John Liu: Defender Of Tradition


If elected mayor, Comptroller John Liu would push for more city aid to parochial schools and put an end to stop-and-frisk and the surveillance of mosques, he told The Jewish Week.

He would also defer to rabbis when it comes to a controversial, potentially life-threatening circumcision procedure rather than try to regulate it.

Liu has become one of the most ardent defenders in the Democratic primary of metzitza b’peh (MbP), a procedure the Board of Health believes exposes infants to the risk of herpes infection. He has blasted Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a bully for imposing a consent decree on mohelim without any public discussion.

“It should be left to the rabbis,” the former councilman and the first Asian-American official elected citywide in New York told The Jewish Week in the interview, part of a series on the mayoral hopefuls.

In a round of questioning on the larger issue of government and public health that surrounds the controversy, Liu seemed to suggest that public opinion, rather than medical information, should determine whether something is regulated.

When asked how the city’s action was different than protecting children from the dangers of lead paint in schools or housing, Liu said in the latter case outrage was directed against makers of lead paint, while in this case there is outcry not against MbP but against regulating it. “People seem to be incensed about what the board has done,” he said.

“It seems as if this administration knows better than anybody else and did so without even asking, without consultation,” Liu alleged.

(Bloomberg held meetings with Orthodox leaders in 2005 and last year to discuss the issue, and the Board of Health held an open comment session prior to its vote on the consent decree.)

“How many people know about these public comment hearings?” Liu asked.

“The Board of Health is not the arbiter of everything right or wrong on an issue like this. They should have done far greater outreach … I said from the get-go this is something I would defer to rabbis about.”

Asked if commitment to tradition in his culture informed his view on this matter, Liu said “Yes, there is a connection. For example, acupuncture in some East Asian remedies had long been viewed with suspicion by Western medicine.”

Liu, who professes his fondness for knaidels, rugelach and other Jewish food, says his campaign has taken him to rabbis on Manhattan’s East and West Sides as well as in Queens, not just to those in chasidic neighborhoods. He acknowledged that “clearly there is a diversity of opinion here [on the MbP issue]. Some Jews characterize [MbP] as, in their words, ‘barbaric.’ For the Orthodox it’s a very important issue. It has more to do with what extent does government interfere with a practice that has been around for thousands of years.”

He observed that “the Jewish community is in many ways like the Chinese community; not homogeneous by any stretch of the imagination. There is a diversity of thought and philosophy, diversity of languages and dialects, diversity of political spectrum, and there’s a diversity of taste for food. I don’t label or characterize Jews in any way.”

Yet it seems to be the ultra-Orthodox, with their sought-after and reliable voting bloc that Liu is targeting by taking such a strong stance on MbP, while other candidates have taken a more moderate position (though still bashing Bloomberg.)

“There is no motive for his position other than self-interest,” said William Helmreich, a professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. “It doesn’t pass the test of having hard-and-fast facts. He says it should be left to rabbis, when the city’s public health department disagrees?”

Liu denied that he is trying to lock in the Orthodox vote as part of a coalition with his Asian-American base. “I have never run campaigns based on an ethnic coalition,” he said.

Asked who advises him on Jewish issues, Liu mentioned current state Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, whom Liu appointed deputy comptroller in 2009. (Felder told The Jewish Week he’s not yet supporting any mayoral candidate.) Liu added, “I have my share of rabbis, but I don’t necessarily want to give them up before the election.”

Notable Jewish donors to Liu listed by the Campaign Finance Board include Victor Kovner, former corporation counsel under Mayor David Dinkins; David Steinhardt, an investor and son of Birthright Israel philanthropist Michael Steinhardt; Yidel Pearlstein, chairman of Borough Park’s Community Board 12; and Democrat City Council candidates Noah Gotbaum (West Side) and Austin Shafran (Queens).

