BY PAUL SCHINDLER | Pledging to be the mayor not “of the one percent, but of the 100 percent,” John Liu, the city comptroller since 2010, officially announced his candidacy to succeed Michael Bloomberg.
Liu is 46 and served eight years on the City Council representing Flushing and adjoining neighborhoods in Queens before becoming the first Asian-American citywide elected official. At his March 17 announcement in front of City Hall, the comptroller sounded a robustly populist tone, contrasting himself with the 11-year incumbent he charged has favored the rich, even as he fought back hard against the notion that his political career has been hobbled by a federal probe of his 2009 campaign. His campaign treasurer and a major fundraiser from that year face trial next month in federal court, and a former top aide, Sharon Lee, who was granted immunity from prosecution, will testify against them.
“My story is like so many other New Yorkers’ story –– it started somewhere else,” Liu said, recalling that his parents brought him to New York from Taiwan when he was five. His father, he said, “took a job far beneath the job he had in Taiwan,” and as a child he often worked alongside his mother in a rag trade sweatshop in Queens.
“I don’t need to tell you that economic justice and economic opportunity have gone the way of the Checker Cab,” he said, before a crowd of hundreds of his supporters arrayed on the steps of City Hall, with several hundred more sidelined to a nearby park because they were unable to pass through the security gate surrounding the building.
Most in the crowd were fellow Asian Americans, though there also contingents of Sikhs, Muslims, Orthodox Jews and other whites, Latinos, and African Americans, including Brooklyn City Councilman Charles Barron, the most outspoken critic on the Council of the Democratic mayoral frontrunner, out lesbian Speaker Christine Quinn.
Liu, a longtime advocate for LGBT rights, made a veiled reference to Quinn’s role in allowing the incumbent a third term when he laid blame for increasing inequality in the city at the feet of “Mayor Bloomberg and his enablers.”
“I know what it’s like to work your heart out and barely hold your head above water,” the comptroller said, recounting a story about an impoverished Chinese town that “begs the emperor to send relief,” only to be told to “tighten your belts.” The town, Liu said, responds, “Send belts.”
The comptroller suggested the controversy surrounding his 2009 campaign finance practices was payback for his aggressiveness as comptroller –– in challenging “Bloomberg pet projects” including CityTime, a computerized effort to contain municipal payrolls that became mired in corruption and waste to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s practice of maintaining two sets of books.
“When you go after powerful people and rich corporations, they’re going to come after you,” Liu said. “But we are not backing down.”
If the comptroller sounded energized by the challenge of taking on his critics, signs held aloft by several supporters had a more defensive tone.
“The competition is afraid of John Liu,” read one sign. “People of honor are vilified in the news. John Liu IS A MAN OF HONOR!”
In response to questions from reporters, Liu said that some had called the FBI probe of his 2009 campaign “a witch hunt.” He added, “The problem is, there’s no witch.”
Flanked by his wife Jenny and their young son Joey, the comptroller ended his announcement by pledging to “take care of the needy and take on the greedy” and to restore New York as “one city,” where people “don’t need to worry about being stopped and frisked.”
Emphasizing his work as comptroller for the past three years, Liu said, “I will be a fiscal watchdog, knowing all the while it’s not just about costs, its also about needs.”
Liu faces off against Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, former Comptroller Bill Thompson, and former City Councilman Sal Albanese in the September 10 Democratic primary. A recent poll from Quinnipiac University put Quinn at 37 percent, just shy of the 40 percent she would need to avoid a runoff, de Blasio at 14 percent, Thompson at 11 percent, and Liu at 9 percent.
The five candidates will appear at a March 20 candidate forum sponsored by the city’s LGBT Democratic clubs. The forum, at Baruch College’s Mason Hall at 17 Lexington Avenue at 7 p.m., will be moderated by Gay City News.