Liu’s manic out-of-office schedule—six events is a light day—also boosts his visibility. The short, sturdy 44-year-old has an intuitive connection with people, whether he is visiting an after-school program for teens or a meeting of black ministers. Part of this appeal is his biography: He’s the hardworking son of Taiwanese immigrants. Part is Liu’s willingness to speak bluntly. Ask him about Occupy Wall Street and Liu says, “This is how revolutions get started. It’s the overall frustration, not just with the economy but with the widening wealth gaps, which I think is a huge problem, the chronic unemployment, and the finger-pointing that goes on. I’ve thought about going down to visit, but I get the sense that they’re also protesting me. That I’m not doing enough. So I think it might be disingenuous for me to go down there.” Liu has tangled, frequently and caustically, with Bloomberg, over the CityTime scandal and expensive contracts for consultants, though last week he and the mayor teamed up to announce a significant restructuring of the city’s pension-investment system. “Bringing more accountability to the school system was a good thing, in the early years of Bloomberg,” Liu says. “Unfortunately, in the later years, it became all about spinning the numbers. I’m not campaigning now. But the sense I get is that people are demanding change. And that is only accentuated by a persistent sentiment that there should not have been a third term, that the law should not have been altered. Everywhere you go, when that topic comes up, people start shaking their heads.”
Voters claim they want a mayor who empathizes—but we’ve elected a take-no-shit candidate five times in a row.
It’s a fine line, though, between spontaneity and sloppiness. While running for comptroller, Liu embellished the hardships of his Taiwanese immigrant parents until the Daily News quoted his parents contradicting the tale. Four days after Liu’s swing through the Bronx, a Times front-page story describes how multiple contributors to Liu’s campaign account either couldn’t be located or didn’t appear to exist; many donated in multiples of eight, a lucky number in Chinese culture. The comptroller promised to clean up any mistakes. The episode wasn’t surprising to political insiders, who have long been rankled by Liu’s mercurial behavior. “But don’t confuse what the insiders say with what the broader electorate sees in him, aspirationally,” one Democratic consultant says. “He represents something that is truly New York, and it’s a story that’s very strong in a Democratic primary.” Liu keeps pushing ahead; one recent night, he dashed from an awards ceremony for Irish labor leaders at the South Street Seaport to another inside the Soho headquarters of SEIU 32BJ, the maintenance workers and doormen’s union whose members are mostly black and Latino, and then on to Chinatown, where he spoke to more than 1,000 immigrants from the Fujian province. It was a journey from New York’s past to its future; Liu is part of that emergence, even if his lapses prevent him from capitalizing on it in 2013.
Liu’s stumbles are a huge gift to Bill de Blasio. Union support helped both gain citywide office in 2009, with De Blasio winning the public advocate’s job. Pivotal players like DC 37, which represents thousands of civil-service workers, and SEIU 1199 probably won’t be torn between the two men in 2013 if Liu’s troubles continue. But no one sees those angles, and a thousand more, better than De Blasio himself. He learned his craft as an aide to Mayor David Dinkins in City Hall and Andrew Cuomo at HUD and as campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s victorious 2000 run for the U.S. Senate in New York. The next year, De Blasio moved from operative to principal as a city councilman from Park Slope. In 2008, he was one of the loudest City Council voices opposing Bloomberg’s term-limit extension, which became his springboard to winning the 2009 public advocate’s race. De Blasio, at six-foot-five, isn’t too tall to be mayor, by the classic standards of Jimmy Breslin: He has two public-school kids and is at ease in the city’s grittier neighborhoods. Whether De Blasio is too clever is another matter. “At the level of being a political pro, he’s Andrew Cuomo–esque,” says a prominent strategist who knows De Blasio well. “It’s all just chess moves, all day long, every day.”
Yet at this early point in the campaign De Blasio is able to offer the most comprehensive progressive critique of Bloomberg’s legacy. “I think there’s a tremendous desire for an end of the imperial mayoralty,” he says over a salad one October afternoon. “I think the public wants to feel their government is more connected to them.Bloomberg claimed to be staying for the third term to work on the city economy and protect us from the bad national and international economic picture. I will give him credit for capable management of the budget, although I don’t agree with some of the specific decisions. But I see very little that he has done, in terms of economic policy, to maximize job creation in any meaningful way, or to help and protect small businesses that create jobs. And he has been tone-deaf to the growing class disparity in the city. I think a big question for this next era of the city is, how are we going to move forward but not act like anyone has a corner on the market in ideas and can’t be questioned? This last year has felt stuck in a previous era, where you didn’t question elected officials. The fact that the mayor won’t say where he goes on weekends—come on! The president of the United States will say and the mayor won’t?”