"His story reminds me of my story, of all of our stories," New York City Comptroller John Liu told a packed downtown theater a few weeks ago before a screening of Linsanity, a film chronicling the rise of former Knicks star Jeremy Lin. While the specifics obviously don't match up, there is something to be said about their similarities. Both are of Taiwanese descent, both broke barriers in New York City (Liu was the first Asian-American to serve in citywide office; Lin crossed over Kobe) and both crossed fates with wealthy New Yorkers (Lin was cashed in by Knicks owner James Dolan; Liu's mayoral campaign was derailed after he publicly embarrassed the Bloomberg administration). While Lin has been able to remake himself in Houston, Liu's future remains uncertain.
Listening to him speak to the mostly Asian crowd in that downtown theater, one gets the sense that Liu isn't really going anywhere. While other failed mayoral candidates like Bill Thompson and Christine Quinn have signaled that they'll take lucrative positions in the private sector (or in Thompson's case, keep them), John Liu still wields a considerable amount of influence and an interest in public service. Having made more campaign stops than any other candidate (by far), Liu picked up the support of an array of unions and minority groups.
But Liu wasn't able to translate his widespread support (his public favorability was above 50% in 2011) into a successful bid for mayor. A sting operation by the U.S. Attorney's office in 2011 convinced Liu campaign workers that illegal donations were legitimate. The office then leaked the investigation to the New York Times. The scrutiny began to strip away Liu's credibility, culminating in the rejection of public campaign funds by the Campaign Finance Board (which Liu has much-maligned) and the conviction of his campaign associates. Liu suggests that these attacks were politically motivated and in response to the scrutiny his office has brought to City Hall scandals like CityTime.
The comptroller that "saved taxpayers millions," sat down with Gothamist to talk about the scandal that brought down his mayoral campaign, why de Blasio was favored as the Democrats' "progressive" candidate, and how New York City is broken.
What was your main achievement while comptroller? Opening up government. Making it far more transparent and accountable. Those are clichés, but it's a fact that my office has saved $4 billion primarily though our audits and contractor reviews during these last three years and change. We put the city's expenditures online so anyone can look at it: CheckbookNYC, which is unprecedented, which makes people who spend the public's money more careful about how they spend the money.
We really raised the bar on outside contracts for outside consulting, which has clearly gone out of control over the past decade, resulting in huge waste.
Why do you think de Blasio was considered the choice of "progressive" New Yorkers when your positions were consistently further to the left than his? I don't know what these labels are. I don't know what "left" or "progressive" really mean. It was much more simple to me—we need a lot of changes in this city. I viewed this as not a political insider.
I was the only candidate to grow up outside of politics, my background is as an actuary. But I came to my positions as a member of the City Council, these are changes that we need for the city. Not liberal or left ideas, they are changes that we need to have in New York City. But because people started calling me progressive, I'm proud to be considered the most consistently progressive candidate in the race. And why did de Blasio become the progressive choice for New Yorkers? Because the Campaign Finance Board issued an absolutely despicable decision to deny my campaign of $3.5 million a month before the primary. That stripped me of any capability to go on the airwaves and get my message out directly to the voters.
Why do you think the U.S. Attorney's office looked into your campaign? I don't know. But investigating my campaign was fine. I always said, listen, if anyone suspects any wrongdoing in my campaign, it's their job to look into it. Which they did, beginning in '09. But for two years, they looked, using some incredibly intrusive tactics—even wiretapping my own personal cellphone for a year. They interrogated thousands of people, looked at a million documents. From 2009 to 2011, they found absolutely nothing.
So then, instead of calling it a day, they proceeded with this undercover operation that was then successful in getting illegal contributions into my campaign. But there was no way my folks could have known that these contributions were not legitimate because they did a very good job of making us believe that they were legitimate. And all the issues that surrounding my campaign emanated from that undercover operation. If they had run that operation with any other campaign, they would have found the exact same results.
Do you feel that their actions were politically motivated? Yes. Absolutely. In 2009, maybe they were doing their job. For two years, they dug, dug, dug. And in 2011, when my poll numbers were sky high, and the fundraising was easy as honey, they initiated that undercover operation. It sounds politically motivated to me.
Do you believe that it had anything to do with your investigations into runaway spending scandals like CityTime? People have theorized that along with many other things. I don't have any proof of that. From the outset people were whispering in my ear about maybe not pushing so hard here or there, maybe not upsetting certain people—my response was that I didn't care about upsetting anyone, I was doing my job independently and vigorously.
What's the biggest problem New York City faces right now with its finances?The outstanding contracts with the municipal unions is a big hole that the current administration is leaving us in. It's unbelievable what a fiasco the contract situation has been for the Bloomberg administration. It's hard to imagine how the fourth estate does not hold Bloomberg more accountable. He campaigned on his management prowess, necessary in this time of crisis, and goes an entire four year term without resolving one of the most basic management responsibilities, which is your personnel cost. And he shrugs it off by saying simply "There's no money for that."
He'd have a stronger leg to stand on if during the previous eight years, retroactive raises were not the norm, and if the city budget hadn't gone up over $10 billion. When he took office in 2010, the city budget was $60 billion, now it's up to $70 billion.
Many politicians keep saying that New York City cannot fund certain social programs because of the budget crunch. Are they right? That's because the people who are using that description are doing it in cases where they don't want to spend money. It's not a question of not having enough money, it's a question of having the will to spend the money on what's needed. Instead, they are spending the money on other things that are not actually needed. The biggest example of which is the ongoing corporate subsidies. It is just false that taxpayers have to shell out all this money for economic development purposes.
