Out of Comptrol: Can John Liu Charm and Hustle His Way to Gracie Mansion?

“I’m not particularly fond of getting the shit kicked out of me by the media all the time,” John Liu

Mario Zucca
Mario Zucca

“I’m not particularly fond of getting the shit kicked out of me by the media all the time,” John Liu told The Observer last week. “But that doesn’t alter the reality.”

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The reality, the city’s comptroller said, is not necessarily found in the headlines every morning. For example, he disputes a New York Daily News report that “debunked” his claims of childhood sweatshop work. The New York Post said he “needs to just go away.” And Mr. Liu feels it’s “plainly obvious” that federal prosecutors are driving negative New York Times coverage as they investigate his mayoral campaign for fund-raising improprieties.

“You’re not supposed to fuck with the Fourth Estate,” Mr. Liu explained while sitting on a bench after a Harlem event, displaying two of his signature traits in one quick sentence—a penchant for direct talk and an increased interest in how the media portrays him. “You’re not supposed to. The golden rule is don’t mess with people who buy ink in bulk quantities or have really huge antennas. Of course, now the Internet version is big bandwidth. But, at some point, it gets a little absurd—especially nowadays. At some point, the Fourth Estate is supposed to be the arbiter of truth, not the echo chamber for rumors and innuendos. So when that happens, at some point, somebody’s got to keep an eye on the Fourth Estate.”

That point has definitively arrived for Mr. Liu. Even this publication—which editorialized that he “should be preparing to leave public service, not asking for promotion to the city’s highest elective office”—has found itself the subject of Mr. Liu’s derision.

“I certainly am here in spite of our sponsor’s editorial board, who has already continued to foment insinuations and innuendos against me,” Mr. Liu proclaimed at a recent Observer-sponsored mayoral forum. “They have tried and convicted me of charges that are nonexistent. Nonetheless, I am here out of respect for all of you who have attended.”

It’s not just editorial boards that are generating headwinds for Mr. Liu. When he stood on the steps of City Hall to announce his mayoral campaign last month, the journalists there were mostly interested in one line of questioning: Should you really be running for mayor while your former donor, Xing Wu “Oliver” Pan, and your former treasurer, Jia “Jenny” Hou, stand trial for allegedly orchestrating a straw-donor scheme on your behalf? Is the federal investigation over? Is it affecting your fund-raising?

“This so-called ‘investigation’ has been going on for four years now,” a defiant Mr. Liu shot back. “They’ve interrogated thousands of my supporters, reviewed a million documents, even wire-tapped my cellphone for a year and a half. When is this going to end? It’s time to put up or shut up! That’s what it is. We’ve got a campaign to run and an election to win.”

Would your electoral plans change if Mr. Pan and Ms. Hou are found guilty?

“People have said there’s a witch hunt. The problem is there is no witch!” he exclaimed. “So we’re going full steam ahead. We’re going to win this election.”

Few would dispute that Mr. Liu’s campaign is indeed plowing ahead at full speed. Supporters and detractors alike describe him as a man on a mission, confident and relentless in the pursuit of his goals.

“John Liu is incredibly smart, incredibly hardworking, and incredibly driven; those three traits have gotten him to where he is now,” a longtime friend of Mr. Liu’s told The Observer. “He doesn’t see himself as being capable of failing, and sometimes he doesn’t see people around him as being capable of failing. That’s probably why he has a different perspective on the mayoral race than other folks … and why he places his trust in people the federal government says he shouldn’t.”

A college acquaintance said he “was not surprised at all” when Mr. Liu—the former executive vice president of Binghamton University’s student body—ran for a Flushing-based City Council seat in 2001. The acquaintance said he was equally unsurprised that Mr. Liu, now 46 years old, ran citywide for comptroller in 2009 and won, and that he is currently campaigning for mayor. Mr. Liu himself wasn’t shy about admitting that the city’s top job has been on his mind for some time.

“Probably from the moment I got elected comptroller,” he said as to when he first contemplated gunning for Gracie Mansion. “I’m going to be quoted for that. … Maybe I need to hold my tongue more. I mean, I just said, ‘from the moment I got elected comptroller.’ How many other comptrollers or public advocates or borough presidents are going to admit that? That they’re thinking about running for mayor from the second they got elected to their positions?”

On the day he announced his campaign, Mr. Liu scheduled a whirlwind 14-hour tour of the city’s five boroughs and invited the press along for the ride—or run, as the day occasionally demanded. But it was not an unusually lengthy amount of time on the trail for Mr. Liu, who wakes up early and typically tries to get home before his 12-year-old son Joey goes to sleep, around 10:30 p.m. He said late-night campaign events sometimes get in the way of that particular goal.

Reporters aside, Mr. Liu was well received everywhere he went on launch day. Bedford-Stuyvesant churchgoers welcomed him with open arms in the morning. The Hakka Association of New York erupted in applause when he entered its ballroom in the afternoon. His crowd of supporters at City Hall was so massive that he had to give a second speech to the overflow section. Along the St. Patrick’s Day Parade route in Staten Island, it seemed like every 10th person knew who he was. And not a soul asked about the federal investigation.

