NEW YORK — Mayoral candidate John Liu admits to taking body blow after body blow.
A federal corruption investigation. Convictions of two former campaign workers in a scheme to funnel money from straw donors. Denied public matching campaign funds in a crowded Democratic primary that leaves his campaign woefully underfunded compared to his rivals.
And yet Comptroller Liu refuses to back down. The former Queens councilman is still hopeful that his former constituents, undercounted Asian voters and a handful of energized labor supporters can turn around shrinking poll numbers come the Sept. 10 primary.
The only candidate in the race fully committed to doing away with stop-and-frisk, Liu has launched himself into battle mode after the Campaign Finance Board denied him millions in matching funds.
He was the first candidate to launch direct attacks at the presumed front runners during the most recent Democratic debates, blaming City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio for failing to keep St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan open. He's gone after his predecessor, former Comptroller Bill Thompson, for his failure to spot the massive CityTime scandal that cost the city nearly $700 million.
But Liu hasn't been able to break double digits in any citywide polls. After months at a stagnant 8.5 percent, a recent New York Times/Marist College poll had him at half that: 4 percent, one percentage point above longshot conservative Democrat Erick Salgado.
The numbers don't seem to faze Liu, nor does his fundraising handicap. In an exclusive interview with Gotham Gazette last week, he said he still believes in the city’s much-lauded public campaign financing system that ruled against him. He also explained why he’s skeptical of the inspector general bill passed again by the City Council on Thursday and explains what a Mayor Liu might do on marijuana reform.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: Do you think the city's campaign finance program works? Do you still have faith in the system?
JOHN LIU: The system is something I support. I've always been a participant, and I always plan to be a participant. This year, they made some very wrong judgement.
I think this year, my campaign has been heavily politicized. This investigation that's been going on for years now amounts to little more than a witch hunt for which there's been no witch. They were able to get some collateral damage by setting up a couple of people, but that's what it was: a setup.
And the Campaign Finance Board made the wrong decision in denying my campaign the funds. They cited innuendoes, if you look at their statements. "Suggested." "Potential." They have this 100-plus page report where they were able to determine that two people were improperly reimbursed, but not that my campaign had any idea that was happening out of 7,000 donors.
And, in fact, this whole long, drawn out investigation has been about phantom donors to my campaign. Where are they? Where's this massive straw donor scheme? After years of the feds poking around, listening in on my phone conversation for 18 months, revealing millions [of] documents, interrogating my supporters — where is this massive straw donor scheme?
GG: On stop-and-frisk, you defended Judge Shira Scheindlin's verdict in the federal case and her suggestion to appoint an independent monitor.
LIU: The judge doesn't need me to defend her decision. I certainly agree with her position; I've been saying that for the longest time.
GG: So why then do you still oppose an inspector general within the Department of Investigation?
LIU: Oh, well, I don't vociferously oppose it. I haven't said, "We must not have an IG." What I've said is that's a distraction. It's a convenient political tool for those who want to continue stop-and-frisk, to be able to continue to say they want to change stop-and-frisk.
I've been very clear from the get-go: I'm against stop-and-frisk. Under my mayoralty, we will end stop-and-frisk. There won't be any need for an inspector general.
GG: But there are other issues that an inspector general would deal with other than stop-and-frisk.
LIU: And under my administration there won't be any surveillance of people simply because of their religion. My administration — at the end of the day, it's still up to the mayor.
If the inspector general thing was proposed as a way to fix other problems, I’d be less skeptical, or less cynical about it. I haven't opposed it as much as I've called it out as a political ploy. The inspector general issue is a distraction from the real issues.
That's why I support a federal monitor, because that's an independent entity. It's like the CCRB — the CCRB was gutted by Giuliani and continued to be gutted by Bloomberg. It could have been far more effective. It's the same thing; the inspector general could be effective, but only with a supportive mayor.
Under my administration, the inspector general wouldn't have much to do because I'd already tackle the root problem.
GG: Last week you came out with a new view on how the city should deal with marijuana reform, specifically not just decriminalizing it but legalizing it. A lot of your critics called that a political ploy itself, and that as mayor you wouldn't be in a position to do anything without the state.
LIU: I'm not campaigning on that platform. I've never campaigned on the platform. This is an issue that was a topic of heated discussion earlier this year when the Legislature was considering it. This is an issue that's not going away. And when it was being debated in Albany, my office started studying the issues as it pertains specifically to New York City.
