The Brooklyn Ink last month sent the same set of questions to each of the city’s 10 mayoral candidates. John J. Catsimatidis, the owner, president, chairman and CEO of Gristedes Foods and the Red Apple Group, was the only candidate that agreed to a sit-down interview. With a net worth of $3 billion, he is the richest candidate in the race. Born in Greece but raised in New York, Catsimatidis has a soft spot for Brooklyn as a proud alumnus of Brooklyn Technical High School. Brooklyn Ink staffer Richard Feloni spoke with John “Cats” at Gristedes corporate headquarters in Hell’s Kitchen.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, do you have any ideas on how New York City can better prepare for a future storm?
First of all, I think it’s a sin what went on with the federal government. We’ve asked for FEMA help, and it came very, very, very slow. Americans, New Yorkers, were suffering. And it’s wrong that they sort of put it into slow motion. Things moved so much faster in New Orleans and other parts of our country. I don’t know why they were so slow to move in New York. I met with Governor [Andrew] Cuomo, and I met with Senator [Charles] Schumer, and they asked me to help in the Senate with Senate Minority Leader [Mitch] McConnell, to help get the money approved for Sandy. Because Sen. Schumer said they needed 60 votes, I called Sen. McConnell just a few days before Christmas and I said to him, “Senator, you’re a man of God. You can’t allow Americans to suffer. Sen. Schumer needs at least eight more votes. Every place in the country has been helped by our country. Let’s help New Yorkers in their time of need.” And I could feel the teardrops in his eyes. And he agreed. And Sen. Schumer called me later on, that they got the votes thanks to me.
So in the future, it’s about having these ties with the federal government to get a quick response?
Well, I think that people need common sense to be able to sit down and work things out. I regret that things are broken in Washington, D.C., and that the Democrats and the Republicans don’t have close ties like that, the ability to work out differences. Before you were born, Ronald Reagan was one of my favorite presidents, and he hated Tip O’Neill from Boston. But they were both Americans. You know what they did? They sat down, they negotiated and made deals for the good of all America. And Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich hated each other. But what did they do? They sat down, worked out something that was good for all Americans. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud of them as Americans. But you know what’s happening in Washington? Nothing. Just look at it. Nothing. Standstill. Next question.
There’s a growing tech industry in Brooklyn. Do you plan to address that in any way?
I support what Mayor Bloomberg is doing. I plan to continue it. I think we can build Silicon Alley between Madison Square Garden and the World Trade Center and create high-paying jobs in the biotech industry, the Internet industry and the high technology industry. And that’s what I plan to do. I plan to put a high tech-type commissioner or deputy mayor to go out and bring these industries and these companies to New York.
In terms of budget cuts, we’ve seen the effects of sequestration. If you’re elected as mayor and the city faces similar pressures, how would you respond?
You sit down and respond as a businessman. We can cut things where you try to eliminate fraud. And that could probably eliminate two, three, four percent, who knows. And I think also you could eliminate problems through attrition. I would not want layoffs. And one of the most important things is I want to hire 4,000 to 5,000 cops. I think we’ve been very, very lucky. We’ve had a great police department, great commissioner. I think [police commissioner] Ray Kelly has done a great job as far as controlling terrorism. But I think we’re reaching a point [where] we got to beef it up, and make sure we don’t go back. The greatest danger of getting a new mayor that’s back to the old days is that we have chaos in our streets again. Under a Catsimatidis mayorship, what’s going to happen is the crooks and hoodlums better get outta town. Because I’m going to demand that our police department keeps our streets safe.
The number of homeless people has gone up 61 percent and about two thirds of families re-enter homeless shelters. Is there…
Yeah, there’s a big problem. New York has the most generous things in the country, as far as benefits for the homeless. We even give you a cell phone. People are taking the bus from West Virginia, Virginia, South Carolina, coming to New York, moving straight into the homeless shelters, and live there for two years, some of them. I think that’s wrong. I think as New Yorkers we love Americans, we want to help everybody, but I don’t really want to induce the rest of the world to come to New York at our taxpayers’ expense.
You’re supposed to play the violin as I’m talking. I joke around a lot, I hope you don’t mind!
We tried to make the next a Brooklyn-centric question…
I love Brooklyn. I went to high school in Brooklyn.
Oh, did you?
You see that slide rule over there? You know what that was? That was a computer when I was growing up. That was my computer. I went to one of the best high schools in the country. Brooklyn Tech High School. It’s just six, seven blocks away from where I’m building this residential development opposite Metro Tech. And are you ready for this one? Me and [Barnes and Noble chairman] Len Riggio were the first people to do a foundation for Brooklyn Tech. We raised $10 million – first time ever for a public high school. And we put the money into a foundation in order to help Brooklyn Tech stay above it all. To be able to build them computer libraries, and to keep them technologically advanced.
