Union Aid Has Liu Poised To Win Comptroller Race

Chief Leader - September 22, 2009

by ARI PAUL

In the final 48 hours leading up to the Democratic primary for City Comptroller, Queens City Councilman John Liu attempted to get from the 34-percent mark in a poll released on the morning of Sept. 14 to the 40 percent he needed to capture the party's nomination without a runoff.

His battle path last Monday was not unlike the one the fictional street gang The Warriors took in the 1979 movie of the same name: start in The Bronx, hit upper Manhattan and end in south Brooklyn.

Mr. Liu, who finished first in the primary Sept. 15 but with just 38 percent of the vote, necessitating a runoff Sept. 29 with Brooklyn Councilman David Yassky, was without question the labor-backed candidate. Like Councilman Bill de Blasio in the Public Advocate's race, he had the support of Transport Workers Union Local 100, the Uniformed Firefighters Association and the United Federation of Teachers. While meeting parents picking up children at P.S. 333 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Mr. Liu pointed to the UFT ground troops as the type of electoral muscle he needed to push towards the finish line. It was that, he said, as well as a mobilized base of the Asian-American community, that would set him apart from the competition: a candidate for working people.

'An Outsider's Perspective'

"The biggest distinction I have is that I spent most of my career in the private sector and specifically in finance," he said. "[My opponents] have spent most of their careers in politics and government. I have a more unique, outsider's perspective. I think people appreciate that."

Indeed, the Taiwanese immigrant and State University of New York at Binghamton graduate with a degree in mathematical physics made himself a niche as a Council dissident after eight years ago becoming the first Asian-Pacific American member. Never one to stand next to Council Speaker Christine Quinn during press conferences— unlike Mr. Yassky and the two colleagues from Queens who were eliminated Sept. 15, Melinda Katz and David Weprin—he vociferously blasted her attempts to provide financial transparency to the legislative body, calling them "phony reforms." He also criticized her, Mayor Bloomberg and fellow Council Members for extending term limits without a voter referendum.

While having no real statutory power over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as the Council's Transportation Committee Chair he used the position as what departing Local 100 President Roger Toussaint called a "bully pulpit" to highlight financial opaqueness and waste in the agency. A critic of Mayor Bloomberg's eightyear tenure, he has vowed to use his mathematical acumen to safeguard city pension funds if elected, and unlike Mr. Yassky and Mr. Bloomberg, he has not endorsed pension benefit reduction plans, such as the creation of Tier 5.

A Merry Mood

Primary night for Mr. Liu's campaign at the Grand Harmony restaurant in Chinatown started off in a celebratory mood even before polls closed. School-age volunteers covered in campaign stickers sat on the dance floor eating lo mein; public officials hammed it up with union representatives over Fatboy Slim's "The Rockefeller Skank" and Outkast's "Hey Ya."

State Sen. Bill Perkins, donning his trademark brown fedora, said he backed Mr. Liu because he reflected the city's diversity.

"He has a vision for the city that I think is extremely inclusive but at the same time what I would call progressive in terms of understanding of how to use the process to the benefit of the average person," Senator Perkins said. "He's trained to do what he's about to become."

The Harlem Senator added that Mr. Liu was breaking ground by running competitively even if he doesn't ultimately get elected.

"For his community, that's an empowering and inviting statement," he said.

Greater Say for Communities?

While at P.S. 333, Mr. Liu voiced confidence that he could win the support of both Bloomberg supporters and voters in Mr. Yassky's district. One of his rival's constituents asked Mr. Liu that afternoon about development projects in Brooklyn, in particular the controversial plan to build a professional basketball arena at Atlantic Yards. Mr. Liu said that he wanted to allow community boards and the City Council to have more say in approving such projects. The answer might have won him a vote. "He said he'll think about it," Mr. Liu said.

Hoarse and visibly tired on primary night, Mr. Liu avoided making any sweeping policy statements. The big challenge before him was that after a primary with a record-low voter turnout, his campaign needed to bring out voters again in two weeks' time.

After the candidate walked off stage, Senator Perkins revved up the crowd, invoking Muhammad Ali's habit of using rhyme to predict the round in which he would finish an opponent.

"Liu in two!"