John Liu on why taking on state Sen. Tony Avella is different this time

Then-Democratic mayoral candidate John Liu attends the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in Manhattan on June 9, 2013.
Then-Democratic mayoral candidate John Liu attends the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in Manhattan on June 9, 2013.
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John Liu

John Liu on why taking on state Sen. Tony Avella is different this time

The former New York City comptroller is reentering the political scene – but he won’t call it a comeback.
July 18, 2018

John Liu, the first Asian-American citywide elected official who served as New York City comptroller before becoming embroiled in a fundraising scandal, is attempting a political comeback. After losing both his 2013 bid for mayor and 2014 run for state Senate, he is making a second run for the 11th Senate District.

Liu is challenging state Sen. Tony Avella, a member of the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference, whom Liu previously faced in 2014, in the Democratic primary.

But he tells reporters not to call it a comeback. When asked if he considered this race a political comeback, Liu bluntly said, “No.” When asked if he cared to elaborate, Liu responded again, “No.”

Liu joined the race against Avella just days before the window closed to get on the ballot, taking on the mantle of progressive challenger after another Democratic candidate, John Duane, dropped out of the race. Liu said that he was “dismayed” by the lack of Democratic challengers to Avella, and he told representatives of progressive organizations that he would run “if and only if” they were able to mount a successful petition drive.

Organizations like True Blue New York, No IDC NY and Empire State Indivisible helped Liu gather the necessary 3,000 signatures. New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has also offered Liu his support.

All the former IDC members are now paying the primary price for breaking away from the mainline Democratic Party, giving Republicans de facto control of the state Senate.

Liu believes that the electoral terrain is different in 2018 than it was in 2014, due to increased progressive activism after what he calls the “cataclysmic election we saw in November 2016 at the national level.”

“People are coming to understand more clearly how the IDC has been disruptive and obstructive to progress in New York,” Liu said.

Unlike many progressive challengers to former IDC members, Liu is cautious about drawing parallels between his race for state Senate and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory in a slightly overlapping congressional district. “I would not necessarily translate everything that happened in Congressional District 14 to Senate District 11,” he said. “If you ask about the excitement and affirmation of possibilities, that particular election only accentuated all the good things that could happen.”

Liu did not mince words, however, when discussing whether previous controversy could hinder his campaign. In 2013, Liu’s mayoral candidacy was derailed by a scandal in which two of his former associates used straw donors to contribute to his campaign. These donations were reimbursed by others, and they were used in an attempt to gain matching funds from the city. The city Campaign Finance Board voted to fine Liu $26,000 in 2017. However, he denied any wrongdoing.

Liu remains undeterred by issues around his previous fundraising issues, and – echoing another prominent New York politician – has called the 2013 investigation into his campaign by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara a “witch hunt.”

“The controversy was about government overreach,” Liu told City & State. He added that after years of investigation, being wiretapped, and interviews with his supporters, the federal government has never charged him with anything. “I’m proud to say I’m the most thoroughly investigated candidate in New York City,” Liu said.

Liu, an amateur pilot, will also not be charged for violating New York City’s airspace regulations. He said that he had never flown over his district, as it is illegal for most pilots to fly over the city. When it was pointed out that he would never be able to see his district from above, Liu laughed.

“You can just go to Google Earth for that,” he said.

Correction: This article originally referred to Empire State Indivisible as Indivisible New York. 

Grace Segers
is City & State’s digital reporter. She writes daily content on New York City and New York state politics.