Comptroller John Liu is the rare politician who views the federal convictions of two of his former campaign operatives as political leverage. Hardly ignoring the news, he gets in front of it, portraying the ordeal as a test of endurance a mayoral candidate must go through to show the public that one is ready for the trials and tribulations that come with running the city. On the campaign trail, he’s offered various versions of the line, “They can throw everything and the kitchen sink at me, and I’ll be ready for the stove.”
With his eyes on the Democratic primary in the fall, Liu—a first-term Comptroller who before that was a city councilman from Flushing, Queens, who before that worked as a private sector actuarial manager—treks on despite rumors that a federal investigation into his campaign four years ago may intensify, gathering up left-leaning Democratic club endorsements and working hard to establish himself as the antidote to three terms of Bloomberg, most recently blasting the N.Y.P.D.’s stop-and-frisk policy. He attends union functions large and small, and his “People’s Budget,” which calls for more spending on affordable housing and universal pre-school funded by tax restructuring and bridge tolls, reads like a Keynesian’s Christmas list. During his time in City Council he was openly hostile to Speaker Christine Quinn, a Bloomberg ally often maligned for her coziness to the real estate industry, her long-time resistance to key labor bills like guaranteed paid sick leave, and her push to extend term limits without a referendum.
For a great many progressives, Liu’s stances are appreciated but his zeal and dedication to his candidacy amidst such legal problems are cause for worry, as they think he will split votes with Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, his former city council colleague, giving the advantage to Quinn, the current front-runner in the race for the Democratic mayoral nomination. But Liu is not letting such speculation bother him. And the same goes for his growing list of supporters and people who question that de Blasio is the populist he makes himself out to be.
Both Liu and de Blasio came into their current positions with the backing of unions and progressive organizations. Conventional wisdom holds that voters will split between them along ethnic and regional lines, with Liu garnering support in Queens and from Asians across the city, while de Blasio will be popular in Brooklyn, where he resides, and among white liberals. 1199/S.E.I.U., the large health care workers union, recently gave strong backing to de Blasio. As illustrated by Cynthia Nixon’s recent Broadway fundraiser, de Blasio has also won over many prominent L.G.B.T. figures who have become disenchanted with the openly gay Quinn. He’s also gotten high-profile endorsements from Russell Simmons and Steve Buscemi, the latter appearing in a promotional video with the band Vampire Weekend for de Blasio.
At the end of May, Liu got the nod from DC 37, the city’s largest public-sector union, the trial verdicts notwithstanding. And in the activist world of political clubs, Liu continues to find strong support. In May, Liu received the backing of at least a dozen political clubs across the city, including the influential Village Independent Democrats, which Quinn reportedly viewed as a stab in the back. Relatively small but quite media-savvy, Local 1180 of the Communication Workers of America also gave its support to Liu. Liu says such endorsements show that “people who try to pigeonhole” him as solely the Queens or Asian candidate are underestimating his strength. And he brushed off the idea that his continued presence in the race hurts de Blasio and thus helps Quinn. “There are a lot of people running and it’s a democracy,” he said, adding that “There might even be more [candidates].” He was, of course, referring to former Congressman Anthony Weiner, who finally threw his hat into the ring on May 22. Weiner is likely to draw some outer-borough support away from de Blasio.
Before winning the council seat in Park Slope in 2001, de Blasio worked primarily as a political operative, first on the Dinkins campaign and later as campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, causing some progressives to view him as primarily a political strategist who chooses whichever positions will advance his career. On a personal level, while Liu embarrassed himself four years ago when his mother countered his claim that he was the son of sweatshop workers, de Blasio has his own murky family background. His birth name is Warren Wilhelm, and he says that he started using his mother’s pleasant-sounding Italian maiden name in his youth after his parents divorced and he lived primarily with his mom. Others speculate that he knew that in order to get ahead in New York City politics, a German surname wouldn’t play well among Jewish voters.
De Blasio’s time in the council was marked both by defending services like childcare from budget cuts while also working with City Hall leadership when he needed to. Liu, on the other hand, was a dedicated opposition partisan. “De Blasio always voted with Quinn,” says Charles Barron, Quinn’s most outspoken foe in the city council, who is backing Liu. “He wants to reform stop-and-frisk. John Liu is the only one who wants to abolish it.”
Further, while de Blasio’s current position as public advocate has a tiny budget and little power, Liu’s seat as comptroller comes with actual teeth, and his supporters note that he has used it to combat the mayor’s defense of the wasteful CityTime system as well as a range of other corporate giveaways. He has also held public forums in each borough to hear from taxpayers about agencies and programs they wanted the comptroller’s office to audit. “It’s weird where an elected official actually goes out to the people and asks them what they think,” says Judi Francis, who attended the Brooklyn forum three years ago and is supporting Liu. “This is a man who did not have a speech. He spent about three minutes saying that he wanted to hear from the people. He wanted people to tell him what they were concerned about.”
Francis is a golden voter for Liu, because she lives in de Blasio’s district. As a parks advocate, she and others turned against de Blasio when he sided with a plan to build luxury high rises by Brooklyn Bridge Park. More than that, Hillary Clinton initially came out against the development, saying that it set a terrible precedent for parks, but then suddenly did a 180 and supported it after several politicians—including de Blasio, her former campaign manager—took her to task. “He is a great campaigner and a lousy representative,” Francis says of de Blasio. “He was going after the money. That’s why we call him ‘Dollar Bill.’” Meanwhile, in Francis’s view, Liu “has used his position as comptroller for the good of regular middle class people. He’s the only candidate talking about the sale of our public assets, including our public schools.”
