rock,” and indeed the island of Nisyma is a circular five mile wide extinct volcano off the coast of Turkey. “I was six months old when they took me from Greece.” With a smile, he continued, “If they had left me, I would now be the biggest sheep herder on the island.”
“My grandfathers came over in 1910 and 1913. My father left to take care of his three sisters and his mother. The island was owned by the Italians then and my father spoke Italian fluently. He worked on a piece of rock with a lighthouse on it for 16 years just to feed his sisters. After World War II, the Brits gave the island back to the Greeks and my father went back to Nisyma. He was a working man, a carpenter.”
“As I said, I was only six months old when my parents took me to London and I almost died because they gave me an adult doze of a vaccine. So the airplane goes Athens, London, and Montreal. New York in February 1949. His two brothers were already here in New York, since 1920; they signed for him in immigration; the brothers had to sign because if he could not pay the rent, the brothers would have to pay. He worked in Longchamps as a bus boy because he didn’t speak English.”
“Now flash forward 20 years. The son of a bus boy, six rooms at 512 West 135th Street by City College for $1,000 a month. You know where I live now? On Fifth Avenue, John Mitchell’s apartment.” (John N. Mitchell was the Attorney General under Nixon and served 17 months in prison for his part in Watergate. Mr. Catsimatidis’s daughter is married to Nixon’s grandson, Christopher Nixon Cox).
“The reason I want to be mayor is I want to give back.” Then Mr. Catsimatidis attempted to give the New York part of his biography but was interrupted by my discovery that we grew up within two blocks of each other and went to the very same grammar school, PS 192, although I completed 6th grade before John was born and the old PS 192 building was torn down and a new school built in its place.
Arthur asked, “What would you do differently than Mayor Bloomberg?”
“I am neither Democratic nor Republican. I am a common sense person. I would sit down and put my arm around them and say, ‘what’s going on with those bus strikes?’ and do like in the old fashioned days, stay up three or four in the morning and don’t let anybody go home until we cut a deal. That’s what we used to do with the unions in the old days – by four o’clock in the morning we had a deal.”
Arthur then offered that neither Bloomberg nor Giuliani every really listened to the voters and Rudi would become irritated in the middle of a community people and tell them to shut up and sit down. Arthur asked how he would relate to people. He replied, “I love people – you know where I got my political training – Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton.”
“Arthur Sulzberger and I were having a political event from 6-8pm and Clinton comes at 7pm and is talking till 9:30pm and Sulzberger says to me, ‘What shall we do? After all, he is the President.’”
“That is where I got my training from. I love people. This session could go on til’ four in the afternoon.”
Arthur offered that what New Yorkers want are public officials that not only listen but act on what they hear. However, Mr. Catsimatidis impatiently responded, “but care about them,” and then repeated slowly and for emphasis, “but care about them.”
“Look, I am a storeowner. I’m the guy who gets $7,000 a week in parking tickets. I can’t get a delivery to my own store that I have a certificate of occupancy for.” Then Mr. Catsimatidis used a Greek word – drope – shame.
We asked if he were in favor of commercial rent control.
“I can’t say I am in favor of commercial rent control because we are in the capitalistic system. I feel the pain of store owners and I think there might be a way to help them if there is a mediation process. Let’s say there is a guy there for 20 years and he wants to pay the market rent but the landlord wants to have a bank. It happened to me with a co-op on 62nd Street and Second Avenue that opted for a Chase bank even though we were willing to pay the same rent.”
“The confidence in this city that Mike Bloomberg and Ray Kelly have expounded, has led the city. We have never felt the recession as badly as other cities – New York City is a viable community.”
“You can’t put that kind of restrictions on it. Billions and billions are pouring in and creating jobs. If you lose that confidence, you can lose those jobs, but I think there should be a dialogue mechanism such as we have for abusive police officers.”
“I have a vision for New York City’s future – the World’s Fair of 2014 and Bloomberg wouldn’t go along with it. I was a 14-16 years old in the 1964 World’s Fair.”
I interrupted by asking if he knew which was the leading design firm for the 64 Fair – he did not – and I offered Robinson Capsis Stern which did six buildings at the Fair which prompted Mr. Catsimatidis to offer me his 2014 World’s Fair tie displaying the label designed by John Catsimatidis.”
Arthur, as a labor attorney, began a question on Bloomberg’s dealings with public employees and that not a single union has a contract. This prompted Mr. Catsimatidis to offer that city employees had increased from 220,000 to 290,000 and that contract negotiations were three years behind.
