The Cats Man Cometh
Grove, Lloyd, Newsweek
Byline: Lloyd Grove
A supermarket mogul sets his sights on becoming mayor of New York.
John Catsimatidis might be yet another self-made billionaire who wants to be mayor of New York City, but he's even less of a politician than Mike Bloomberg was when he first ran for the office 12 years ago. "I am what I am," Catsimatidis declares--indeed, it's the mantra of his fledgling campaign. It's delivered, in a Noo Yawk rasp, over dinner at Osteria del Circo, a flashy Midtown restaurant where Bruno Dussin, the maitre d', hovers like an anxious courtier over Catsimatidis and his wife Margo, who was his secretary when they got together 39 years ago. John, then a budding grocery-store magnate on his way to acquiring the Gristedes chain, was married to his first wife at the time.
Even at age 25, Catsimatidis had a certain commanding presence. "He's always the boss," Margo says. "He expected perfection." Ensconced in a banquette behind a groaning table--a meal-sized salad; pizza slices; a whole fileted Dover sole; and various side dishes, followed by berries and cream--they are an unlikely looking couple. She is chic, blonde, and slim; he is rumpled and stout. A small stain graces his shirt near the collar, and he takes defiant pride in the cheapness of his suit.
"If we had less professional politicians," he says, "the country might be better off." As if to test this theory, Catsimatidis (pronounced "cat-see-ma-TEE-dees") gamely agrees to rate the men who most recently presided at City Hall.
Ed Koch: "He told the truth and everybody liked him because he was a New York character."
David Dinkins: "Maybe we should have made him Tennis Commissioner."
Rudolph Giuliani: "By the time he was ready to leave office, he was the most unpopular mayor around. Then 9/11 happened and he gained a lot of popularity back."
Mike Bloomberg: "He hasn't bought me that dinner he's owed me for four years." It was a promise Bloomberg allegedly made after Catsimatidis was summoned to the mayor's palatial town house on East 79th Street. Catsimatidis was flirting with a Republican candidacy for mayor back in 2009, but he obligingly relinquished his claim to the GOP nomination and helped smooth Bloomberg's way with the county Republican chairmen (one for each of the five boroughs) when Hizzoner decided to undo New York's term limit and run for another four years in office. Bloomberg hasn't even invited him to one of his frequent dinner parties, says Catsimatidis. "Maybe he doesn't like me, I don't know."
In a previous conversation at the ramshackle West Side headquarters of the Red Apple Group--the corporate umbrella for his estimated $3 billion holdings in a Pennsylvania oil refinery, some 400 Kwik Fill gas stations, hundreds of commercial and residential properties in the New York metropolitan area, 32 Gristedes stores, and a couple of corporate jets--he suggested that Bloomberg initially nursed higher ambitions. In the summer of 2008, said Catsimatidis, the mayor "went to see Obama and he went to see McCain, and I guess he felt that he had no future with either of them ... I think he wanted to be vice president. And the rumor--and only rumor--says he offered each $500 million for their campaigns and they both turned him down. I can't confirm that--that was just what was floating around." The mayor's press secretary declined to comment on Catsimatidis's improbable account.
At dinner, Catsimatidis says Bloomberg has done "a pretty good job," but takes issue with his ban on supersized sodas and sugary drinks, scheduled to take effect in March. "I don't know if it's his concern for people or his concern that by drinking that 32-ounce soda, people will become fat cats and it's costing the city more in health care," Catsimatidis says. "I would not enforce it, or I would repeal it, or whatever. But I would put a regulation in our education system so that kids are taught better nutrition. …