Decision '09: Primary Profiles

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With two major citywide races and one Manhattan-wide contest this September, Democratic primary voters could be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed. On primary day, a total of 11 candidates will vie for three high-profile positions: city comptroller, public advocate and Manhattan district attorney. This week we continue a series of profiles featuring one candidate from the comptroller, public advocate and district attorney races. To determine the order, we drew names out of a hat.

John Liu

Running for City Comptroller
By Josh Zembik

Before running for City Council, John Liu worked at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Before running for City Council, John Liu worked at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

He doesn’t have the faintest hint of a Boston accent, and he doesn’t summer at Hyannis Port, but City Council Member John Liu has a bit of Kennedy mystique coursing through him. When Liu’s family moved to the United States from Taiwan when he was 5, his father, Chang Liu, changed the son’s name from Chun to John in honor of President Kennedy. Appropriately, Chang changed his own name to Joseph, and John’s younger brothers became Robert and Edward.

Now, nearly 50 years after Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic President of the United States, Liu hopes to do a little trailblazing of his own. Already the first Asian-American to be elected to legislative office in New York City, Liu is running for city comptroller.

“My dad was a big Kennedy fan,” Liu said, “and when he suggested I change my name to John, I took him up on his advice. But that’s as far as I’d dare go in terms of likening myself to President Kennedy.”

This is a story the Council member has told many times before, so much so that it’s become a joke among the city’s political insiders. But the Kennedy connection and immigrant story is perhaps one way Liu hopes to distinguish himself to Manhattan primary voters, a critical bloc being wooed by all four outer-borough candidates vying for comptroller. All of the candidates serve on the City Council, and three hail from Queens: Melinda Katz, David Weprin and Liu. The fourth candidate, David Yassky is from Brooklyn. The glut of candidates from Queens made that borough’s Democratic Party endorsement of Liu all the more notable: he won 49 votes to Katz’s six and Weprin’s three.

Prolific in his press releases, and known for asking tough questions during Council committee hearings, Liu was at first considered a public advocate contender before he became the last entrant in the comptroller’s race. He staked out a high-profile role opposing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s term limit extension bid, though the effort was unsuccessful.

He says he has great concern over the city’s financial health. Liu has suggested a small tax increase targeted at the city’s wealthy to replenish the depleted coffers; the idea has been seconded by Katz, but rejected by the other two candidates.

“New York City’s income tax simply is not progressive,” Liu said. “It tops out at about $80,000, and it doesn’t seem fair that the teacher pays the same city income tax rate as a filthy rich person like Mike Bloomberg. We should be graduating our tax rate and combining that with the need to make up the [budget] shortfalls by at least temporarily asking the very high income earners to pay a slightly higher percentage.”

As manager of the city’s financial health, the comptroller oversees city pension funds. At a June candidates’ forum, Liu and his opponents all agreed that the current system is bankrupting the city. However, while Katz has suggested investing some of the fund in successful local businesses that are strapped with debt, Liu has erred on the side of caution.

“I believe that restoring confidence in the pension fund is of paramount concern, and the way to do that is not to go into all sorts of risky investments,” he said. “There are plenty of buy opportunities in the stock market, and there should be traditional investments that get us back to the basics.”

Liu has also taken a keen interest in New York City schools. A member of the Education Committee, he has called for infrastructure and high-tech upgrades, as well as a reassessment of standardized testing. While all four candidates have criticized Bloomberg for what they see as too much emphasis on test scores, only Liu and Weprin joined Comptroller William Thompson in calling on the mayor to fire Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

“I’m for change and some level of business discipline,” Liu said. “A move like this is perhaps necessary to give things a jolt. [Klein’s] approach has outlived its usefuless.”

Liu attended New York City public schools, and graduated from SUNY Binghamton. A Flushing resident since his family moved from Taiwan, he and his wife, Jenny, have a young son, Joey.

Before running for Council, Liu worked as a manager at the financial consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where he says he gained experience in oversight and rooting out waste.

Those skills have served Liu well as chairman of the Transportation Committee, which deals with the MTA, Department of Transportation and Taxi and Limousine Commission. Liu has been a major critic of the MTA, opposing fare increases and congestion pricing fees, and pushing for faster and better-appropriated bus service, especially for outerborough residents.

Although his base is among the black and Hispanic community and unions, including 1199 SEIU, DC 37 and the Transit Union, Liu has also snagged the backing of Rep. Charles Rangel. According to the latest data, Liu has a substantial fundrasing lead, pulling in $3.2 million to date, almost $1 million more than his next closest competitor, Katz.

He is proud of his fundraising edge, but knows it doesn’t make him a shoo-in.

“The only poll that counts is the one on September 15,” Liu said, referring to Primary Day. “That’s all that matters.”

Leslie Crocker Snyder

Running for Manhattan District Attorney
By Danielle Friedman

Leslie Crocker Snyder was one of two women in her Case Western Reserve University class. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Leslie Crocker Snyder was one of two women in her Case Western Reserve University class. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

On the steps of City Hall, Leslie Crocker Snyder is flanked by nearly a dozen burly men. Many wear navy T-shirts emblazoned with “FDNY.” Snyder is polished and youthful-looking, dressed in a pinstriped pantsuit, her blond hair perfectly straight and styled. Her gaze is steady.

