On a recent Tuesday afternoon, John Liu was chasing people as they left a Key Foods in Whitestone, Queens. Liu's second campaign against District 11's Democratic State Senator and former IDC member Tony Avella was barely two weeks old. "We don't even have proper literature yet," Liu said, nodding at the two-sided, black-and-white pamphlet his volunteers were handing out, which featured a portrait that looked to be from his Comptroller days. "Watch me get my teeth kicked in by these Avella supporters."

Liu, who grew up in Flushing, was the first Asian-American elected to citywide office, and his term as Comptroller saw the creation of Checkbook NYC and frequent sparring with Mayor Bloomberg over the $700 million CityTime boondoggle.

In the middle of a competitive race to succeed Mayor Bloomberg, Liu's campaign was denied matching public funds after two members of his staff were convicted in a straw-donor scheme (though Liu was never accused of any wrongdoing), and he ended up finishing fourth in the Democratic primary. In 2014 he ran against Tony Avella and railed against the IDC, but lost by less than 600 votes.

Since leaving office, Liu has taught at Columbia and Baruch College. He also got his pilot's license last year, and just recently received his instrument rating. "I always wanted to be a pilot in my 20s, but that got pushed towards the side by both fatherhood and running for office," Liu said.

Over a "snack" of two slices of pizza (Sicilian style) and a giant Dr. Pepper, Liu offered to take a reporter and a photographer up for a ride in a prop plane. "They're so much safer than jets. You know what happens when the jet engine conks out on you? You're going down."

John Liu greets people outside a Key Foods in Whitestone, Queens (Scott Heins / Gothamist)

You got into this race really late.

You could say that.

I know that some people asked you to run, but why get into the race now? Is your heart really in this? Or is it a Godfather III situation where you got out and they are trying to pull you back in?

No, I’m not getting dragged into anything. I’m doing this on my own free will, and I am full throttle.

I didn’t anticipate running this year. I ran in ‘14, didnt make it. In ‘16 I said no. This is ‘18, this is the first New York State election in the time of Trump. And I think the True Blue coalition has been very effective, I’ve been talking with them for almost a year. I wasn’t sure how real this activist sentiment was. And also, somebody was going to challenge Avella. I told John [Duane, former Assemblyman] I am happy to support him, but ultimately his campaign didn’t launch, and Avella became the Queens County candidate. I think it’s fair to say that people all throughout Queens have to hold their nose pretty stiffly about that.

It was hard watching this guy go unchallenged after the pure backroom deals that he’s cut over the years even though he always professes to his constituents in this area that oh, he’s above politics, he's only in it for the people. It’s the biggest crock of crap I’ve ever heard. Somebody should challenge him.

In 2014, it was Joe Crowley who nudged you to run against Avella. How well do you know him? And what would you say to a voter who thinks that you might just be part of this chummy, male-dominated, Queens political scene?

I am friends with Joe Crowley. I think he’s done a lot of good work for Queens and New York, and could have done even more with a leadership position in the House. In 2014, Avella betrayed the Democrats in Queens, and Joe took it very personally. The Queens organization expended a huge amount of effort to retake this seat from the Republicans. People worked really hard. That was still fresh in people’s memories.

Tony was never the most well-liked person, not that he ever tried to be, but we worked hard for him in 2010, and we took it back from [Frank] Padavan and the Republicans, and we were all proud of it. And just a few years later he does this with the IDC? It was just unforgivable. Joe didn’t like it and he asked me to run. I had my doubts, because this isn’t really my base, even though I’ve lived here pretty much my whole life. By the way, I’m just inside the district. I’m surrounded on three sides by Toby Stavisky’s district, you go figure that.

Were you disappointed that Joe Crowley lost to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

Yes. I feel really terrible for him. But I also recognize it’s a new world we live in. What’s happening in Washington and all over the world and even right here in New York State. Alexandria, who is surely going to be the Congresswoman, nothing in November is going to change that, I wish her all the best. I’m going to do whatever I can to support her and the Democratic majority, hopefully, in the House of Representatives.