“The unions and the city know there is no money for those back wages, but nobody has told the employees; they are lying to them.”
I read him a question, “Our police head count is down from 41,000 to 36,000 but its duties have increased. How will you deal with this?”
“I believe in safe streets. I would like to get all of the cops out of the precinct stations.”
I asked about his work with the Police Athletic League. “I have been on the board for 27 years. We raise a lot of money for them. We have 75,000 kids to take care of and the problem we have is that in Harlem, 70% are single parent homes. You need some place for those kids to go when they get out of school before their mothers return from work and they get in trouble.”
How do you feel about stop and frisk?
“I think there is room for it, but it has to have better supervision. If we find that one officer stops 100 people and finds nothing and another officer finds something in 50% of the stops, we stop the first officer from doing them.”
“I want to open more vocational schools in New York. I want to be able to teach kids trades. Be plumbers, a plumber makes $2,000 a week; become car mechanics. You can’t force these kids to become nuclear scientists. You can’t say to a kid you are a failure in life because you failed your calculus test.”
Another question. Teaching attracts people who have scored in the lowest brackets of the SAT testing. How would you make teaching attractive to a better class of students?
Mr. Catsimatidis’s Government Relations man, Vincent Tabone, suggested a “bar” examination for teachers.
I asked the question, 1,000 schools in the US have increased the school year by 300 hours but not New York, would you increase school hours?
“We have a big problem. What is the union reaction going to be? I went to NYU uptown campus five days a week and my two kids at NYU go only three and half days a week. We are 36th in the world in math, drope (shame).”
As I attempted to get into the St. Vincent’s story by explaining that WestView News, as a very local newspaper, had to report on issues that were important, even vital, to our readers, Kerios Catsimatidis interrupted with “Hellenic Times” (he owns that national Greek American newspaper).
For 121 years, we have had a hospital and emergency room on the West Side of Manhattan. So now, when my wife has a heart attack, we have to call 911 and an ambulance has to take her in traffic to 16th Street and First Avenue, while she may have only 10 minutes to live.
Not a single of our local politicians got out and fought to save an emergency room on the West Side of Manhattan.
Mr. Catsimatidis quickly added, “It was a disaster that they let that happen.”
So Kerios Catsimatidis, what are you going to do as mayor to restore a hospital and a trauma one emergency room on the West Side of Manhattan?
“Under my administration, it will be reviewed to create a mechanism to make it happen. We have to find a way.”
North Shore LIJ, one of the richest hospitals in America, has been given one of the St. Vincent’s buildings to build a walk-in walk-out clinic and for $50 million more, we could build a few stories on it, so we might again have a hospital with an emergency room.
My question to you John is, are you willing to push to build five stories on the O’Toole building so that the West Side once again has an emergency room?
His answer was fast and he repeated it, “Yes. Yes.”
John Catsimatidis’s mother hailed from an aristocratic and educated family who resided in Constantinople until the Turks expelled them. Her grandfather was Chancellor at the Greek Patriarchate. Her life was captured in the book Seven Weddings and a Sacrifice. It describes how another aristocratic family sent their son to Athens to become and lawyer and marry John’s mother. When the boat arrived, instead of the young man appearing, the captain handed his mother a letter, ‘I fell in love with somebody else and I married.’ She sank into deep depression.
She had two younger brothers who were engaged to two women, but under Greek tradition, the oldest must get married first. Furthermore, the two women who were engaged to his mother’s two brothers each had two younger brothers. Nobody was able to marry until his mother married. So, she sacrificed herself and married John’s father, a carpenter; seven weddings and one sacrifice.”
“They had seven different weddings on seven different weekends because they had only one suit.”
A Note from Arthur Schwartz: As a participant in this interview, I came away astounded. I expected to meet another arrogant, self-important billionaire like Bloomberg. Catsimatidis was the opposite. He was warm, congenial, and clearly a people person. Unlike Bloomberg, who also has a rags to riches story, Catsimatidis hasn’t adopted the mores and ways of the rich. I believe him that if he were mayor he would sit in union negotiations himself. He has problems with efforts to lower the living standards of working people and understands that their inability to spend will undermine the City’s economy. He told us that he once co-managed Jerry Nadler’s unsuccessful campaign for Borough President (with Scott Stringer). Furthermore, he had no problem being critical of Rudy or Bloomberg, even though he is running as a Republican. He could be the sleeper candidate of this election.