John Liu Likely to Erase Big Poll Deficit in NYC Mayor's Race

As the New York City mayoral race kicks off John Liu is running a distant fourth, with less than a quarter of the support held by front-runner Christine Quinn, the speaker of the city council. He’s got her just where he wants her.

As of late February Liu, the city’s comptroller, enjoyed the support of only 9% of the city’s Democrat residents in the race to succeed three-term mayor Michael Bloomberg. That’s less than the 11.8% of the city’s population comprising Asian Americans. It’s less than the 14% pulled by public advocate Bill de Blasio and 11% by former comptroller Bill Thompson who had run against Bloomberg in 2009. It’s also less than a quarter of the 37% pulled by three-term City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Adding to Liu’s hurdle is a federal probe into his campaign’s alleged funneling of contributions through straw donors to get around campaign contribution limits. The trial against his campaign treasurer and a major donor is set to begin on April 15. Liu himself hasn’t been charged with wrongdoing, but the ongoing investigation is seen as having had a negative impact both on his image and his ability to raise money.

“Three years of investigating,” Liu complained at a forum for mayoral candidates in late February. “They wiretapped my phones for 18 months. They reviewed a million documents and messages. They interrogated thousands of my supporters. And yet, what do they have to show for it? It’s time to put up or shut up already. Because I have an election to win!”

Before the FBI probe was leaked last year Liu was the clear leader in campaign fundraising with about a million dollars at a time when his rivals hadn’t yet begun raising money in earnest. Now with just around $2 million, Liu is in fourth place behind Quinn with $5.6 million, de Blasio with $2.65 mil., and Thompson with over $2 mil.

Liu is also dogged by the suspicion kept alive by persistent and pesky reports in the Daily News and the NY Post that he had exaggerated his hardscrabble childhood to paint himself into the city’s working class.

During his successful 2009 dark-horse campaign to become city comptroller, Liu had spoken of his mother’s work in a sweatshop and his own work alongside her as a child to help the family make ends meet. His mother shared a different recollection with a reporter, saying that rather than working inside a sweatshop she took piecework home so she could keep an eye on her little son John.

Whether Liu’s mother actually worked inside a sweatshop or took piecework home is immaterial to the point of Liu’s story, of course — and was shrugged off by the voters. The discrepancy was most likely an innocent flaw in a childhood memory or possibly an incomplete recollection on the part of his aging mother. The fact that the biased local papers keep trying to revive it in an effort at stamping a scarlet “L” on Liu’s forehead is more a measure of their desperation at finding flaws than its significance to Liu’s character.

The people most affected by the media stories appear to be New York City media pundits themselves. They have already virtually written off Liu’s mayoral campaign. They apparently have poor memories. In late August of 2009, just two weeks before the democratic primary — the main event in a heavily democratic city — Liu had only 16% voter support according to the Quinnipiac poll. In the primary he ended up getting 38% of the votes to set up a two-man runoff against second-place votegetter David Yassky. Liu’s main edge came from carrying his home borough Queens (with a population of 2,272.771) and the largely Latino and Black Bronx (1,408,473) while Yassky carried Manhattan.

Despite the recent negative media coverage Liu still retains the advantages that led to his 2009 win — and he’s had four more years of practice exploiting them.

A key Liu advantage is the financial crisis that has amplified the vast gulf between the city’s few hundred thousand mostly White haves and its eight million mostly minority have-nots. During his two terms on the city council between 2001 and 2009 Liu had carved out an image as the loudmouthed champion of the city’s vast ethnic underclass comprising Hispanics (27.5% — including all races), Blacks (25.1%) and Asians (11.8%). They add up to well over half of the city’s population, while Whites make up just 44.6%.

Amplifying Liu’s edge as the election’s only racial minority candidate is the fact that many of the Whites are registered Republicans and independents, reducing their share of likely Democratic primary voters. Whites tend to vote at a somewhat higher rate than minorities, but they’re too small a minority among Democrats to hold sway against the pervasive minority sentiment that the city’s White elite — many of whom work in the financial sector — have ridden roughshod over working class pensions, rights, opportunities and dignity.

Liu has already begun exploiting minority resentment by positioning himself as the only Democratic candidate to call for an end to the city’s controversial policy of letting police stop and frisk random pedestrians. De Blasio too has been vocal in criticizing the policy. But like the other candidates, he is loathe to appear soft on crime and is calling for changes to the policy rather than an outright ban.

Liu has spoken out passionately that the practice constitutes an assault on the dignity of minorities, calling for a “city where you don’t have to worry about being stopped and frisked simply because you happen to be the wrong color.”

That sentiment is likely to resonate with the city’s Black and Hispanic communities who have been disproportionately targeted by the stop-and-frisk policy.

Liu has also continued his assault on the city’s fatcats by decrying their efforts to perpetuate policies that allow them to hog the wealth.

“New York City needs to be one city where everyone gets a fair wage and a fair shot,” he said in a recent campaign video. “One city where we take care of the needy and take on the greedy.”

At the moment White Democrat support is hogged by Quinn, a lesbian who has proven herself a highly effective speaker of a notoriously unruly city council. She is popular in Manhattan and Brooklyn. She’s very conscious of her need to cultivate the White vote. She is the only Democrat mayoral candidate to come out against city legislation requiring employers to pay women on maternity leave.

Being a member of the gay and lesbian community gives her some bona fides as a nominal minority, but in New York City, she’s still seen more as a member of the White elite than a downtrodden minority. What’s more, her orientation isn’t a positive among a large percentage of the city’s Hispanics who tend to be catholics, or Blacks, many of whom are devout churchgoers.

Another major Quinn drawback is a reputation for frequently losing her hairtrigger temper. Her temper has become legendary. It has frightened and alienated former staffers and city council rivals. Despite a reputation for having the ability to disarm with her charm, her explosive temper can sometimes carry her too far, creating a significant possibility of a meltdown, especially in a race for an office that’s supposed to embody noblesse oblige rather than neighborhood bully.

Liu, on the other hand, is known to stay as cool as cucumber under pressure. He also has a knack for transmutating anger not into explosions of four-letter words like Quinn but hard, colorful phrases that capture the frustrations of New York’s working people. During his various earlier campaign he has demonstrated a level of rhetorical genius most Americans have come to associate with President Obama.

Ultimately, that verbal talent was the asset that let Liu more than double his support during the final two weeks of the 2009 comptroller’s race primary. If he can do that in this year’s mayoral race, he is likely to earn himself at least a slot in a runoff against Quinn. The outcome of that race is predetermined by the city’s yawning gulf between the haves and the have-nots, as well as by Liu’s huge temperamental edge.