On the Trail with John Liu
by Daniel Bush
May 06, 2009 | 1107 views | 0 0 comments | 40 40 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On the first day of May, Councilman John Liu has just enough time for a lunch and campaign interview at a Park Slope diner before rushing on to his next event.

It will be a bowl of soup and plate of fries for the hard-working Liu, who must sneak his meals between endless appearances that take him all over the city as he seeks the office of New York City comptroller.

The previous night, at a candidates' forum in Fort Greene, Liu arrived on time, well before his three opponents. With the debate stalled until the others showed up, Liu spoke briefly about the unglamorous but increasingly important role of playing fiscal watchdog during a national recession.

"Now more than ever we need people, specifically a comptroller, that's going to keep their eye on every single penny," Liu told his audience. "This is stuff that real New Yorkers talk about and real New Yorkers need action on."

Early indications are that Liu might be right. Though it is still months away from Election Day, the race for comptroller- a position being vacated by mayoral hopeful William Thompson - is showing strong signs of life. And while no clear favorite has emerged yet, Liu, speaking to the paper at the aforementioned diner in Brooklyn, said this could change once voters understand the issues at stake.

"New York City is not an easy place to live or work in," Liu said, especially now. "But I still believe it's the best place."

The councilman said ensuring it remains so will not be easy, but could be done if the city invests its federal dollars wisely in infrastructure and job creation programs that would benefit ailing communities hit hardest by the economic crisis.

Liu said his priority as comptroller would be to monitor the disbursement of the city's stimulus money to ensure the funding "creates jobs and does so in a manner that creates opportunities for everyone in the city."

Liu, who is Asian-American, has been a vocal advocate for minority and women-owned businesses, a group he said is the first to suffer during tough economic times.

His comptroller platform includes, for example, a call for a measure to tie the city's $261 million transportation stimulus funding to Local Law 129, which would secure a portion of city contracts for women and minority business owners.

Likewise, Liu endorses a reinstatement of a commuter tax to offset the MTA's deficit and help avoid planned fare hikes and services cuts that would affect millions of working New Yorkers.

Opponents of the MTA's plans say they would disproportionately effect low-income communities in the outer boroughs.

Liu's office estimates that a reinstated commuter tax, which would tax workers who commute to their job from outside the city, would generate roughly $535 million in annual revenue. The city has lost an estimated $5 billion in revenue since the tax was repealed in 1999.

Liu said these and other actions would help the city bring its fiscal house in order, protect residents from further financial ruin, and help pave the way for a successful economic recovery.

"These are issues that resonate with people all over the city, especially in Brooklyn and Queens," said Liu, who has promised to take on the city's pension fund and MTA problems. "What we need is for government to not only be more accountable, but more predictable."

If Liu wins the comptroller's seat, an eventual mayoral bid would not be out of the question, a scenario the Taiwan-born, Flushing-raised Liu would likely not have predicted when he left the private sector to run for the City Council in 2001.

He said he was frustrated with the lack of government responsiveness and efficiency when he decided to leave his job at the financial consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to run for elected office. Liu, then a member of Community Board 7 and president of the North Flushing Civic Association, said he remembers wishing to "introduce a real-world perspective" to the City Council.

After eight yeas in city government, Liu - the first Asian-American official elected to legislative office in the history of New York - insists he has not lost his outsider's credibility, and would carry it with him to the comptroller's office.

"I've retained an outsider's perspective on the city," said Liu. "That's what sets me apart [from the other candidates for comptroller] - having a full nonpolitical life before politics."

Liu said his financial and personal background may also differentiate him from a field comprised of current City Council members. A product of the public school system, Liu said though his family is comfortable now, when he arrived in the country at the age of five, and for years afterwards, "we certainly knew what it felt like not to have."

Still, the councilman (who claims to never go off-the-record during interviews) said he was not entirely confident in a citywide race his life story would resonate with voters.

"I don't know about resonating, but this is who I am," he said. "Voters want to know not only what you want to do but who you are."

When asked if his race for comptroller was a necessary step toward a mayoral campaign, Liu laughed, as if the idea had never occurred to him. As if, in fact, his chances at holding the most powerful office in the city were only as good as the other diners eating lunch around him.

"It's a future run for president, what the heck," Liu joked of his comptroller candidacy, before adding, "there's a lot of work to do over the next four years."

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