At 6 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, the sidewalk outside the Simon Wiesenthal Center on East 42nd Street in Manhattan was alive with volunteers canvassing for candidates in New York City’s mayoral race, who were gathered inside for a forum on cultural sensitivity. The campaigners shouted at passersby, hoping for their votes but getting their disdain in return. They held signs for Bill de Blasio and Anthony Weiner. They scattered flyers for Bill Thompson and George McDonald. They wore T-shirts for John Liu. But they did nothing for Jack Hidary, the self-made multimillionaire who declared his candidacy in late June.
So far, Hidary—who is running on his own Jobs and Education Party line—doesn’t even rate a mention in the Quinnipiac poll, the standard bellwether of Big Apple politics. But while voters may not yet be acquainted with him, it seems like everyone else is. Inside the Wiesenthal center, Hidary made the rounds, shaking hands and exchanging niceties with Jewish leaders like Jason Koppel, AIPAC’s regional director for New York’s outer boroughs, and Chanina Sperlin, the executive vice chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. When Hidary took a seat on the stage, he smiled at the crowd with confidence. When de Blasio arrived—a fashionable 15 minutes late—he and Hidary exchanged a friendly handshake and back slap. And when Hidary answered the moderators’ questions, his remarks won applause from the crowd and head-nods from his fellow candidates, including McDonald, who told the room that if he were elected mayor, he’d hire Hidary.
But Hidary, who is only 45, is not a man looking for a job in someone else’s administration. Like Michael Bloomberg before him, he is running because he believes having run thriving businesses qualifies him, and maybe overqualifies him, to run one of the largest cities on the planet. But unlike Bloomberg, Hidary—while wealthy—can’t afford to spend $85 million underwriting his own campaign against opponents who have all, with the exception of his fellow businessman John Catsimatidis, spent years building formidable political machines. And he doesn’t have a high-profile backer willing to lend him credibility, as Rudy Giuliani did for Bloomberg. Hidary’s base, to the extent he has one, lies in Brooklyn’s tight-knit Syrian Jewish community—which may not vote as a unified bloc, even for one of their own.
To the casual observer, Hidary’s campaign looks like something of a vanity run—something to tell the grandkids about one day. After all, why invest time and money in a candidacy that’s unlikely to succeed? The answer, ironically, might lie in the career of a candidate running for office further down the ballot: Eliot Spitzer. When he first ran for office, in 1994, Spitzer was a successful attorney with high ambitions and no political background. He was criticized for using his family money in his campaign, for state attorney general, and he ultimately placed last. Just four years later, he was the favorite in the same race, winning two terms before becoming governor in 2007. Until the revelation, in 2008, that he had been patronizing prostitutes, Spitzer was even cited as a possible presidential candidate.
In this view, Hidary’s run now is simply a wise investment in his future. “If there is a method to the madness,” says David Luchins, a former aide to New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and a keen observer of city politics, “it could be that if you’re young enough, you can stake out some ground, and you may very well run in the Democratic Party in four years.”
Hidary’s campaign office is at 85 Delancey Street, on the second floor of The Yard, a co-working community near the Tenement Museum. As I waited for my interview with Hidary the day after the Wiesenthal Center event, I eavesdropped on his young staffers discussing social media strategy in a gray common room: What’s our plan? How will we use Facebook? How many Twitter followers do we have? Weiner has over 21,000. De Blasio has around 9,000. We have about 5,000. It wasn’t anything exotic, just the dialogue of a fledgling campaign trying to gain a foothold.
“Right now it’s about getting the word out,” Hidary told me, when we met. He’s hired Joe Trippi—who previously managed presidential runs for Howard Dean, in 2004, and John Edwards, in 2008—to run his campaign, and along with using social media, he’s attending a full calendar of community events, from the Bronx to Brooklyn.