Discussing other topics, the comptroller expressed his opposition to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy partly in financial terms, saying it costs the city roughly $500 per stop in police manpower. (Liu admitted the figure was a guesstimate.) “For every thousand stops you get one gun, or one-tenth of 1 percent … If there are 1,000 stops that costs the city a half-million dollars. Do you know how many guns you can get off the streets for that money in a gun buyback program?”

He also said stop-and-frisk has “significantly divided communities from the police, so it is more difficult for police to do their job. When police work hand-in-hand with the community members, people have a general idea of what places you avoid, the corners you avoid, and you can point the police to where the problems are … let’s restore that trust.”

[UPDATE: Following the landmark legislation enacted by the City Council early Thursday morning that would create an inspector general and make it easier for citizens to claim discrimination via racial profiling, Liu released this statement:

“Discriminatory police tactics are flat-out wrong, and the Council’s vote today to tighten racial profiling laws and expand protections for LGBTQ and immigrant New Yorkers is welcome and necessary. These protections are especially needed in light of NYPD’s continued use of stop and frisk.]

Liu’s campaign hit an early pitfall when in 2009 federal investigators probed illegal bundling and straw donors in his fundraising operation that bypassed contribution limits. Two campaign workers were convicted of wire fraud charges. Liu himself, though widely investigated by the feds, has never been accused of wrongdoing thought prosecutors alleged he knew what was going on.

When asked why the public should have confidence in his appointments as mayor given the behavior of his campaign staff, Liu responded, “I have had the privilege of serving as city comptroller, and I lead 750 professionals in the office, have appointed eight deputy comptrollers … no one has criticized my management of these 750 professionals.”

He said the improper donations only amounted to $11,200 out of over $3.5 million.

On the topic of taxpayer funding for private schools, Liu said, “We should not divert any resources away from public schools in the form of vouchers for private schools, but there are support services we can and should continue to provide to ensure that students have the circumstances to have a solid education … including school nurses, transportation and special instruction for special needs.” He declined to cite programs not currently being offered that he would consider as mayor.

“To the extent that new needs arise, the city should provide them,” he said.

Asked how he would ensure the city remains vigilant against the threat of terror attacks, Liu said, “The NYPD has a deep well of skills and accumulated knowledge. I would support and nurture that, albeit with some changes.” Of the NYPD’s controversial efforts to infiltrate Islamic communities and mosques, even outside the five boroughs, Liu said, “I would discontinue it altogether. I cannot reconcile monitoring certain people for no reason other than their religion with the freedom of religion we have here in America.”

He said the surveillance program “in six years has not resulted in one single lead.”

The NYPD’s spokesman, Paul Browne, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment in time for publication.

Liu said he would support continued divestment of the city’s pension funds from companies that do business with Iran, but would resist any boycott efforts against Israel.

“I have had the opportunity to travel to Israel as comptroller and see some of the positive effects we have been able to have in Israel with some of our investments,” he said.

Liu’s average in seven public opinion polls recently analyzed by The New York Times is 9.4 percent, trailing former Comptroller William Thompson (11.7 percent); Public Advocate Bill de Blasio (12.6 percent), former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (15 percent) and Council Speaker Christine Quinn at 32.1 percent. Liu has raised $3.4 million in campaign contributions, with $1.9 million on hand.

Helmreich, the sociology professor and author of a forthcoming book on city neighborhoods, “The New York Nobody Knows,” said Liu faces a hurdle in vying to succeed Bloomberg, a billionaire who financed his own campaigns.

“Whatever else people say about him, Bloomberg has been the epitome of a mayor who is not corruptible by money or by special interests,” said Helmreich. “This sets the bar much higher. People who are not fans of Liu to begin with aren’t going to favorably contrast Bloomberg’s standing to his.”

Helmreich added that cobbling together the city’s 1 million-strong Asian vote into a uniform bloc won’t be easy. “A lot of them are Indians, Bangladeshi, Pakistanis and have nothing in common with East Asians.”