I actually met Alexandria at a forum in December that was organized by the True Blue coalition and I found her to be impressive from the get-go. I think she’ll be very effective.

You were the only mayoral candidate to advocate for legalizing marijuana. You ran a stridently anti-IDC campaign in 2014 before most New Yorkers knew what the IDC was. Can you think of any other positions of yours that seem prescient or more relevant now?

They had a mayoral debate and they went around and asked the mayoral candidates if they supported legalized marijuana, I obviously was the only one. Then they asked if we had tried marijuana in the past and I was the only one who actually didn’t! I almost felt geeky that I had never smoked pot before. But [legalizing marijuana] is the right thing to do for a lot of reasons. I feel good that the recent estimates from Cuomo’s commission are that it could bring in several hundred million in tax revenue, which is exactly what I said in my 2013 report, my estimate was something like $400 million, which is enough to pay the tuition for CUNY students.

I often tell my supporters that hey, we kind of won the 2013 election because an election is not just about the candidate who is running, it’s about the platform and issues the candidate is running on. If you look at the issues of eliminating stop and frisk, I always said that if you eliminate stop and frisk you’d bring the police and the community together. I don’t know how many times de Blasio has said those exact words, even though in one of the mayoral debates he accused me of being irresponsible for getting rid of stop and frisk. But that policy I campaigned on is now in place.

I talked about how we should allow private sector employees to tap into our mechanism for defined benefit pensions. Not for taxpayers to pay for them, but to use the mechanism in place for our pension plans, and I think last year he came out with a plan to do the same thing.

Cracking down on corporate subsidies. I truly believe most jobs don’t get subsidized whatsoever, having subsidies so that you can claim this many jobs or save that many jobs, it’s just smoke and mirrors.

So I can’t imagine you appreciate the wooing of Amazon HQ2 to New York City.

Ultimately it is big business being subsidized by mom and pops. Small businesses never get those kinds of subsidies, and who’s got to make up for the tax revenue that the big companies are being let off the hook on? The small businesses.

You were on NY1 earlier this year talking about Councilman Jumaane Williams running for lieutenant governor, and you cautioned that he has some positions that might not “sit well” with the progressive wing of the Democratic party. Do you have any positions that might not sit well with the progressive wing of the party? I can think of a few.

I don’t know. What are they? You said you can think of a few!

Do you support the mayor’s proposal to eliminate the specialized high school exam? That is something that Albany will have to do, and you will have to weigh in on if you are elected.

I’m not in favor of that. I am against high stakes testing, I’ve always been against high stakes testing, especially as it had been rolled out in the Bloomberg years. But I never said we have to get rid of all tests. In our society, tests are still the key ingredient in evaluations. The specialized high school exam is an extreme form of high stakes exam, it’s not even done once a year, it’s done once a lifetime, or they get a go-again in their freshman year.

I’ve never said it should be eliminated. I think that the exam should stay in place. Maybe the exam could be fixed, if there are found to be any flaws in it. As far as de Blasio’s plan, I am absolutely appalled by it. It is the plan that is not a plan. It is the typical de Blasio gut reaction to a report that paints him negatively. A report that shows an abysmally shockingly low number of minority students being admitted into specialized high schools. That is a problem, that’s been a problem for a long time. But he just let out this gut reaction of a plan, no thought went into it, and certainly he didn’t bring in any stakeholders together, people who would be deeply affected by any kind of change.

OK but why not just admit the top percentiles of every high school class? Why make them take this really high stakes exam?

Segregation in the New York City school system is probably not much better than [it was before] Brown v. Board of Education. It is pervasive throughout the entire school system. To take this very small piece of the school system and say, well let’s diversify it by admitting the same percentage of students across the board and just do that, that’s ridiculous. What about the gifted and talented schools, that begin in kindergarten? Do you then admit the same percentage from every neighborhood? Why would you just focus on this one thing?

