New York City Comptroller and mayoral candidate John Liu. (Photo: City Year/Flickr)
New York City Comptroller and Democratic mayoral candidate John Liu has nothing to say about Israel–at least on the campaign trail this year. In sharp contrast to his mayoral opponents–particularly Christine Quinn and Anthony Weiner–Liu was adamant about sticking to local issues in an interview last week with Mondoweiss.
“I am running for office in the city of New York for a city position, and I don’t opine on the international issues,” Liu told me outside Greenwich Village’s New School shortly after he spoke at a forum on food politics.
Asked for his reaction to both Quinn and Weiner making statements on whether the Palestinian West Bank was occupied by Israel, Liu replied by saying, “That’s their prerogative. I’m an immigrant from Asia. If I wanted to start opining on these issues, it would be never ending. And, so look, I’m running for office for municipal government in New York.”
The comments from Liu came shortly after Weiner gladly took the opportunity to air his pro-Israel message in a brief conversation with me. Israel is an “important ally” and a “democracy in an oasis of terrorist states and terrorist organizations,” said Weiner, whose campaign is now imperiled by renewed revelations of the candidate sending sexually explicit photos to a young woman over the Internet. Weiner, whose fundraising has been boosted by hawkish Zionists, has previously claimed that the West Bank is not occupied by Israel. And City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has said that the status of the West Bank is “disputed”–despite international law being crystal clear that the West Bank is under occupation by Israel.
Liu, who has staked out a progressive position in the race, is a long-shot for mayor. He is polling at 7 percent in the run-up to the Democratic primary in September, according to data from Quinnipiac University. That number puts him far behind Bill de Blasio, Bill Thompson, Quinn and Weiner.
While he stayed silent on Israel/Palestine last week, Liu was part of a group of New York City liberals who signed on to a letter expressing concern that Brooklyn College’s Political Science Department co-sponsored a panel on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in February. But at a mayoral forum dedicated to Muslim community issues held in May, Liu said that “it was a very quick letter, we were given very short time to do it, something that in hindsight I shouldn’t have signed, and that’s why we had the second letter to clarify our position.” The second letter the politicians signed on the Brooklyn College panel backtracked slightly on their original position.
Liu has also expressed more ardent support for Israel in the past. As Phan Nguyen reported for Mondoweiss, in November 2012, Liu attended a rally organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in support of the Israeli military’s assault on the Gaza Strip. He also traveled to Israel on the JCRC’s dime in 2010, and proclaimed his support for investing in Israel bonds.
In the interview last week, Liu also voiced his support of two police reform bills aimed at curbing the excesses of the New York Police Department. “I support the bills in general as a package, because I think that community policing is really the way to go,” he said.
The two bills would establish an inspector general for the police to investigate abuses and make it easier for residents to sue the police over racial profiling. The package of legislation has strong support from Black, Latino and Muslim communities in New York City, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed them yesterday. Still, both bills passed with enough support to override the veto, though Bloomberg has attempted to flip legislators’ votes.
If established, an inspector general could shine an unflattering light on the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program–a program Liu wants to end, a unique position in the Democratic primary race. “The idea that anybody could be surveilled upon by any part of government, the police or otherwise, for no reason other than their religion, offends the sensibilities and offends me as an American, and I would not allow it to continue,” he said.
Liu added that as mayor, he would end the controversial tenure of NYPD chief Ray Kelly, who has implemented the NYPD’s surveillance program targeting Muslims.
But Liu has also expressed support for Kelly taking over as head of the Department of Homeland Security. A campaign spokesperson told Capital’s Azi Paybarah that Liu thinks “Commissioner Kelly would make a fantastic Homeland Security Secretary.” While Liu told Mondoweiss that the decision on a new Homeland Security chief is “for the president to decide,” he added that “the NYPD chief is well-versed–necessarily so–on issues of homeland security, particularly as the city is on the front lines of terrorism.” The comments came as speculation grew that Kelly could be the new chief of the Homeland Security department.
After Janet Napolitano announced she was resigning from the department, Kelly’s name was floated as a potential replacement. President Obama praised Kelly in an interview last week by saying the NYPD chief had done an “extraordinary job” and that Kelly was “well qualified” to be head of the Homeland Security department.
But civil rights groups have mobilized quickly to try to quash the potential appointment. In a New York Times article that was part of a debate over Kelly’s appointment, lawyer Diala Shamas said that appointing Kelly to the position would “send a troubling message to American Muslims and others who have watched him erode their rights and ignore their voices in New York City.”
This post has been updated to include Liu’s support for the Israeli military’s assault on Gaza last year and his trip to Israel in 2010.