“I rely on my own barometer of what’s going on,” Mr. Liu told us in Harlem, pausing to answer a passerby who approached him. “Good to see you.”

“The bad P.R. really upsets the family and friends much more,” he continued when asked about those closest to him. “I’m always trying to calm them down, like, ‘Don’t worry too much about—’”

He was interrupted by another passerby, this one asking for a photo. The enthusiastic man removed his coat so his dress shirt would better match Mr. Liu’s suit.

“Okay, I did not pay that guy,” Mr. Liu joked. “Alright?”

Despite his apparent popularity on the streets, Mr. Liu’s support has not made much of a dent in the public polls, which place him fourth in the Democratic primary—distantly trailing Council Speaker Christine Quinn and narrowly behind Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former Comptroller Bill Thompson. But Mr. Liu, who has noted that his support has stayed around 9 percent even with the bad-headline barrage, says the surveys aren’t capturing the true electorate.

“I’m sure you guys all thought about it, you just never wrote about it, right?” he asked the press corps following him on his announcement day. “Look, if you want to talk about voters who are undercounted or absent from the count, you understand pollsters are people—live people—on the end of the phone asking questions. But they have to have a phone number to ask a question … Nowadays, people don’t like to list their phone numbers. You also think, ‘Do the people who are making those phone calls know how to ask questions in Chinese? Or Bengali? Or Korean? Or Urdu?’ I don’t know for a fact; my guess is no.”

The Taiwanese-born Mr. Liu says the historical nature of his candidacy—he was the first Asian-American to serve on the City Council and will be the community’s first mayor if his current mission succeeds—will drive Asian voters to the polls en masse. Mr. Thompson, who is black, would not enjoy the same level of passion in the African-American community, Mr. Liu further contended.

“The Asian community is no different from any other,” he said. “The first time around there’s a credible candidate, it’s the first time. In Bill’s case—Thompson’s case—it’s not the first time. The governor’s been African-American, the president is African-American. So it’s not as big of a deal as it is in the Asian community … When David Dinkins ran, there was a huge amount of excitement. I don’t think that’s going to be that different with the Asian community this time around.”

Although the city’s Asian population is skyrocketing, Asian people only constitute about 13 percent of all New Yorkers, according the U.S. Census, and new immigrant communities have relatively low civic participation rates. But Mr. Liu’s campaign isn’t just banking on the Asian vote. Rather, it is hoping his unabashedly left-wing approach to economic and policing policies—a perpetual pet peeve of conservative-leaning editorial boards, which accuse him of blatant pandering—will endear him to other communities across the city. Indeed, his first ads were released in four languages: Spanish, Russian, Creole and English—and the last was labeled “African American” on his campaign website.

“The Black vote cannot be taken for granted by anyone,” wrote Councilman Charles Barron in an Amsterdam News op-ed last week. The former Black Panther touted Mr. Liu’s opposition to the police department’s controversial stop and frisk tactic, support for reparations and outspokenness after the NYPD shot and killed 16-year-old Kimani Gray three weeks ago. “Liu will deliver more for our communities than any other candidate in the race for mayor in 2013. Let’s do the right thing for our people.”

For his part, Mr. Liu said, the winner of September’s Democratic primary will be determined by “operation,” not policy contrasts with his competitors.

“This is where you ask me these kinds of questions and I tend to answer with responses that I regret later. But I can’t help myself,” Mr. Liu said when pressed on the subject. “There’s not going to be that much contrast! We’re all liberal Democrats. There’s a couple of issues I think we’re very different on … But [for] big issues, we’re not going to be all that different on housing, on education. There might be some slight nuances here and there. Are voters really going to get all the different nuances?”

Of course, the case against Mr. Liu’s electoral chances—described last Wednesday as “Powerball size” in the Daily News—pretty much writes itself. Although the judicial system has a presumption of innocence and Mr. Liu himself has not been accused of any crimes, the political world is under no such obligation to give him a fair shake. Stuart Appelbaum, the head of the retail workers’ union, who endorsed Ms. Quinn, had nothing but kind words for Mr. Liu, but he suggested the comptroller should simply adjust his reality.

“I don’t think that it is fair the way he seems to have been indicted by the media even though there are no charges brought against him,” Mr. Appelbaum said, before reflecting on the damage that has already been done. “I didn’t think that—given everything that has been going on, and perhaps in part because of the media—that this was the right race for him this year.”

As Mr. Liu rode in the press van between events on his big announcement day, The Observer asked the candidate how he viewed his own odds, given the political consensus that tends to label his quest as quixotic.

“I wouldn’t be running—it’s way too much time and money to throw down the drain—if there was not a clear shot to victory. I think we have a very clear path to victory,” insisted Mr. Liu. And then, unsheathing the toughness that has helped him overcome long odds before, the combative comptroller couldn’t resist a final shot. “In the coming months, I’m sure you political geniuses will decide for it for yourselves.”


Out of Comptrol: Can John Liu Charm and Hustle His Way to Gracie Mansion?