Would you support congestion pricing as a State Senator?

I have supported it, as chairman of the transportation committee in the City Council I supported it. Now, in the City Council when Bloomberg first proposed it, I was dead set against it. I was set against it because all it was, was about sticking it to Queens and Brooklyn residents to bail out the MTA. I then worked with the Bloomberg folks. I said look, you can’t just penalize people. People in Queens in my area, they’re not driving because they love their cars, but it’s impractical for them to take public transportation. So give them some kind of public transportation and I guarantee you many will voluntarily take transportation instead of having to drive and pay tolls and find parking. And the Bloomberg administration agreed to that. They added very specific Express Bus routes laid out, as well as an increase in LIRR service, as well as making the fares more accessible.

Once they agreed to real offerings of mass transit in an area of NYC that was transit starved I said fine, as long as residents are getting something for it and aren’t just being taxed and bailing out the MTA on their backs.

I do favor a millionaire’s tax more than congestion pricing, because at the end of the day, transit is the responsibility of state government, even local government, if it came to that, as long as we have control over it, but we don’t, so it still a state authority. State government receives significant tax revenues that it then prioritizes over essential services like education, health care, transit should be one of them. So the millionaire’s tax I think is the academically proper way to approach the need to fund transit.

Even though no one in Albany seems to think a millionaire’s tax is feasible?

That’s why I said academically proper. It may not be politically feasible right now, but that doesn’t mean that that can’t change.

What about environmentally proper? Getting more cars off our roads and making our air cleaner.

That’s fine, but therein lies the flaw of congestion pricing. Congestion pricing, you wanna clean the environment, and bail out the MTA.

You keep saying “bail out,” but it’s about finding a permanent revenue stream to fund the MTA so they can improve services, like the trains and buses.

Whatever you want to call it. A tax, which is what a toll would be, cannot achieve two objectives at the same time. You can either use a tax to raise revenues, or use it to change behavior. If you succeed in changing behavior, what happens to your revenues? It falls. If your revenues are sustained, then what happened to the change in behavior?

So you’re saying that if we institute congestion pricing, people just won’t drive into Manhattan?

Well, either that, or they just won’t drive, so it succeeds in changing the behavior in which case it’s not a feasible revenue source. Or, the revenue is sustained, in which case, we’re not really changing people's behavior and it becomes just another tax that is not spread widely. I believe transit funding should be spread widely over the entire tax base because it’s an essential service.

People who own cars in New York City tend to be wealthier than those who don’t. The poorest New Yorkers do rely on public transportation more.

But what are we talking about? I said I would prefer a millionaire’s tax, but I would support congesting pricing as well, just as I did as chairman of the transportation committee, if it’s not just about bailing out the MTA, but that transit-starved areas like Eastern Queens, Southern Brooklyn, and the northern parts of the Bronx get additional services from the MTA.

John Liu (Scott Heins / Gothamist)

Senator Avella supports the speed cameras that are about to go off because the Senate is refusing to vote on them. Do you want the cameras to stay on?

Absolutely. That’s another example of how Avella and his ilk have been a huge detriment to the people of New York City and the state. If Andrea Stewart-Cousins were the majority leader of the New York State Senate, would we even be talking about this right now? It’s only because Flanagan is the leader. How the hell is he the leader when Democrats have the majority? Because of this IDC. I hope they renew the cameras so they don’t have to be shut down, I do believe they are a strong deterrent to speeding, both the speed cameras and the red light cameras. But this shouldn’t even be considered right now, this should have passed a long time ago. [Editor's note: This conversation occurred before the speed cameras were in fact turned off last week.]

There’s been a Medicare-for-all bill kicking around the Assembly for a few years, would you support that if you were elected?

Yes, and again, I don’t think you’d be asking me that if Andrea Stewart-Cousins were the majority leader, which she would be if it weren’t for Avella and the IDC.

Let’s say you win, and there’s a Democratic majority in the Senate. How do you prevent say, the governor, from brokering another kind of deal to share power and prevent Democratic majorities in both houses from passing legislation?