In terms of public transportation, what do you think about costs going up?
I think the problem is the MTA, and we have to find a way to fix it. I gave a press conference by the Verrazano Bridge. Their tolls went from like $4.00 in 1998 to $15.00. That’s a 400 percent increase in 12 years! That is ridiculous. What they’re doing is taking the money from the people of Staten Island and Brooklyn and diverting it someplace else that they want. I think the mayor has to have a bigger say in how the MTA runs in the five boroughs, because we can’t have people take advantage of our citizens and divert the money to places we don’t know.
A lot of schools in the city have been closed or are being phased out. Do you have a position on what the Department of Education is doing?
The Department of Education is broken. When we have as high as a 40 percent dropout rate, something’s wrong. I’ve come up with different plans for the Department of Education. I’d love to talk to you about it, but it’s going to take an hour by itself. One of them was, somebody 30-40 years ago decided everybody should get an academic education. Not everybody is capable of getting an academic education! So you know what happens? When the kids can’t take calculus or trigonometry, they drop out because they’re ashamed to come back and face their fellow students and face their teachers.
How do you propose to change that?
During the sophomore year, we have to give these kids the ability to be able to do something else. Maybe they’re not good in academics, maybe they’re geniuses that can play the piano, trombone – or maybe create a vocational thing where we let them be carpenters, electricians, mechanics. Give them the ability to have earned a living in the American way of life and do well for their families.
Where’s the violin?
Just a few more. One is regarding hospitals in Brooklyn, a fraction of them is about to close…
I think it’s wrong. I had two policies over the weekend – some of them people liked and some of them people didn’t like. I had made a policy that I don’t want anybody to be more than – what’d I say before? – 10 to 15 minutes away by ambulance to any hospital. In any of the boroughs. I think it’s important to save lives, not to save money.
Also, if every cop carries a device that through GPS, the 911 computer will know where he is. I want those cops on one of those three-wheeled interceptor things, right? And they get a 911 problem. I want them to get to the source of the problem within 10 blocks, within two minutes, and solve the problem. And that’s part of the 21st century.
By the way, I own these issues, you know why? Nobody else is even thinking of them! I consider myself a visionary. For 40 years, I’ve solved problems. And that’s my job: solving problems. Next question.
What about the city’s stop and frisk policy, do you have an opinion on that?
Yes, the 21st century cop. We’ve been safe for 10 years. I want you to get statistics. You go to Detroit, and you wouldn’t want to walk around like that. Sixty four murders per 100,000 people. Chicago: 20 murders per 100,000 people. New York: how many? Five. Alright? Let’s keep New York safe. Okay? Now, we’re going to solve the problem by putting more senior cops in positions to decide who’s going to be stopped and frisked. And it’s actually stop, question and frisk. Our city has been safe, our neighborhoods have been safe, and I sort of object to 10 people getting up on a corner and be making a demonstration, and yelling and screaming, and saying “Oh, stop Stop and Frisk! Cops are screwing us!” That’s wrong. How do you think the people in the neighborhoods that don’t have time to go out and demonstrate and have 10-year-old and 5-year-old kids that are getting shot, bullets flying all over the place – see, nobody’s paying attention to them.
Keep our streets safe. Keep our kids safe. Make the criminals sweat.
You like that? It’s true! Nobody else has the balls to say it! You know nobody else has the balls to say it because 10 guys, 10 people get on a corner, “Oh bup bah bah bah!” You know? It’s okay, it’s a free country. But don’t get paid to demonstrate.
On a completely different note: Nets, Knicks; Mets, Yankees; Jets, Giants – which ones?
Ooh, I’ve been a Yankee fan since my grandfather took me to the Yankee game when I was about six years old. The Mets didn’t exist then.
My problem with football: I object to both of them moving to Jersey. I do think they should come back to New York. Tell ‘em New York needs them. And if they’re gonna call themselves the New York Jets, the New York Giants, let them be here. Not try to escape so they don’t pay their fair share of taxes.
You a basketball fan at all?
I go to the Knicks once in awhile.
Do you have a favorite spot in Brooklyn?
My favorite spot in Brooklyn… I always have teardrops in my eyes when I go back for a visit to Brooklyn Tech. I do. Because it’s the same doors, the same floors, and have been for 50 years. And it shows you how sometimes nothing changes.