De Blasio took a clear side in Brooklyn’s most controversial development deal, the Atlantic Yards project, which involved the use of eminent domain to displace people and businesses. Developer Bruce Ratner is a strong supporter of de Blasio, and in June of 2011 he co-hosted a 50th birthday party for the candidate. The project was supposed to deliver affordable housing and far more full-time jobs. According to Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy, de Blasio has “supported Atlantic Yards all along because of these ‘benefits’ and has never changed course. As public advocate he has continued to do nothing to hold the developer accountable.” Goldstein also notes that while Liu has spoken out against the unfulfilled promises of the project, he has done little to “effectively change its course.”
Right after former Liu campaign treasurer Jia “Jenny” Hou and fundraiser Xing Wu “Oliver” Pan were convicted of attempting to cheat the city out of matching funds, Liu scored an endorsement from the Three Parks Democratic Club on the Upper West Side, key brownstone territory for de Blasio. As district leader Cynthia Doty explains, “John has really been the most vocal advocate for the issues we care about, like switching gears on the city policies to help low income and middle income residents of New York, his stance of raising the minimum wage and using city policies and city resources to provide more jobs.” She views Liu’s record as comptroller as far more impressive than de Blasio’s as public advocate.
In addition to track record, there is a question of affability, too. Whereas Liu’s eagerness to interact with voters can seem like pandering, de Blasio has the opposite problem, often coming across as distant or aloof. As one Democratic activist puts it, “When I talk to him it’s like he’s thinking about the next conversation.”
Liu’s most ardent supporters see the criminal probes as politically motivated, though there’s no direct evidence for this; and with the constant stream of news about corruption in Albany, it’s hard to say that the comptroller is being singled out. Liu himself on the campaign trail talks openly about the investigation with defiance. Doty doesn’t see the convictions as too problematic, as there is a lot of time between now and the primary. “The media is quick to say he’s a crook, but he did not do anything wrong and as comptroller he’s done nothing unethical,” she says. “A lot of people in Three Parks feel that we need to stand behind the progressive and not let the pundits smear him.”
With $3.3 million, Liu’s campaign isn’t winning the fundraising race, and the Campaign Finance Board may deny him matching funds because of the straw donor issues. Lucy Koteen of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, which in late May also endorsed Liu, sees an opportunity to cultivate funds nationwide. “The idea of having the New York City mayor be of Chinese background would be very exciting to a lot of Asians throughout the country,” she says.
Making up five percent of the U.S. population, Asians are relatively under-represented in national politics, or among city elected officials for that matter. Liu is the first Asian to hold citywide office, and when he first joined the city council in 2001 he was its lone Asian member. Councilwoman Letitia James jokes that the Latino and black caucuses expanded their ranks to include all people of color because members noticed Liu talking to himself in his one-person Asian caucus.
While they signify momentum, club endorsements won’t win an election. Liu says the polls underestimate his support, yet what he really needs is a push over the top from labor, which DC 37’s endorsement may help set in motion. In announcing the union’s support on May 29, DC 37’s executive director Lillian Roberts cited Liu’s work on CityTime as a key reason. According to Roberts, Liu “stood up when no one else said anything.”
(When asked at a press gathering in Crown Heights a day earlier about CityTime, Liu’s predecessor—and fellow mayoral candidate—Bill Thompson argued that as comptroller, the reason he failed to uncover the CityTime scandal was because his office lacked the “subpoena power” of federal prosecutors. In Thompson’s words, “Could we have done a better job? Absolutely.” Liu’s audit was the essential first step in exposing the boondoggle.)
The comptroller is in charge of the city’s vast pension system, and Liu’s ambitious plan—supported by the Bloomberg administration—to combine the city’s five pension funds into one failed to come to fruition, in large part because it would have reduced the influence of union pension trustees. “There’s no reason why the individual funds should have their own investment management at significant cost when in-house managers do just as well,” says James Parrott, chief economist at the union-backed Fiscal Policy Institute. “There were concerns within the family of labor about who was going to be represented. Comptroller Liu deserves a lot of credit for initiating the idea.”
Edmund McMahon of the conservative Manhattan Institute was surprised that Liu took such a stand, because he sees Liu as someone “who promotes the interests of organized labor—that’s where his political base is.” Further, he casts doubt on the “People’s Budget” revenue plan, as it didn’t take into account current budget gaps and increased spending on new collective bargaining agreements in the future. “I don’t see where he gets the money,” McMahon says. “He has no real significant budget cuts. It’s a fairly substantial increase in spending.”
McMahon paints a picture of a wanton tax-and-spender, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Liu’s budget sets him apart from other candidates because it reduces taxes on the middle class while closing loopholes that mainly affect the corporate sector. For example, according to Liu’s office, “eliminating the insurance industry’s exemption from the General Corporation Tax would raise $310 million,” while the plan would also “eliminate the Unincorporated Business Tax for 25,000 businesses that make less than $250,000 in annual income.” Liu also blasts corporate welfare in the form of subsidies; doing away with them would bring more revenue into the city, and level the playing field in the business world.
Liu’s comprehensive plan contrasts with de Blasio’s proposal to simply raise taxes on wealthy individuals, thus providing further evidence that Liu is the candidate with the best progressive credentials in the race. With Weiner officially in it, there’s now a five-way race, making a run-off a near certainty. And so with three months to go, it would be a serious mistake to count Liu out.