The candidate seems unconcerned about the fact that he doesn’t know yet who, exactly, might be voting for him. As an independent candidate, Hidary can skip the September primaries and won’t appear on the ballot until November—so he is in no rush to close the deal with voters. “I think that will come closer to October,” he said. Endorsements, too. “That’s when people usually do those kinds of things,” Hidary told me confidently. Anyway, he’s sure about one thing: The electorate is not that thrilled with the rest of the field. “Look at the career politicians,” he said. “I was on stage with them last night. You saw them. Same old, same old. They’ve had their chance.”
For almost an hour, he talked to me like a businessman making a practiced pitch. Our reception is warm, he said, our message is clear. His platform is simple, if not especially original: He wants to modernize the city’s ossified education bureaucracy, and drive economic growth by increasing access to opportunities.
On education, he wants to shift the focus in schools from test-taking and memorization to team building and problem solving. He wants to integrate computer-science courses into all schools from grades two and up. “What job can you even have today without a basic knowledge of computers?” he asked. On jobs, he wants to build community centers around all of the boroughs that will teach microfinance, entrepreneurship, and small-business management skills to those who are looking to change careers, or for those trying to break in. “It’s like the Rambam said,” he told me, nodding. “‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ ”
Quoting Jewish sages is nothing out of the ordinary for Hidary, who grew up in the heart of New York’s Syrian community along Ocean Parkway, in Brooklyn. Hidary studied at Yeshiva of Flatbush—the Stuyvesant of the Syrian community—and in the summers attended a camp that was divided into a half-day for Talmud and a half-day for computer science. A younger brother, Ricky, is now a rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel, on the Upper West Side, and an assistant professor of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University; he also runs a website that curates online tools for Torah study. But Jack, following in the footsteps of relatives who were owners of small businesses—his grandfather and uncle started a business in the garment industry, and his mother runs a dance school—stuck with computers and caught the first dot-com boom. “Growing up, I knew I was going to be an entrepreneur,” he said. “I very much had learned the values of the integrity that comes with one’s reputation.”
In 1994, Hidary co-founded EarthWeb, one of the earliest web-design companies, with another brother, Murray. A decade later, the company was bought out by private equity firms for about $200 million. The brothers sold another business, Vista Research, to Standard & Poor’s and also founded iAmplify, a content publisher for the web, and Samba Energy, which provides networking software for solar energy systems.
Today, Hidary—who isn’t married—lives on Central Park South, near the Plaza Hotel. He first ventured into politics in 2005, when he helped David Yassky, then a city councilman and now head of New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, push for hybrid taxicabs. He’s gone on the global money-and-ideas circuit: He’s a founder of the Clinton Global Initiative, has spoken at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and has been named a Global Leader of Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum, which stages an annual high-profile powwow in Davos, Switzerland.
Now, as a candidate, he’s attending dinners, pride parades, and holiday events he never would have gone to if he weren’t running. He’s done meet-and-greets with the residents of NYCHA developments in the Bronx. He’s appeared on local public television debates in Queens, and he’s marched at the Dominican Day Parade. “I’m reaching across all communities,” he said. “These communities have the same values that we have; hard work, small business. The same values of achieving the American dream.”
It’s a fairly generic message, but one that appeals to a broad swath of voters—many of whom, in this race, are looking for someone to like. “The one thing that both Weiner and Spitzer exposed is people’s general dissatisfaction with the candidates,” said Michael Fragin, a Republican political strategist who hosts a weekly radio show on New York politics. But, he added, without a political apparatus, it’s basically impossible to win in New York. “It’s very difficult to win any race without people who are really committed to your victory,” Fragin said. “I think that’s a shortcoming, though there are ways to deal with that.”
But Hidary is running a smart campaign. He isn’t offending anyone, and he isn’t slinging mud. He’s making a name for himself, and he hasn’t had any embarrassing reveals. He uses all the watchwords, the kinds that amplify a tag cloud—big data, microfinance, and entrepreneurship. And at the moment, though it looks like the odds are against him, the race may only have just begun—for “Hidary 2017.”
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