By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM
Some politicians avoid a smoke-filled room. This week, Joseph J. Lhota held a fund-raiser in one.
“You ever smoke a cigar before?” asked Mr. Lhota, a Republican running for mayor of New York City, his teeth clenched around a Montecristo White. He pulled out a miniature torch, flipped on the blue flame and gestured toward a guest. “Give him a cutter!”
Moments before, Mr. Lhota was addressing a crowd of two dozen cigar enthusiasts gathered on Monday evening in the leather-upholstered confines of the Habana Hut Smoke Lounge, a tobacco shop just off Bell Boulevard in Bayside, Queens. There was a well-worn stump speech, a bit of family history (father, a police officer; grandfather, a cabby), and a round of thank-yous for the night’s donations.
Then it was off to the walk-in humidor.
“I haven’t smoked a cigar in I can’t tell you how long,” Mr. Lhota said, exhaling a blue plume. Later, he revised that assessment, admitting he had indulged in a celebratory smoke on New Year’s Eve. He keeps hundreds of cigars in his Brooklyn Heights home, but lately, he said, “I’ve cut down a lot.”
Elio Forcina, a lawyer who organized the event, introduced Mr. Lhota to an owner of the Habana Hut, adding that the proprietor, as a high school student, had once stuffed Andrew M. Cuomo, a classmate and the future governor, into a hallway locker.
The owner vigorously shook his head. “It was my brother! Not me!”
“Your brother put Andrew Cuomo in a locker? Wow, wow. That’s great,” Mr. Lhota said, reaching for a cigar cutter.
Many of the attendees — almost all male — knew Mr. Lhota from his days as a deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration, when he was known to indulge in cigars and Scotch. It was a habit he picked up in college, at Georgetown, where his roommates preferred the Caribbean blend of Macanudo Hampton Courts.
George Frangoulis, who served with Mr. Lhota at City Hall in the 1990s, recalled many smoky Christmas dinners with Chianti, cigars and a seafood feast, with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mr. Lhota holding court. (Mr. Giuliani, he said, kept his cigars in a Tupperware container.)
Mr. Frangoulis said Mr. Lhota often used cigars to put subordinates at ease, right before grilling them on a recent foul-up. “It was a communications device; he’d get everything out of you.”
Like Mr. Lhota, Mr. Frangoulis said he had had to cut back. “I’m 52,” he explained. “I love my teeth.”
New York City prohibits smoking in bars and restaurants. But aficionados can still light up in certain tobacco shops and smoke lounges, provided the establishment and its ventilation system are approved by the city.
Watching the festivities was Eric Ulrich, the youngest member of the City Council and one of its few Republicans. “We’re behind Joe 1,000 percent,” Mr. Ulrich, in a red tie with silver beads, told the crowd. He then predicted, in colorful language, that Mr. Lhota would easily best a rival, John A. Catsimatidis, in the primary.
As guests puffed away watching the Yankees game, Mr. Ulrich, a cigar enthusiast since high school, was asked his opinion of Mr. Lhota’s Montecristo. “It’s not bad,” Mr. Ulrich said, as he lighted up one of his own. “It’s a mild cigar. It’s not a dark leaf. It’s a social cigar.”
He gestured around the room. “These are very hard-working, middle-class people,” he said. “These are the voters who will put Joe over the top.”
At that, the beer arrived. “We’re getting Heinies right now!” Mr. Lhota exclaimed, as an organizer carried in a pack of Heineken cans and a bag of red Solo cups.
“If you’re together with a bunch of friends and you’re smoking cigars and you’re having a drink, the most important component is the discussion and the talk and the revelry,” Mr. Lhota said later, squeezed into a corner by the cash register. Amid the din, he looked pleased. “I think I’ve got to open up one of these places in Brooklyn Heights. I really do.”
Soon, Mr. Lhota ducked out to the sidewalk for some fresh air. As the evening drew late, he was surrounded by well-wishers as he puffed on the Montecristo before heading home to Brooklyn.