Made my first political donation for 2013 on Friday. No, not to Markey for Massachusetts, though that will come soon. I remember sending a donation to Markey when he first ran, I believe, and was happy when he ran. He would make a great Senator!
But I made my first political donation for 2013 to someone I have gotten to know pretty well since 2009 and has become a friend. And I hope he becomes the next mayor of NYC. My wife and I have had many a good conversation with him including some pretty in depth discussions about some legal problems he has had (I will discuss those somewhat below). I am referring to my friend, NYC Comptroller John Liu who intends to run for mayor in 2013.
My wife and I got an invitation to a fundraiser for John Liu. We hadn't seen him for some months and decided to go. It was in Brooklyn, so that was good, though not in our neighborhood. The fundraiser was in Bed-Sty nearby but a very different demographic, so it was interesting to see how enthusiastic the Bed-Sty crowd was for Liu.
We live in Park Slope and our main political connections are the Brownstone reform Democrats crowd, though that group is more diverse than they are often given credit for. My wife is on the board of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats (CBID), one of the most reform of the reform clubs and one that has fought corruption in Brooklyn for decades. I first met John Liu at a CBID endorsement meeting when he was running for Public Advocate. CBID is known for asking tough question and they grilled then City Councilman (from Queens) John Liu like they did any candidate. However, unlike most candidates John Liu seemed to accept and almost welcome the grilling. He didn't avoid questions and when he couldn't give us an answer he actually later came back to us to discuss the matter in great depth and attributed the development of some of his stands to those discussions. Very direct.
It struck me that in the race for Public Advocate where there were several good candidates at the time (the best candidate did NOT win that race) John Liu didn't stand out so much and his very analytical (he was trained as a scientist) and financial (he worked in banking) background was more appropriate to the Comptroller's office. I raised my hand and told him he should switch to the Comptroller's race.
A few days later he did just that and I arguably became the first person to publicly endorse him for Comptroller. I don't think my question changed his mind, but I do think the discussion with CBID was an extra push in a decision he was already considering.
And he has been a VERY active, excellent Comptroller.
My family campaigned with him in Brooklyn. We got to know John and some of his staff. We petitioned with him in Park Slope, the heart of his opponent, David Yassky's, district. We were struck by how approachable he was, how knowledgeable he was, and how, even in Brooklyn, this City Councilman from Queens was well known and respected. Dozens of people saw him, came up to him (most candidates have to approach voters rather than the other way around) and expressed gratitude to him for some of his previous community activism or for the job he was doing on the city council.
John Liu is among the smartest people I have known to run for office. He is also one of the hardest working and one of the ones most comfortable discussing issues with people. Quite honestly we were enthusiastic to support him for Comptroller and were thrilled when he won, becoming the first Asian American to hold a citywide office in NYC.
We also came to value his opinions and his friendship.
And when he first floated the idea of running for mayor we quickly supported him. More below.
The field for the 2013 mayor's race is a nice diverse one. At the fundraiser on Friday one host commented that he remembered when the only choices for mayor was one of the two white guys. Then it became a choice between the white guy and the minority. This year we have a diverse field that at least partly reflects the diversity of NYC. I don't know all the candidates well but I know some pretty well.
Next to John Liu I know Bill de Blasio best. He is among the best campaigners I know but is also one of the more corrupt politicians I personally know, though within Brooklyn politics perhaps he doesn't stand out so much compared with the likes of Vito Lopez, Carl Kruger and Dominic Recchia. But Bill de Blasio is mostly a shill for developers. My wife observes that he never takes a controversial stand that actually matters, though he is eager to give very moving speeches on matters he has little say over. He is popular and a formidable fundraiser. He has done next to nothing as Public Advocate, following in the footsteps of his very lackluster predecessor Betsy Gotbaum. Bill de Blasio's strong point is his close ties to labor, though again, he has himself been overheard saying that as a NYC politician you should just do what the developers say. It would be VERY hard for me to vote for Bill de Blasio. As a friend has said, we know him too well to support him. He comes off great but the more you know, the less you like.