Every time there's a project that supposedly requires taxpayer money to develop, the mayor's office says that it's necessary to create jobs. Let's be real: The vast majority of new jobs in New York City are created by businesses that get no subsidy whatsoever. It's only a small fraction of businesses that get any subsidy. Why would anyone make the argument that you need the subsidies to create jobs? It's absolutely false. I think we're far better eliminating these subsidies so that businessess all have to compete with each other on a level playing field. Right now there isn't a level playing field because some companies, usually politically-connected companies, are getting these subsidies.
During your campaign, you proposed the idea of legalizing marijuana in order to provide revenue for the city— I mean look, the impetus there was not to generate revenue. It's all about the needless pain and suffering. Ten other states have legalized medical marijuana. It's a scientific fact that marijuana is effective to relieve pain, unbearable pain. The thought is that marijuana should be a choice given to doctors. On the surface, I'm not saying anyone should go out and buy it, but give the doctor's the opportunity to prescribe it. It's a medical decision, and shouldn't be prohibited.
Now, go one step further, the reality is that prohibition doesn't work. You have 900,000 people using marijuana in New York City regularly. It's a $1.65 billion market, and that's a conservative estimate from my office. Prohibition isn't working, and instead we have selective enforcement. What we have is that almost always it's black and Latino youth getting caught up in it and their lives getting ruined by being arrested. They can't get jobs, they can't get an education, because they were caught holding a small amount of marijuana.
It's a big market, it's being selectively enforced, and the medical professionals say it's not nearly as harmful as alcohol. No one gets addicted to marijuana, at least not as much as alcohol. No one has gone into a violent rage while high on marijuana. So for all those reasons, let's put it under regulation and tax it and generate revenue and use that money to cut CUNY tuition in half. Let's send the kids to college instead of into the courtrooms.
You also came out early in your campaign against stop and frisk. I didn't come out early against stop and frisk, I've always been against stop and frisk. On the pragmatic level, I've seen a lot of stop and frisk encounters between police and citizens and they always become big misunderstandings. It's not effective. Because while the mayor and commissioner like to cite numbers, at the end of the day, their numbers don't pan out. Then it became a kind of common sense argument—if you end stop and frisk, crime will go up. I actually believe the opposite. Because of stop and frisk, people were no longer talking to the police, making their job harder and making the city less safe for everybody.
From the mental level, you read about 700,000 people being stopped in the city, almost all of them having done nothing wrong. As an immigrant, you feel like you're reading about some other country. Perhaps some of the countries that we emigrated from, certainly not New York City. And that's before you consider the issue of racial profiling, which stop and frisk clearly is. I'm happy that my campaign was always discussing stop and frisk, and it seems like some of the candidates I was running against took notice and changed their own positions.
Why did you choose to run for mayor and not a second term as comptroller? I'm surprised that people ask me that. When I ran for comptroller I ran for a four year term. I have done everything I set out to do and much more. When I was running for mayor this year, I was running for a four year term. I was surprised that all my rivals are looking for eight years. You run for four years. If, after four years, you feel that there is more you can do, you go out and plead your case. I always find it funny when politicians ask for more time to finish what they set out to do. Like Mayor Bloomberg, he asked for more time to finish his projects. He should have gotten it done within the time frame!
Gentrification isn't new, but it seems to be happening at a faster and more rigorous clip than it has in the past. What can New York's mayor do to ensure that the process is more equitable? The quick answers are building more affordable housing and maintaining the affordability of most of our housing stock. Gentrifitcation is one example of the larger problem of economic inequality, the widening wealth gap. You have gentrification because rents are going up and income levels are going up at different rates. If both were going up, it wouldn't be a problem.
The wealth gap is a nationwide problem, and is a much bigger problem in New York City that is growing worse faster. Unlike some of the economic environment, which is out of control of the city, the city actually has some control over the wealth gap. For example, minimum wage and living wage policies, job creation, and education have a direct influence on the wealth gap.
The wealth gap has gotten worse under this administration and that's not a coincidence. It's borne of a thought process that basically says we want to keep the billionaires here. "Don't upset the billionaires or the corporations, otherwise they will leave us." That has been a terrible mindset to run the city, because sure, big companies and rich people might get upset at some of the changes, and some of them might leave. But more people are coming. New York City is a growing city.
How has the Bloomberg administration's relationship with real estate developers, in the form of tax breaks, changed the city? It's one of the most prevalent forms of corporate welfare. These are the subsidies that I've called for an end to. They are costing taxpayers enormous sums. The problem is that when City Hall and the economic development corporation gives these sums away, it doesn't effect the bottom line, so people gloss over it. But it extracts huge amounts of revenue from future budget years. It's very short-sighted and unwise. The current Midtown rezoning does not sound like a good deal for the public.
How are immigrants changing the city today? How will voting rights for PLR's (permanent legal residents) change the demographics of voters moving forward? I don't think there's many changes to be seen. Immigrants have always been a big part of New York City. Maybe the look has changed, but immigrants have always played a role. The Irish voted in huge numbers back at the turn of the century, and immigrants will always be a force in New York City.
What's next for John Liu? I've given it a lot of thought. I've always wanted to drive a taxi. I know the streets really well. I think I could get some good tips.
Do you plan to stay in public service? No matter where I get my paycheck from, I will be actively engaged in city affairs. At the end of the day, there are big changes that we need in New York City. This is a city that drew my parents to bring their family over here. It's not easy relocating your family halfway across the world, and my family is not unique. New York CIty drew people for the promise that if you work hard, dream big, and then work a little harder, you can achieve great things. And I think that promise has been broken by this administration, and it needs to be fixed.