Elected to the City Council in 2001, representing Flushing and Northeast Queens, John Liu is now one of four Democratic candidates for Comptroller, the person who manages the city’s finances. On a Friday afternoon in late August, he sat down with Rail editor Theodore Hamm at the Rail’s headquarters in Greenpoint.
Theodore Hamm (Rail): Tell us your vision for the office and how it’s different from the other candidates in the race.
John Liu: I have a very clear set of three priorities: rooting out waste from the city budget; rebuilding pension funds in order to restore the confidence of our city employees and retirees; and creating jobs, specifically through the procurement process, in which the comptroller has a tremendous amount of leverage in the contracting of city dollars. I am very different from all of the candidates because of my career in the private sector, in finance. All of my rivals have spent most of their careers in politics and government. And I value the outside perspective that I bring to the job—the perspective of an average citizen who is looking to city government to provide some key services. That’s the perspective I’ve had in the City Council and I’ll certainly maintain it in the comptroller’s office. In terms of eliminating waste, I’ve already been able to do this with the MTA and the Department of Education, where some of their financial discrepancies and numbers weren’t right. That’s in great part due to my own fiscal expertise that I gained in the private sector. I’m professionally an actuary—and even more specific than that, I’m a pension actuary. I have worked on some of the largest pensions in the country. So when it comes to running pension funds, I know the issues firsthand—it’s what I did for 14 years.
Unlike my rivals, I advocate a lesser dependence on aggressive, esoteric financial instruments. All of them are saying “private equities, real estate,” but I think we should get back to the basics, stocks and bonds, especially when we have a lot of buy opportunities today. And then, my biggest priority is job creation and using the procurement powers of the comptroller. We have a city budget where we literally contract so much money out every year involving many of the same services that our city employees could be doing. We also have a golden opportunity to use Obama’s stimulus package, which was intended not only for long-term construction projects but also immediate short-term creation of jobs. In the comptroller’s office, I would make sure anyone who is getting a contract under that package demonstrates that they are in fact hiring people from within New York City, which is what the package is intended to do. Right now I see absolutely no accountability for the job creation. In the comptroller’s office, I would be in a unique position to oversee it.
Rail: What about oversight of large development projects? For example, consider the Atlantic Yards. It’s almost impossible that the initial projections will be realized. How can you play a role in seeing that future promises come true?
Liu: I’m the only one in the race talking about these issues. Over the last several years the Bloomberg administration has announced several mega-development projects, including Atlantic Yards, and a number in the Bronx and in Queens. And all these projects promise thousands of jobs and thousands of affordable housing units—and several years later, today, what do we see? Nada, zilch. As comptroller, I will be able to use the audit powers immediately to look at what was announced, and how much progress has been made to see how short we are. Because I’m sure that in every single one of these cases they are significantly short of their goals. And I do that not to say “I got you,” but to put every one of these deals on a timetable with milestones for deliverables on the promises. Right now there is no timetable for any of these major projects.
Rail: I wouldn’t say that the current comptroller, Bill Thompson, has done a good job in terms of monitoring such projects. How would you compare yourself to him?
Liu: I’m not running against Bill. He’s been a fine comptroller. I support him for mayor. But I’ve told Bill a number of times that I will be a far better comptroller than he ever was. I will be far more aggressive in every aspect of the office. For one, because of my financial sector training, I’ll be able to hit the ground running. And number two, I’m just a very excitable person [laughs].
Rail: Do you think affordable housing should be a required component of large development deals? In the case of the 2005 rezoning here in Williamsburg-Greenpoint, Councilman (and comptroller candidate) David Yassky told us that any developers would be “crazy” to refuse the incentives that the city offered to build affordable housing. But the incentives didn’t produce affordable housing, and now what we’re left with now is a bunch of empty high-rise luxury condos.
Liu: I’m in favor of mandatory inclusion of affordable housing. Obviously, when big developers are not asking for accommodations from the city, there’s not much we can do about it. But if they’re asking for accommodations in terms of zoning, tax abatements, and direct tax subsidies, there should be a clear affordable housing component—absolutely. And more of it should be on-site as opposed to five miles away or ten miles away. I’d always like to see more integrated communities.
Rail: Explain your view of Mayor Bloomberg.
Liu: This mayor really has accumulated a dangerous level of power. And a lot of that is because of his wealth. On some level, I can’t even blame him for doing that, because he’s got the money. But this is why we need a strong independent check, and the comptroller is the person to do this. Look at the way he changed term limits. Personally, I don’t like term limits, and as a private citizen, I voted against them both times. But the way he changed the law that was put on the books by the voters was horrible.
Rail: But he did it to save the economy! [Laughter.]
Liu: Actually, the biggest reason he was able to do it was because the newspaper editorial boards supported him. You figure that politicians are going to do what they are going to do, and at the end of the day, the term limits change exposed Bloomberg for the politician he really is at heart. Still, you’d like to think that the Fourth Estate is going to keep us honest. But all three major newspapers flipped about it, like boom, boom, boom. It was like somebody was orchestrating the whole thing. And then of course, right around the same time, Bloomberg was openly talking about how he wanted to buy the New York Times. And the fact is that he could buy all three major newspapers—tomorrow! Too much concentration of power is dangerous for our city. And unlike some of my rivals, I am fully independent from the mayor.
Rail: So tell us how you got into politics, and how being Asian-American shapes your perspective.
Liu: In college, at SUNY Binghamton, I was involved on campus as a student activist and in student government. In fact, when I graduated, I almost worked for various community activist organizations. But I wound up going the corporate route, mainly because my parents encouraged a more pragmatic approach to life, including getting married and having kids. So I chose the corporate route and stayed for 14 years. But along the way I was always involved in community groups, volunteering at a lot of different functions, and wound up becoming president of my civic association and a member of my community board. A little more than 12 years ago, I read some disparaging comments from my councilwoman at the time, Julia Harrison, about Asian-Americans. She said that we were rude merchants, illegal aliens, and so on. And I said, “How can somebody say that? And that person happens to by my representative to the city!” So I ran against her in 1997. The problem was, so did four other people. She won the election, although she did so with less than a majority, which is unheard of for an incumbent. I came in second. And four years later I came back and won the seat.
In general, I have the perspective of the person standing on the ground looking at the government, saying “What the heck?” We’ve got the highest tax burden in this city in terms of income tax, property tax, and certainly sales tax. Everybody pays tax, yet so many people are excluded from the political process. I’m looking to include people. From the comptroller’s office, I’d be immediately able to monitor compliance with the law that I made it a point to introduce as my first bill, the equal access bill requiring city agencies to provide on-demand services in different languages. It wasn’t the first bill I passed, because there was a two-year struggle to get it passed. But I made it my point to be the first bill I introduced in the City Council. And although we now have almost 200 languages available on 311, the city is still not fully complying with the provisions of the law. There’s also Executive Order 41, which requires city employees to confidentially protect the private information of New York City residents, including health records and immigration status. There are too many cases where that order has been violated. The comptroller would be in a position to actually monitor compliance with these laws. These are just two examples of measures that I think are absolutely necessary to really understand that New York City is the capital of the world. Bloomberg and every elected official in this city love to say that we are the capital of the world. We should behave like it.