Christine Quinn is well known in NYC and is Bloomberg's best buddy. She is something of Bloomberg's hand picked successor and as such is seen as something of a frontrunner. This sets up something of a perceived two way race between de Blasio and Quinn with her being the obvious insider and, I predict, de Blasio will present himself as the outsider and a crusader for progressive causes. Sadly, neither of them are reformers at heart and only progressive when it doesn't hurt Wall Street and developer interests. It would of course be pretty kick ass to have an openly lesbian mayor, but oddly I have, to date, seen a very lukewarm reaction to Quinn within the LGBT community, though that may be a sampling bias on my part. Quinn also played something of a leadership role during a spate of sexual assaults in NYC (largely ignored by Bloomberg, the police, and Bill de Blasio, the supposed Public Advocate). Quinn was one of several city council members who sponsored self defense classes for women (some of which my wife helped teach through her dojo) and I applaud her for it. But it is hard for me to support someone who was so solidly on board with Bloomberg's power grab for a third term. Both Bill de Blasio and John Liu opposed Bloomberg's third term, though some argue it was because it got in the way of their own ambitions. Maybe, but nevertheless, Quinn's support of Bloomberg's most dictatorial tactics is a mark against her. She also was up to her eyeballs in the discretionary spending scandals, but those seem to have blown over. I'd have to go back but I am pretty sure that de Blasio and Liu didn't seem as bad in the discretionary spending scandal. ALL city council members have a discretionary spending budget, but many spend it on real programs. Quinn allowed a lot of shadow organizations (the one I am most familiar with was di Brienza's infamous youth sports organization that no one seemed to have done any sports with but which paid a salary to some of his family and friends). I am not aware of any shady discretionary spending by de Blasio or Liu, though there is a lot that went on in that scandal that hasn't been well covered, so I could be wrong there.
I supported Bill Thompson when he last ran for mayor, but I have to say no one was enthusiastic when he was running. It was extremely hard to get voters to care at all about him and I don't think he will do much better this time around. I think matched against such excellent campaigners as Bill de Blasio and John Liu, Thompson doesn't have much of a chance in my opinion. But a lot can happen. It is even possible he learned a lot from his last run.
I also had some interaction with Scott Stringer but he has dropped out.
And then there is John Liu. Without a doubt I considered him the best candidate. Excellent campaigner, possibly the broadest base of support (though not necessarily the largest), the smartest of the lot, and probably the most progressive of the lot. He is an immigrant (moving to NYC from Taiwan when 5 years old) and though that may work against him in many parts of America, in NYC it is something people respect. Working hard as an immigrant he took full advantage of the public school system. He worked hard to get where he is and it shows both in his respect for the working class but also in his determination.
On social policy all of them are probably pretty close. How far they will push things is how they will most differ. Bill de Blasio will talk the loudest about progressive issues but John Liu is the one who is most activist about progressive issues. Quinn and Thompson are more the triangulating types and aren't really as likely to rock the boat. But fundamentally all of them are pretty good on social issues. It is more on economic issues where they differ. Bill de Blasio and Christine Quinn are the most likely choices of the corporate and wealthy interests. Thompson and Liu are more the choice of the working and middle class, all else being equal...but in NYC regional and demographic factors can play a huge role...bigger than even social and economic issues.
A fellow NYC blogger, Rock Hackshaw, introduced me to the Human Rights Project score card of NYC Council members. The scorecard is VERY detailed and I can't do it justice in a short comment. They cover homeless issues, race issues, gender issues including LGBT issues, poverty, etc. Among the WORST rated council members for 2011 is Chirstine Quinn. She gets a miserable 12% rating. However, to compare Quinn with two of her opponents who have been city council members, de Blasio and John Liu, we have to go back to 2008 and 2009 when all three were in the City Council. Looking at their overall scores (again, keep in mind the report goes into considerable detail and I am just looking at overall score):
Christine Quinn: a mediocre 45% average score in 2008 and got a "C" for 2009.
Bill de Blasio: a mediocre 58% average score in 2008 (ranked 11th highest scoring council member) and a 2009 rating of "B" (8th highest scoring council member so made the top 10 list that year).
John Liu: an 61% score in 2008 (8th highest scoring council member so on the top ten list) and a 2009 rating of "A" (4th highest scoring council member, so also on the top ten list).
So Liu comes off best both years, de Blasio second and Quinn bottom. I like using score cards like this to balance my own personal impressions. For example, my current City Councilmember, Brad Lander, comes off pretty bad on the ground and he and I have butted heads. However, for 2011 (the same year Quinn got a 12%) Brad Lander gets a very good 74%. When ratings from organizations like this agree with my personal impressions it confirms at least some of my impressions. However, when they go against my impression, I am willing to reassess my impressions at least to some degree. By the way, two council members I particularly like, Tish James and Jumaane Williams both do even better than Brad (over 85%).
I should note that the best ranked Republican (Halloran) got only 22% in 2011 and all other Republicans got 10-15% range (similar to Quinn).
But back to the mayoral field.
