Facing Onslaught of Negative Press, Comptroller John Liu Delivers Policy Speech

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Sam Levin
Comptroller John Liu at his State of the City speech.
Bad timing for Comptroller John Liu.

Yesterday, news broke that Xing Wu Pan, a fundraiser for the campaign of Liu -- a likely mayoral candidate -- was indicted on federal wire fraud charges.

The Daily News also dug deeper into the departure of Liu's top deputy, who allegedly was clashing with the comptroller's chief campaign bundler.

All this, a day before Liu delivered his State of the City speech -- a move seen as an effort to move away from the negative publicity and focus on citywide policy issues that could set the groundwork for his mayoral campaign.

The comptroller usually doesn't make this kind of a speech. But two of his potential rivals in the mayoral race -- Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn -- had their chance earlier this year.

So this morning, at City College's campus in Harlem, Liu jumped on the "State-of" bandwagon, and delivered his own speech -- making no mention of the ongoing campaign finance controversies.

After a late start -- perhaps Liu's team was waiting to fill as many seats as possible -- the comptroller took the stage at Aaron Davis Hall, addressing a pretty packed house. (Potential rivals Christine Quinn and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio did not attend).

His speech followed two introductions that emphasized education -- first from Lisa Coico, the president of City College and second from Geronimo Miranda, a 15-year-old student from Wadleigh Secondary School, which Liu has supported in the school closure fights.

(There was also an elaborate dragon dance and an intense gospel choir performance before Liu spoke).

Before he got to his policy talk, he took a moment to talk Linsanity.

"Let me give a shout-out to someone who is not here in body, but is on everybody's mind. The guy who's been carrying the Knicks ... Jeremy Lin, what a guy!" he said, to loud applause. "The guy gets great headlines in the New York Post. I gotta get some tips from him."

Touche.

Liu started his speech with his personal immigration story that brought him from Taiwan to the United States when he was five years old and onward to Bronx High School of Science.

"People still come here, from all over the world, hungering for those same opportunities," he said.

He went on to note the nearly $1 billion his office has saved over the last two years and laid out his plan to battle unemployment, increase oversight of the city's finances, assist small businesses, and increase equity in the city.

He proposed taking advantage of low interest rates to accelerate capital construction projects -- which he said would help stimulate the economy and create 15,000 jobs.

"Today, the reality is more than 350,000 New Yorkers languish in unemployment...Is it any wonder why people occupy parks, clamoring for a better economic plan, when they are left jobless year after year?" he said, later adding, "Economic recovery is not our only objective -- so is economic equality."

He laid out a four-tiered plan to cut waste, including a waste hotline number, 212-NO-WASTE ("that's 212-N-O-W-A-S-T-E," he said, sounding infomercial-y). He also proposed Checkbook 2.0, a website that would give the public access to city agency budgets and would help make New York City the most financially transparent government in the country, he said.

He advocated a $1 billion increase in the city's pension funds' economically-targeted investments, which he said would also help with job creation.

Later, earning him loud applause, he added, "The discussion of pensions today is alarmingly one-sided...Worse yet, the public scapegoating of our public employees seems to be relentless. It's just silly to blame our police officers, firefighters, teachers, and other city employees for what happened during the recession." (Seemed to echo a sentiment he expressed to Runnin' Scared after the mayor's State of the City speech last month).

He laid out more economic ideas to help the city's recovery and ended with some mayoral-sounding education talk. "Let's make New York City the education capital of the world. Let's attract universities and colleges from across the country and the globe to open up facilities and campuses here," he said, proposing a "Mayor's Office of Colleges & Universities."

After his speech ended -- and he rushed backstage possibly away from reporters who might have bombarded him with questions about the indictment -- Runnin' Scared caught up with Scott Stringer, the potential mayoral rival who did attend the speech.

(Update: A representative from Liu's office points out to us that the comptroller did end up greeting attendees in the lobby after the speech, which we apparently missed).

"It was good to hear from the comptroller about his view of the economic condition of the city. I thought he laid out some important issues that this city faces...I'm very pleased that he embraced our proposal for middle class tax cut and middle class economic relief. You can't do this alone. We need to build a broad coalition."

After Runnin' Scared asked Stringer if he thought the comptroller should be making this kind of policy speech, he said, "I think it's important that we hear from many voices in the city. We need to hear from all the stakeholders who play a role in this government. So whether it's a council speaker speech or a mayor speech or a borough president speech, why not have a comptroller speech?" he said.

[SamTLevin / @SamTLevin]

Go to Runnin' Scared for all our latest news coverage.

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