Part of it is ethics reform, and the tightening of what legislators can do by virtue of outside income, as well as what the governor and his appointees can do, that has to be part of the change of Albany culture.

What specific ethics reform do you think is the most important?

Clearly the LLC loophole has been a huge source of conflicts of interest, to say the least. That has to be eliminated. Outside income disclosures as well as restrictions are needed. A decent pay level for legislators. The fact that they haven’t gotten any kind of change in their pay for 20 years now, and the governor has made it into a basic negotiation point, that’s just wrong. I think it contributed to some the problems we have seen with specific legislators. That’s not in the public interest. It’s probably a good idea to pay legislators something, I don’t wanna say something they could live on, because the pay of legislators is significantly more than what a lot of people in this state live on, but many of the legislators could probably do much better if they were not state legislators. I think it’s in the public good to take that into account.

A not insignificant portion of this district you’re running in voted for Donald Trump. How do you appeal to that part of your constituency?

That was almost two years ago. I think many people regret it. They won’t be in the Democratic primary, which will still drive a large part of the general election decision. Trump continues, to put it mildly, to embarrass people. Embarrass Americans. And that includes many of the people in this district.

John Liu wooing a potential voter outside a Key Foods in Whitestone, Queens (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
The last time you ran against Avella he hit you hard on the ethics issue you faced—

On the campaign finance stuff.

Yes. What do you say to the hypothetical voter who says, “I remember John Liu, wasn’t he the guy who got sunk by all his shady donation stuff?”

Well, let me say this, that was the IDC spending two to three hundred thousand dollars of so-called independent expenditures in the last two to three weeks before the primary. That itself probably accounted for more than 5 percent of the vote total, which is the margin I lost by. Hopefully they’re not going to be able to do that this year.

I take issue with what you say. You said the “ethics issue.” I’m not sure what “ethics issue” you’re talking about, alright? I’ve never been accused of any ethics issues. As far as campaign finance problems, yeah, we had a problem, my biggest problem was that my campaign took illegal contributions! [Laughs]

The problem is there is no way my campaign or any other campaign could have known that those were illegal contributions.

We had a fundraiser, I went to dinner with these 20 people, I saw them write their checks out and give them to my assistant. I saw them fill out donor forms, they signed the donor forms that this was their money. I ate dinner with them for an hour. I sat next to this guy who turned out to be an FBI agent, he said he was an executive with this chain of Chinese restaurants called P.F. Chang’s. I said yeah, I’ve been to P.F. Chang’s in Florida, it’d be nice if you brought them here to New York. He said, can I help him with the permits? I said, I can’t help you with the permits but I’d be happy to come to the ribbon cutting. And then I took pictures with all these donors.

Then six months later I find out, holy shit that was an FBI agent! I still have his card, by the way, P.F. Chang’s.

How is any campaign supposed to know that those were illegal contributions? So the next two years of headlines that I took illegal contributions, they were kinda right. But no one ever goes the next step to explain, how could I have ever known in any way that they were illegal contributions.

The New York Times, I’ll never forget the headline, October 12 of 2011: “Comptroller Has Massive Straw Donor Scheme.” [Editor's note: Not quite.] Massive straw donor scheme! At the end of this ridiculous investigation and this ridiculous trial, I think they ultimately concluded that there were 32 straw donations, 20 of which were from that event. Twelve okay, we somehow let 12 get through our very careful filters, that’s 12 out of over 7,000.

Is it frustrating to watch the mayor be reprimanded by prosecutors for his own fund raising issues, while the public essentially ignores it?

It’s not frustrating, it’s fun just kicking back and watching it. [Laughs]

2013 was a long time ago, and I have no regrets about it. I ran for mayor of New York City, which is something I’d never imagined I’d ever be doing. I was Comptroller of New York City, which is also something I’d never thought I’d be doing in my lifetime.

This interview has been edited and condensed.