Bill de Blasio and Quinn will likely get the best fundraising and are the candidates that I think Wall Street and developers are going to be most comfortable with. Bill de Blasio will draw a lot of Brooklyn votes including some of the highest turnout districts in the city unless Liu or Quinn can get some of those votes. Quinn, despite what I see as lukewarm support, may well be able to galvanize a lot of LGBT and women voters because having a strong woman candidate and strong LGBT candidate is a pretty great thing. Given that Bloomberg's dictatorial ways didn't turn off that many New Yorker's maybe she can ride on the money and pseudo-incumbency that Bloomberg can give her. It is assumed that Bill Thompson will poll well in black neighborhoods. I am not so sure. John Liu does well in those neighborhoods himself. And Liu has extremely strong support in the Asian-American communities and in Queens.
Which still leaves a lot for demographic maneuvering that could shake things up.
I would put John Liu's chances high if it wasn't for a scandal surrounding a fundraiser who helped his campaign, Oliver Pan. This is a scandal surrounding "bundling," a fundraising technique that tries to slip around campaign finance laws. Often it is legal if done right even though it certainly subverts the spirit of the law. Every candidate uses bundlers these days if they are running for a major office and want any chance of winning. Problem is Oliver Pan seems to have overstepped legality. It is as if you hire a contractor to work on your building and he does illegal work. His actions reflect on you and Oliver Pan's actions are reflecting poorly on John Liu. And since Liu is the candidate Wall Street and the corporate world would least like to see as mayor, the press owned by that corporate world is doing their best to claim that Liu is corrupt.
Let me tell you about the relationship the Central Brooklyn Democrats had with Liu's campaign in 2009. Of all the candidates CBID dealt with, everyone I have talked to at CBID was at the time impressed with how careful the Liu campaign was to scrutinize every donation, every check and make sure it was legit. I have never seen such a careful campaign, at least when working directly with their campaign. I cannot speak towards "bundlers" and did not interact with any. But the Liu campaign ran the tightest ship we saw when it came to campaign finances laws.
Were they being careful with us but not with other people they worked with? I don't know obviously, but I don't get that feeling.
Also, John Liu has been extremely open with my wife and me about the scandal. We have had several detailed discussions about it and we never felt he was evasive or acting guilty. He has emphasized he welcomes the investigation partly because he wants his innocence proven but also because if anyone in his campaign DID do something wrong (and I don't think he believes they did) he wants to know it.
My wife feels with or without the scandal, in the arena of Brooklyn politics Liu is probably cleaner than any of the other candidates...or at least as clean. We both feel the scandal was isolated, possibly only involving the one bundler, and does not reflect on the the integrity of John Liu himself. Now we are biased because we know him, but we also know him well enough to have what we think is a good sense of his integrity.
True or not, does the scandal sink his campaign? With many politicians I would say that it does. But John Liu is a fighter. At no point did this scandal seem to slow down his dedication to his job as Comptroller nor his determination to run for mayor. Although I know many reformers who believe he is innocent but are waiting to see how the scandal plays out before supporting him, in Bed-Sty we saw a very strong, very determined support. And many of the people I talked to at that event had come to know John through his community activism and supported him because they trusted him to work for a stronger, more equitable NYC. One fairly new supporter said that of all the candidates for mayor John Liu was the only one he heard giving specific ways in which he would help NYC, rather than just spouting typical platitudes. The most popular platform Liu elaborated on was shifting some of the city's support away from the larger Wall Street firms and helping small businesses instead. He also spoke against Bloomberg's approach to reforming the schools (something most teachers and parents will agree with Liu on!) and discussed some further reforms he thinks are needed. While I agree that Liu gives more details about his plans, in general I don't get those details from his speeches so much as in personal discussions and small group discussions, the areas Liu excels the most.
So at a bare minimum I consider John Liu the best candidate in the current pool of candidates though in some ways that is damning with faint praise. NONE of the candidates are untainted by scandal, and ALL are politicians with political ambitions and the ability to tell a crowd what they want to hear. In looking more cynically at the field, John Liu to my mind has the LEAST of the bad qualities NYC politicians are known for.
On a more optimistic note my wife and I genuinely think John Liu is a damned good candidate who would make an excellent mayor for the most New Yorkers. NYC politics moves fast and gets rough. Quinn and de Blasio are likely to be seen as the front runners, Bill Thompson as the has been, John Liu as the person who had a chance but doesn't anymore, and everyone else will be mostly ignored. But a lot can happen and though I think this is the most likely scenario, I actually think there will be lots of surprises and the final outcome may be surprising. And one alternate outcome is John Liu makes a come back. If anyone can it is him.