“I am running for comptroller because this is the office that is instrumental to change in this city,” said John Liu. “And we are looking for change that affords everybody an economic fair shake.”
Perhaps it seems like a no-brainer that a proud New Yorker with a degree in mathematical physics should be the one to steer the Big Apple out of the ongoing economic quagmire. John Liu thinks so–and he is one of two Democratic candidates for the comptroller’s office.
After garnering 39 percent of the vote in last week’s shocking primary, he now faces a runoff against David Yassky next week on September 29.
John Chun-Yah Liu, 42, wants New Yorkers to vote in him as the city’s chief financial officer. Sitting in the AmNews offices on Tuesday, he proclaimed that if elected, he will be a CFO “who is very independent of [City Hall and Gracie Mansion] and a comptroller who is looking out for any waste in the city budget, protecting the pension fund that is essential to the futures of our workers and retirees, and approving contracts in a way that creates more economic opportunity, instead of locking communities out.”
Born in Taiwan, Liu came to the U.S. in 1972 when he was 5 and learned English in kindergarten. He has two younger brothers, Robert and Edward, who, like himself, were named after the Kennedys. “And my dad is Joseph.”
Despite a tabloid storm in a tea club [[ED: MEAN TO SAY “TEMPEST IN A TEA CUP” HERE?]] debating the voracity of Liu’s story of working in a sweatshop as a child, Liu assured the AmNews, “I am very clear about what I went through as a kid and what my parents had to do to make a good living. My father worked all the time and my mom worked in a sweatshop, a garment factory, for many years in Queens. When there was no school, we all went to the factory. When school was in, my mom worked from home. She had to be there for us and home was certainly an extension of the sweatshop.”
This was not unique, Liu further explained. “I don’t claim to be special. This is a thing that a lot of kids my age in New York City have gone through. I don’t put this out here to say have pity on me. No, I am just saying that this was my experience. And this is a perspective that I never lose, as I seek this office with a prime goal of seeking equal opportunity and a fair shake for everyone.”
It also gives him empathy for the workers of the city, he said. His mother worked for years in the stifling factory, “but here’s the stark contrast.” His mother-in-law also worked in the garment industry, but she worked in a unionized factory, so now she has pension and benefits. “But my mother has nothing to show for all those years she worked in the factory.”
Liu was elected to the New York City Council in 2001 and is the first Asian American to hold legislative office [[ED: IN THE CITY?]]. As his campaign data points out, from his time in the City Council, Liu has a record of advocating for labor and workers’ rights, civil rights, higher education standards in public schools and improving healthcare and services to seniors.
He doesn’t sidestep the issue of race and racism, but he does say, “I am certainly campaigning in every neighborhood across the city with a consistent message about my qualifications and expertise. But it does seem that I’m more well received in some neighborhoods. I have a great time here in Harlem,” he said with a real hearty laugh. “My message is the same: I talk about my qualifications and my expertise and where I think that the city should be headed. My highest priority is economic empowerment, the creation of jobs. That means more opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses [MWBEs] and getting access to the billions of dollars of contracts that the city puts out a year. There’s no accountability with these big companies for recruiting and hiring people from our neighborhoods.”
Liu said his intention is to increase Black, Latino and Asian inclusion in “construction and ongoing permanent jobs after construction,” such as the contracts for computers, catering, cleaning and accounting, etc.
Liu told the AmNews, “The disparity is because we have not placed a greater enough emphasis on that in this city. We lag behind major cities like Chicago and Atlanta, where the disparities have been essentially wiped out. The disparity in New York City between the contract dollars given to the percentage of minority and women-owned enterprise and the percentage of companies ready, willing and able to do the work that are MWBEs–that disparity is unacceptable.”
Does this, by his own analysis, speak of a tale of two cities?
Shifting in his seat only slightly, Liu responded quickly, “I never see things as a black-and-white circumstance. But there are people who are included and there are still lots of people who are not included. I want to make sure that everybody is included, and so I will refocus the procurement power of the office; and there is an additional boost with the economic stimulus package coming from President Obama, which immediately makes the pot bigger, and therefore, it is easier to share with the people.”
The power of the comptroller’s office here is in the fact that the economic stimulus package manifests itself in contracts that are channeled through the city agencies. The Department of Transportation, Liu noted, which has already received $700 million, was about to engage in the same old, same-old, a whole bunch of money but “with no accountability for job creation.” A Liu administration, he assured, would knock this out the frame “because I will have to approve all of those contracts.” He would, he said, “Send a very strong message that before contracts are approved in this city, a full-throttle effort at including MWBEs in the process–not just a half-hearted attempt, but a full-throttle effort–will be necessary before contracts are approved in the city.”
