The Agenda Drives John Liu

“I see shareholder activism as one of the fundamental roles of the comptroller’s office,” said John Liu, responding to a question about New York City’s leadership role, dating back nearly two decades, in pressing corporations in which its pension funds have stock holdings toward workplace fairness for LGBT employees.

“I don’t see the comptroller as a bureaucratic position. It absolutely can be and should be an office as agent of change. I respect previous comptrollers for what they have done, but when it comes to shareholder activism I expect to shatter all the records.”

Change is a theme that Liu, who is running in the September 15 Democratic primary for city comptroller, talks about a lot. In an interview with Gay City News at the end of June, the two-term member of the City Council, representing the 20th District in Queens, centered on Flushing, explained that maximizing the role of the comptroller’s office in shaping a positive role for city government in the lives of New Yorkers is what motivates him in public service.

Outspoken Queens councilman aims at city comptroller post

“I am not running for comptroller simply to manage pension funds or to audit city agencies,” he said. “I could do that in the private sector and make a shitload more money. I am doing this to effectuate change, whether it be corporate practices at the national level or changes in the ways agencies serve the people in New York City.”

Liu then talked about something that politicians, particularly ones vying for a post where financial probity and efficiency are traditionally seen as the cardinal virtues, are sometimes loathe to get into — the “agenda” he brings to his pursuit.

“I would work to improve the process with a political agenda,” he said. “I am not running for office without a political agenda. My political agenda is to ensure that the limited city budget is being used as effectively as possible to serve the people of New York.”

With an agenda comes ambition. Dating back to 2005, Liu has been set on seeking citywide office this year. Though his passion has always been aimed at the comptroller’s office, last fall when term limits were thrown out and the incumbent, William C. Thompson, Jr., had the opportunity to seek four more years in that job, Liu’s considered the possibility of instead running for public advocate, an office that would definitely be open. Thompson’s decision to instead run for mayor put Liu, an actuary by profession, back on course to seek the comptroller job.

In seven and a half years on the Council, Liu has not been shy about advocating policies and positions at odds with the leadership, often with his jaw out, vulnerable to counter-punches. Over the past 18 months, he has been particularly outspoken in criticizing Speaker Christine Queen, the out lesbian Chelsea Democrat, over her handling of the term limits extension issue and the slush fund scandal. On term limits, he described the Council’s move to legislatively override two voter referenda mandating no more than two terms as “a change I vociferously opposed and to this day castigate anyone involved” with.

When Quinn faced an outcry over a pot of several million dollars set aside by the Council each year purportedly for a list of organizations that turned out to be fictitious, she scrambled to offer reform of the entire $50 million that the Council appropriates annually in member-requested earmarks. Liu believes the speaker made her colleagues the fall guys for the admittedly inexcusable practice of creating dummy recipients, despite the fact that the bulk of such earmarks are targeted for bona fide social service agencies through no-bid contracts for legitimate but narrowly tailored public purposes. In a city budget of nearly $60 billion, the earmarks make up a minimal appropriation, even when compared to the much larger scope of no-bid contracts handled through the executive branch. Quinn’s handling of the controversy amounted to “just essentially blame your own colleagues,” Liu charged.

The Queens councilman’s opposition was not without consequences. “I tried to work with the speaker or the leadership or the mayor,” Liu said. “If at some point it’s not working, you have to agree to disagree. And for the last couple of years, that has been the MO between the speaker and myself.” Still, he insisted, his effectiveness on the Council has not been compromised. “My legislation has moved forward,” he said. “I haven’t felt any changes in my role in the budget process.”

Being on the outs would seem a not unfamiliar role for Liu. “It would be fair to say that my background is one of being excluded, whether blatantly or de facto,” he said. “It has always been a feeling of exclusion, exclusion from the process, exclusion from the fruits.” Liu was the first Asian American in New York City elected to any legislative post, at the city or state level. “I can remember when I was a kid not being able to breath for two minutes because someone punched me in the stomach and yelled epithets at me while he did it,” he said, adding that being singled out as “different” also extended “to kinder gestures when, in fifth grade, my entire class, whenever they served rice at a hot lunch, would pass me their rice because they were helping me, they were doing me a favor.”

Liu’s family came to Flushing from Taiwan in 1972, when his father, who worked in a bank there and earned an MBA in the US, decided “he wanted to raise his sons as Americans.” Unable to get a job at an American bank, his father found clerical work at a Japanese bank, based on his ability to speak that language, but earned far less than his experience warranted. His mother went to work at a needle trades sweatshop in Queens that employed about 200 for 12 years to supplement the family’s income, and beginning at age seven Liu himself worked there, pulling thread from large spools to make smaller balls easier for the seamstresses to handle. At five cents a ball, in a good hour he would earn a dollar. Three or four years later, he took a paper route that paid him three times that.

Those experiences shaped Liu’s political perspectives, he said. “That’s why I often have a predilection toward people who come to my office because nobody else is listening or they have nowhere else to go,” he said. “And that’s not only true for Asian Americans, it has similarly been for LGBT community members, for Arabs and Muslims, for the growing Russian community.”

Liu’s support of the LGBT community — he has been a longtime backer of marriage equality and is critical of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “failure to address the problem” of anti-gay bullying in schools — has been reciprocated in this year’s race. In a four-way primary race, Liu has captured five of six big gay prizes —endorsements by the Stonewall Democrats, Brooklyn’s Lambda Independent Democrats, the Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club of Queens, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, and the Out People of Color Political Action Club. Only the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, where Quinn has been a longtime leader, made a different choice — going with Brooklyn Councilman David Yassky. Liu would not speculate on whether the speaker’s history with the club had anything with that, but said, “I wanted to campaign, I wanted to contact members, but I was told by multiple sources that for whatever reason there was no way I was going to get that endorsement.” He is also supported by two out LGBT elected officials, Assemblyman Micah Kellner and Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, both Manhattan Democrats.

In discussing his ties to the LGBT community, Liu offered an interesting assessment of the political parallels between gays and Asian Americans. “As many struggles as the LGBT community has gone through, as an Asian American I often look to learn from those struggles because, in many ways, when it comes to gaining a voice, I still feel that the Asian-American community is behind the LGBT curve. Asian Americans, we still want to be accepted and included. We’re still looking to dispel this whole perpetual foreigner syndrome… As an Asian American, I know what it’s like to be excluded from the process and from the results, and that’s why the struggles of the LGBT community are struggles I identify with.”