John Liu’s State of the City speech Thursday was supposedly designed to educate the public about New York’s finances. So, what, exactly, explained the dance performance and violin trio that preceded the comptroller’s remarks onstage at John Jay College of Criminal Justice?
The answer is that the speech was a combination of the political and the practical — both an opportunity for Liu to lay out an agenda for his final year as comptroller, and a chance to burnish his credentials as a populist candidate for mayor.
The pomp and circumstance — and Liu’s meaty, if ambitious proposals — also put further distance between the comptroller and a federal investigation into his fundraising that threatened to torpedo his mayoral hopes last winter.
Thursday’s speech was in fact Liu’s second State of the City in just 10 months, after he delivered the first such address by a comptroller in recent memory in February.
With the comptroller widely assumed to be a mayoral candidate, the event affords Liu a legitimate platform to make his case to potential voters, said Doug Forand, a Democratic political consultant.
“He’s the comptroller. He’s the city’s chief fiscal officer. Something like this gives him an opportunity, on a citywide stage, to lay out a citywide fiscal agenda,” Forand said. “If you’re running for mayor, that’s what you want to be able to do, and so he’s trying to do it from a point of credibility.”
Liu floated a wide array of policy initiatives in his speech, but with one primary theme: shifting government’s focus away from what he characterized as special interests and big business, and toward the lower and middle classes.
His central proposal was restructuring corporate tax rates and subsidies to get rid of $500 million in loopholes, incentives, and exemptions that favor big, politically connected companies, and putting that money in the hands of small businesses.
Liu also called for the minimum wage to be raised to $11.50 an hour from its current rate of $7.25.
Good-government groups welcomed those ideas, but cautioned that the efficacy of any reforms would depend on details. Previous assistance to small businesses has sometimes gone to help companies that don’t need it, like financial firms, according to Bettina Damiani, project director at Good Jobs New York.
“We’re not talking about brokerage companies,” Damiani said of who ought to get the funds. “It’s the pizza guy. It’s a small business on the corner.”
Damiani also pointed out that while Liu would like to reel back incentives granted by the New York City Economic Development Corporation — an idea she supports — he doesn’t have the authority to do so.
“I don’t know anybody that would disagree that EDC needs more accountability and needs to be reined in,” Damiani said. “The problem is that the leverages to do that don’t really exist, unless you’re the mayor.”
Liu has a similar problem when it comes to raising the minimum wage, and to making changes to the corporate tax structure: both of those measures would need to be approved by state lawmakers in Albany.
Still, even if they’re no slam-dunk, Liu’s proposals position him toward a mayoral run, Forand said, with an appeal towards labor and working-class city residents.
Liu certainly extended no olive branches toward big business or financial interests, which are still looking for a candidate to coalesce behind, but that’s never been Liu’s constituency anyway.
“You can’t lose what you don’t have,” Forand said. “Why not just try to do a more populist appeal?”
For at least one seasoned observer, veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, the take-home message from Thursday’s address was clear.
“John Liu told everybody with that speech that he is running for mayor, that he’s not going anyplace,” Sheinkopf said. “The one thing you learn in New York public life is: never undersell John Liu. Pay attention to him. He’s not dead.”