Affable, open and accessible are not words one usually associate with politicians or political candidates such as John Liu, but the City Comptroller and mayoral aspirant radiates these qualities even before breakfast at Lenny’s on the upper Westside.
Liu strolls into Lenny’s without a jacket on a recent morning, grabs himself a sandwich, and between bites discusses the intricacies of local, national and international affairs as well as a few details about his campaign.
The man who handles the city’s pension funds wasted little time getting down to the nitty-gritty, expounding on a litany of inequities.
“Less than 3 percent of the city’s spending with businesses is with minority businesses,” he began. “But I don’t have the capability to increase that number to a fairer level probably closer to 20 percent. So there’s only so much I can do as comptroller. I am not part of the selection process, only the monitoring process.”
When asked if this is a situation he would like to reform, Liu said he didn’t believe that the city was one of equal opportunity.
“What we’ve witnessed over the last several decades is the corporatization of New York City,” he explained. “While there’s been lots of talk about small businesses, the emphasis has been on mega-corporations.”
There is an increasingly widening wealth gap, he said, a disparity highlighted by the Occupy Wall Street movement. “This is a trend throughout the country, but in New York City it is far more pronounced,” he added. “In New York it’s more like .5 percent versus 99.5 percent. And this disparity is widening here faster than in the rest of the country.”
Liu is disturbed that city workers, particularly union members, are being blamed for the current recession. “There’s something wrong with that picture,” he said.
Even so, he admitted, there are some signs of economic improvement.
“But there are also some risks,” Liu insisted, taking another bite of his sandwich and the nation’s fiscal problems. “Look what happened last August where a small number of people in Washington, just to give the president a hard time, would have plunged the entire country into default. The upcoming election is critical and I don’t even want to think what will happen if we don’t re-elect President Obama.”
He confesses that he hasn’t been following the GOP presidential primaries that closely. “For a long time it appeared to be just a different flavor each month,” he chuckled.
“But we can’t take anything for granted,” Liu warned. “We got to get on the buses and I expect to be sponsoring phone banks and bus trips to swing states like I did in ‘08.”
Nor has he been following with any great interest the redistricting problem. “The way they have carved up some of the districts, particularly in the senate is nothing short of total disenfranchisement,” he lamented. “And I hope the courts do something about it.”
Liu sees some similarities between voter suppression that is occurring in some states and the rampant spread of stop and frisk by law enforcement agencies. “You have to prove you’re innocent before you get the right to vote,” he quipped. “In effect, they are trying to drive progress back a hundred years. It’s a funny objective trying to prove there is fraud when there’s no documented proof of it. And compare this to the thousands of people who have been stopped and frisked, and questioned and they haven’t done anything.”
To him the issue of voter suppression, stop and frisk, and the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida are all interrelated. “Gun violence, police tactics and its impact on police-community relations, unemployment disparity, the inequities of city contracting, and the obvious lack of diversity at City Hall are all interconnected,” he said.
And the campaign; how is that going these days?
From the standpoint of funds, he said, it’s still a ways off from where he would have it be “but it’s getting closer,” he smiled. “I’ve raised a little more than $2 million and I’ll soon reach the spending limit. That’s a good thing about New York City’s elections; there’s a limit, so you’re not raising money and raising money. And I certainly won’t be able to spend a $100 million of my own election…which I’m several digits short of.” The last comment obviously directed at Mayor Bloomberg and his vast fortune and election expenditure.
He said at the moment the campaign does not have an online contribution yet. “It’s a little bit tricky,” he said.
As for his possible adversaries in the race for Gracie Mansion, Liu said that only one has formally declared. “So, there’s still some time to go before the other candidates enter the race officially,” he said. “Thus far, there’s no Republican and Mayor Bloomberg has said it’s going to be the Democratic nominee, but not John Liu.”
And Bill Thompson?
“Bill is my good friend,” Liu said, “and he helped me hit the ground running as comptroller and he has said that he’s running. But we’ve got a year and half to go.”
It has been reported that Liu has hired a new treasurer to replace the one charged with fraud but cannot release that person’s name until he or she has been properly approved.
“We have a new treasurer and there’s an ongoing federal investigation, which I’m hoping will be concluded soon,” he said, taking the last bite of his sandwich.
“And we’ve completely cooperated with the Feds.”
He seemed somewhat peeved by the way some media outlets have handled the allegations and the investigation. “Some of them have already declared me guilty,” he said. “It’s an impediment to the campaign. I’m proud of the way we’ve run our campaign. I have a clear conscience about all this.”
After several moments ruminating of the issue of fraud, he elaborated on the process and the transition he is undergoing. “The whole issue of the treasurer is eye-opening itself,” he asserted. “There doesn’t appear to be any interest in anybody else’s campaign, about other campaign fundraising, and ours isn’t any different from the way others do it.
“Campaigns like mine, or anybody else’s, for the most part receive personal checks,” he said, delving into the issue. “It’s our responsibility to make sure the personal checks clear their bank accounts, and all this information is collected from the donors. And we have done that. Now, the allegation that this check wasn’t really that person’s check…well, we assume that the check is all right. Campaigns are not required to conduct background checks on their donors.
“We would be happy to conduct background checks on all of our donors, if all the campaigns were required to do that,” Liu said. “But even without that requirement, when we feel there’s something questionable about a donation, we return it.”
He said his 2013 campaign has returned more than $100,000 in campaign contributions, “just because we thought there may be an issue with them,” Liu continued. “Fundraising has not been my biggest challenge. Apparently my campaign was special enough to warrant an undercover FBI agent. People in my community have asked have there been undercover agents in the other campaigns; an agent who somehow, allegedly was able to get $16,000 into my campaign that has raised $2 million.
“I trust that the authorities are trying to do the right thing,” he said, sidestepping the possibility that he may be in the spotlight because he is a high profile candidate. “But it’s undeniable that many people in the community question why [the probe was conducted].”
But heavy scrutiny is not something Liu runs from, in fact, “I welcome it; we have nothing to hide,” he concluded.
If there’s a challenge to this morning at Lenny’s it’s getting back to his car given the onrush of folks who want to shake his hand. Nope, there’s nothing to hide and no way to hide as he works his way through a throng of well-wishers.