DOWNTOWN — Sitting at Abella's restaurant near City Hall on Monday, and at times visibly frustrated, John Liu fumed over the effect the FBI’s investigation has had on his campaign.
For months now, Comptroller Liu has struggled to break into double digits in the polls as the residual effect of a long-standing federal investigation into his campaign fundraising practices, first for council and then for comptroller, has taken its toll.
“I get marginalized more and more by the media, which then drives the poll numbers, which then drives more marginalization in the mainstream media,” he said, working his way through a salami, turkey and ham sandwich. “It’s been a year and a half of getting my teeth kicked in by the media reports on this situation."
Add to this the reemergence of Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer, and it’s easy to understand Liu’s frustration, as well as the difficulty he’s had gaining traction in a race he was once considered an early frontrunner.
But Liu remains, in spite of it all, confident and highly visible on the campaign trail.
“Politics is a rough game, and I accept that, but, in terms of viability, I would have packed up shop a long time ago if I didn't think we had a winning campaign,” he said.
A big part of his optimism comes from what he believes is the undercounting of his Asian base — in the polls and in the political miscalculations of his rivals.
“I’m in no way suggesting I’m going to rely only on the Asian vote,” Liu said, “but that's a significant part of my base that's absent in these poll results."
Despite his difficulties in the polls, Liu has remained an active antagonist to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Most recently, Liu’s rejection of a homeless services contract turned into a political battle after the mayor said he would sue Liu to get the contract approved.
A representative from the mayor's press office reportedly cast the contract rejection as Liu playing politics.
“You think this is the first time the mayor's threatened to sue me?” Liu said, responding to the mayor’s lawsuit. “They've threatened repeatedly over the last three-and-a-half years. So why now? Who's playing politics?”
Liu said he’s proud of the aggressive contract review he says he’s taken as comptroller. He pointed to the rejection of contracts connected to the mayor’s CityTime debacle to defend his most recent contract action.
“I’ve raised the level of scrutiny on contracts many times over and we have saved billions of dollars because of this extra scrutiny we've put on our contracts,” he said.
The Democratic primary to replace Liu, once assumed to be a given for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, has become suddenly competitive after former Gov. Eliot Spitzer entered the race earlier this month. So far, Liu said he’s been far from impressed with Spitzer.
“I’m happy that there's a primary. I think voters should always have a choice,” he said. “I wish the alternate choice to Stringer would be someone other than Spitzer.”
Liu said he believed the office of comptroller needed “someone with upmost integrity” before comparing his own situation with that of Spitzer, who resigned from office after he was discovered sleeping with prostitutes.
“People are going to make snide comments about me? I've only been accused, with no substantiation, and my name's been dragged through the mud by the feds,” Liu said. “As far Eliot goes, he broke the law — he broke the law in a bad way, and what price has he paid?”
Liu also called into question Spitzer’s understanding of the position of comptroller. The former governor has said repeatedly that he hopes to do for the comptroller’s office what he did for the state attorney general’s office. Of particular interest to Spitzer is the comptroller’s influence, as the steward of the city’s multi-billion dollar pension funds, on Wall Street.
“It doesn't seem like he knows all the responsibilities of the office,” Liu said. “The shareholder activism [and] corporate governance…is an important responsibility and one that I'm proud to have taken to new heights. But in the grand scheme of the office's responsibilities, it is a relatively small piece of the pie.”
Liu noted that of the 750 members of his staff, only five were assigned to deal with shareholder activism and corporate governance.
In the wake of the FBI investigation and his struggles in the polls, it’s reasonable to wonder if Liu didn’t have some regret not just running for reelection as comptroller. He said the thought never crossed his mind.
“I have no regrets,” he said.