As comptroller, my responsibility is to study the issues that are affecting New Yorkers and proposing solutions. I came out with some facts that were enlightening to me. I was very skeptical earlier this year. I would not have imagined myself saying I'd be in favor of legalizing marijuana use, regulating it and taxing it.
Not only is prohibition not working, but the impact on communities of color is far, far greater. Blacks and Hispanics make up 45 percent of marijuana users, and yet they account for 86 percent of the arrests. Whereas whites make up 40 percent of the users but account for only 11 percent of the arrests. The police are tagging people disproportionately and its a waste of police resources. Thirty seven thousand arrests projected this year of low level marijuana possession. Nothing's going to happen with these cases, and there's a huge societal cost.
GG: And is this a policy you'd explore as mayor?
LIU: That will be something I'd explore, even though I'm not campaigning on it. It's something that I cannot ignore.
GG: On housing, how would you explain mandatory inclusionary zoning in the length of a tweet?
LIU: Retain public wealth and air rights for construction of affordable housing…
GG: It's a complicated subject that's come up a lot in the race.
LIU: I've been the one who's been talking about it. Some people have copied me, but I was the one who originally talked about mandatory inclusionary zoning. I haven't finished the tweet.
…instead of giving away to private developers. It might fit in one tweet.
GG: There's been a lot made recently about zoning in the Bloomberg era. What would you say is one of his biggest successes?
LIU: I would not call his zoning policy a success, because while his zoning policies have created growth in parts of the city, it has also served to greatly expand the wealth gap. So the people who are already well off were able reap huge windfalls in the rezoning of their properties so that they could develop more. We lost huge opportunities to create more affordable housing and good paying jobs. Those will be the underpinnings of my execution of inclusionary zoning.
GG: You've had a very combative relationship with Mayor Bloomberg. How would you like the next comptroller — whoever it may be — to work with you?
LIU: I say independent. The next comptroller should do his or her job vigorously, as I have done mine. This was the system put in place years ago. The job is a counterweight, it's to make sure things don't get out of control. I'm proud that I reined in CityTime, proud of sounding early warnings of the 911 system. We certainly don't rubber stamp contracts.
GG: Another issue you've been independent of from the mayor has been education. Day one, what'll be different about the city's education plan in a Liu administration?
LIU: The whole approach to schools will be far different. Pretty much everything.
GG: But you'd retain mayoral control.
LIU: That's not for the mayor to decide. That's the state Legislature. Mayoral control lasts through 2015, and whatever the system may be I'm going to take it upon myself as mayor to make sure the schools are running properly. I support mayoral control, but it's out of the mayor's hands.
Now, I'm going to stop running our schools as if they're business divisions and restore learning environments in each and every one of our schools and classrooms. We'll have a chancellor with an educational background, for a change. And allow education professionals to do their work in the schools rather than bombarding them with reporting requirements.
This Department of Education has been data-driven, by their own words. And a lot of the data they use is crappy or does not support the changes that they've advocated.
GG: On the budget dance, you've come out firmly in favor of rid of it. How?
LIU: We need to have an independent entity determine the revenue estimates for the following year. Right now, it's too one sided with the mayor's office determining the estimates. And that drives the entire budget discussion.
GG: Some of your rivals argue that all they need to get rid of the dance is to be in office.
LIU: No, it's never that easy. It's not that the mayor and speaker love to engage in the budget dance. Part of it is the way the system is set up.
GG: As an immigrant yourself, you've weighed in on a lot of different issues the community faces, including the DREAM Act. What's your take on noncitizen voting in municipal elections?
LIU: Executive Order 41 has been issued by Mayor Bloomberg, but the spirit of it has not been complied with by too many city agencies. And under my administration, I will continue the essence of Executive Order 41, which started in the Koch administration and has been adopted by every mayor since, but in way that is actually taken seriously by all city agencies.
Immigrants should have equal treatment and equal protection by city government, especially when all the politicians in city government in this town love to proclaim this city the international capital of the world. For most of our country's history, citizenship was not required to vote. What was required was being a property owner, which meant you had to pay taxes. So it goes back to the fundamental principles of our country: no taxation without representation.
If you pay taxes, you get a right to vote. Our immigrants today pay taxes. They should have the right to vote in at least municipal elections.