Liu claims that he is not beholden to any of his supporters or backers. He is, he declared, an independent thinker.
“I have spent most of my career in the private sector, specifically finance, so I am not someone who has spent most of my career in government and politics,” he said. “I have a very demanding view of what government can and should be doing, and I will take that view to the comptroller’s office. And in terms of independence, that is the No. 1 most important thing about this office. There is a reason why the comptroller is a separately elected position because of the compelling need for independence.”
The term limits issue will haunt Gotham for eons. How a candidate treated the term limits issue is major he said. The people in the city were not happy how their will was overturned by Mayor Michael Bloomberg simply wanting to run for a third term.
“I vociferously opposed changing term limits without going back to the people. My rival has consistently tried to explain his vote in terms of the term limits and his change [in voting]. That is a clear contrast and speaks specifically to independence, and some influence that caused the flip-flop in his vote, saying that he would not vote [for the extension], then explicably change his vote.”
The whole term limits extension, which City Hall eventually approved at the urging of the mayor, despite two previous referendums that had New Yorkers declaring that eight years is enough for elected officials, “is a dark shadow that will hang over City Hall for many years to come because it was never about term limits,” said the current Democratic representative from Flushing, Queens. “I don’t support term limits. I voted no in both referendums, but the issue was how a law that was put on the books by referendum should never be changed by the regular legislative process.”
Busting the MTA in the outrageous two sets of books debacle, this chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee has kept front and center critical issues regarding mass transit and the riding public.
“I was the first elected official to expose the fact that the MTA was showing two different sets of financial statements at a time when they were asking people for the highest fare increase in history. It was a huge scandal that hit the MTA.
“At the end of the day, they did make some of their finances more transparent. They put more information online. They accelerated the release of their budget projections from November of the following year up to June of the following year. So it did lead to some reform. But we’re not done yet. Obviously, more transparency and more accountability are still needed at the MTA.”
With an eye on getting more people to City Hall hearings, Liu said he co-sponsored commemorations in the great chamber for observances such as Eid ul-Fitr, Juneteenth, Asian Lunar New Year and Diwali.
“There is no better place for these important events to be commemorated than at City Hall, where we meet every two weeks to pass laws that effects all 8 million people of the city. Over the years, I have been tremendously gratified to see people who knew they could come testify because they had come to one of my events.”
Liu obviously enjoys great support in his Asian American community. “I am proud to be a pioneer for that community and to be the face of that community in many ways. I’m made in Taiwan. It would take a constitutional amendment, but, yeah, sure, I would love to run for president after a very successful stint as comptroller.
“I have been privileged to serve on the City Council and now I want to be the best New York comptroller ever,” he smiles, completely serious. “I’m very proud to have built a coalition of New Yorkers that is incredibly diverse and reflective of the people of New York City.”
Residing in Flushing, Queens, with his wife, Jenny, and their 8-year-old son, Joey, Liu grinned, “My wife is the best and I have known her since we were teenagers. We have known each other longer than we have not,” he says of the mechanical engineer turned financial analyst. “She has put up with me most of our lives.”
While pressing the flesh and jawing with the proletariat, “I have a lot of fun,” Liu revealed. Answering the same questions a hundred times a day from curious voters excites him because “even if it is the thousandth time I’ve heard that question, it’s the first time they are asking me and may be the first time they are asking anybody…I feel like I’m their first date!”
Liu laughs again, “I am very gratified that they are taking the time to stop and ask me.”
Liu is also a certified actuary and used to manage a team of actuaries at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, working on the largest pension plans in the country. Asked about the recession, he said, “There are signs that the worst may be over, but we can’t just wait for things to happen. We have to proactively make things happen. Put people back to work so that we can really achieve the long-term prosperity that people are looking for. The stimulus package is not a panacea for all problems, but it is a huge shot. It is a big boost.”
Endorsements have come thick and fast for the affable number cruncher. “I am proud to receive the support of almost every union in the city,” said Liu. The endorsements include: DC 37, 1199, UFT, TWU, the Uniformed Firefighters Association, and the Communications Workers and Teamsters–including the sanitation workers.
“But I’ve also received support from business groups and business leaders, and an overwhelming number of elected officials, as the [[ED: “AS WELL AS THE”?]] political clubs who turn out the vote.”
Add to the list former State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, former Bronx Borough President Freddy Ferrer, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke and former City Councilwoman Una Clarke.
Tuesday is runoff day, just two weeks after a low-turnout primary.
“I’d like to see a strong turnout for this runoff election [Tuesday, September 29] because a lot is at stake, and honestly, I hope people just come out to vote no matter who they vote for. I just want to see them come out to vote because it means that they are interested in the process and in the future of our city. But, of course, if they are going to vote for someone for comptroller, I hope that would be me.”