By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - In a New York City mayoral race marked by scandal and the clear absence of a front runner, wealthy tech entrepreneur Jack Hidary sees an opening for another candidate - one with a sweeping vision for the city's future.
"The message across the board is, thank God someone else is in the race," Hidary said in an interview.
Hidary, who casts himself as a business-friendly candidate in the mold of New York City's current mayor Michael Bloomberg, said two weeks ago that he was entering the race. He has hired seasoned campaign aides, including Joe Trippi, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns.
People who know Hidary, a 45-year-old bachelor who lives just west of the Plaza Hotel on Central Park South, describe him as a quick-thinking ideas factory.
"He's one of those people who's always one step ahead of you," said Bill Abrams, president of Trickle Up, a non-profit organization that provides seed capital for women entrepreneurs. "He has a huge rolodex and really interesting ideas."
Unlike Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman who as mayor pioneered changes in public health and economic development, Hidary is largely unknown in the city and, even among his admirers, there are questions about whether he has the skills needed to manage a massive, complicated city.
"He is a very creative, smart guy who is a great spokesman for the New York tech sector," said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group. Asked if those skills translate into politics, Wylde said, simply, "No."
"It's a fine art that demands a blend of political and management skills. And Jack is untested," she said. Still, with voters largely undecided, "anything could happen," she said.
While in his twenties, Hidary became successful through companies he started or bought that served the tech community. Over the past 15 years, his focus has shifted to non-profit work including micro finance.
FILLING A VACUUM?
This week, former Congressman Anthony Weiner fell to fourth place from first in a Quinnipiac poll, as city tabloids splashed details about a scandal involving racy online conversations with women and lewd photographs.
Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011 over similar behavior and has been attempting a political comeback in the mayor race.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was the front-runner in the poll with less than 40 percent. On that basis, she would find herself in a runoff for the Democratic nomination with the third-place candidate, former city comptroller Bill Thompson, and he would win.
Hidary's vision starts in the Ocean Parkway section of New York City's borough of Brooklyn, where he grew up.
A descendent of Syrian Jews, Hidary's family is well-known in the area, and he estimates 400 of his relatives live there. "There are weddings every other week," he said. Matchmaking efforts on his behalf have been "very, very, very" intense.
Standing on a blighted stretch of Coney Island's boardwalk, he asked why it was not lined with restaurants. Later, at the Jewish community center where he spent summers playing basketball, Hidary said he wanted 30 centers just like it around the city that would offer job training and other services.
In Bensonhurst, another Brooklyn neighborhood, he pointed to vacant storefronts and said they should be shared working spaces for entrepreneurs.
Hidary made his fortune through entrepreneurial endeavors after dropping out of Columbia University, where he was studying neuroscience and philosophy. He went to work on brain imaging at the National Institutes of Health, but left after three years to help start EarthWeb, a company dedicated to the needs of techies.
In 1998, EarthWeb went public and acquired companies that he saw as potential competitors. One of them, Dice.com, a jobs website for IT professionals, became enormously successful.
Since then, New York City has been his project.
Some of Hidary's more audacious ideas are likely to stir controversy. He wants city schools to specialize in project-based teaching so they reduce their emphasis on standardized testing. And, he wants all teachers to be retrained so they will be able to use more creative teaching methods.
On stop-and-frisk, an issue that has polarized New York City's voters, Hidary was largely supportive of the practice, but wants to see police officers equipped with better technology.
Bloomberg, who will end his third term at the end of this year, has defended the policy of stopping, questioning and frisking suspected wrongdoers as a crime fighting tool, but opponents have likened it to racial profiling.
The Hidary campaign said it would be ready to make its big push in October, after the Republicans and Democrats have decided on their nominees. Hidary will run as a third party candidate.
"Politics abhors a vacuum and there's a huge vacuum in this race," said Joe Trippi, a Hidary aide. "We've got plenty of time."
(Reporting By Edith Honan; Editing by Toni Reinhold)