The group has convened on a sunny morning in July to announce that the Uniformed Firefighters Association, New York’s largest firefighters union, is endorsing Snyder for Manhattan District Attorney. It’s one of more than a dozen law enforcement organizations that have pledged support to the former Criminal and State Supreme Court judge, who is known for doling out formidable sentences.

“For 35 years, Judge Snyder’s work has made our streets safer and our city a better place to live, work and visit,” said UFA president Steve Cassidy.

The lone woman in this sea of men, Snyder began breaking gender barriers in law school, where she was one of two women in her Case Western Reserve University class. If elected to fill the well-worn shoes of current District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, the 67-year-old will become Manhattan’s first female D.A. and one of only a handful in the country.

Snyder seems at ease standing alone. She earned her tough reputation presiding over cases involving some of the city’s most dangerous criminals, including violent street gangs and mobsters; for years, her family needed 24/7 bodyguard protection. While she was lauded for helping to protect the city during some of its most tumultuous years, some critics have singled her out as ruthless. She once, now famously, told a defendant that she’d be willing to give him a lethal injection herself, a comment she says she now regrets (she’s since changed her position on the death penalty, saying she is opposed to it under any circumstances, a move her opponents have characterized as pandering to progressive Manhattan voters).

Snyder stood alone in 2005, too, when she became the first candidate in decades to challenge Morgenthau for his seat. The attempt to dethrone her former boss led Morgenthau to vilify her—he’s attacked her in the press ever since.

Now, weeks before the Democratic primary, Snyder is standing out again—this time for beating competitors Cyrus Vance, Jr. and Richard Aborn in polls by double digits. She’s also ahead in fundraising; she had raised $1.45 million by mid-July. Her campaigners have been working hard, and she believes her experience wins voters over.

All three candidates are alumni of the Manhattan D.A.’s office, and Vance has scored Morgenthau’s endorsement. The son of President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, Vance touts his decades as a litigator and defense attorney. Aborn drafted two major pieces of gun-control legislation and has worked as a technology consultant to law enforcement agencies. But Snyder believes her experience trumps her opponents’. She’s earned the endorsements of big names like Ed Koch and Geraldine Ferraro, and she points out that she’s been advocating for reform for four years now, while her competitors only recently stepped up.

Snyder, who grew up in New York and Baltimore, said she knew she wanted to be a criminal lawyer since the age of 5.

“My parents used to tell me that I argued about everything,” she jokes.

In 1968, she landed a job as an assistant D.A. under Frank Hogan, becoming the first woman in the office to prosecute homicides (Hogan initially told Snyder she’d need a “letter of permission” from her husband). She also founded Manhattan’s Sex Crimes Prosecution Bureau and co-wrote its Rape Shield Law, which prevents a rape victim’s sexual history from being used against her, and repealed a requirement that witnesses corroborate a victim’s testimony. She joined a private practice in 2002.

Now Snyder hopes to invigorate an office she’s said has become stale under Morgenthau, who began when Gerald Ford was president. She also hopes to build on its strengths. Her vision includes transforming the office into a more proactive one, in which assistant D.A.s form partnerships with educators, religious leaders, social service agencies, law enforcement and others, working together to prevent young people from becoming first offenders. She believes that “far too many” have been incarcerated, and that early intervention is the solution.

Other top priorities include fighting for the rights of minority groups and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and prosecuting white-collar crime “vigorously and fairly.” She also hopes to form a so-called Second Look Bureau to examine possible wrongful convictions and learn from past mistakes. And she wants all New Yorkers to develop greater confidence in the legal system.

“People on 125th Street feel like they’re getting a very different kind of justice than people on Wall Street,” she said.

An Upper East Sider for four decades, Snyder raised two sons in the area. She and her husband, a retired pediatrician and artist, can sometimes be spotted walking their dog through the neighborhood.

Snyder has honed a tough reputation, but surely a thick skin and steely resolve are necessary for the role of top prosecutor. As for the animosity from Morgenthau, she’s not dwelling on it: she’s more interested in focusing on the positive—and on the changes she hopes to bring to the city.

“I’m looking forward,” Snyder said, “not back.”

Norman Siegel

Running for Public Advocate
By Danielle Friedman

Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer, came of age during the civil rights movement. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer, came of age during the civil rights movement. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

On a drizzly Monday night, the Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, is buzzing. More than 100 locals have turned out for a public advocate candidate forum. Steel-drum calypso music blasts from speakers as the mostly black audience takes its seats.

Three of the five candidates vying to replace incumbent Betsy Gotbaum, who opted out of a third term, are participating. After brief introductions, they take the floor. When Norman Siegel addresses the crowd, he sounds more like a preacher than a lawyer.

“Good evening,” he booms, then smiles.

The 65-year-old holds the mike a little too close, causing his words to rattle in the speakers. He paces, getting in the audience’s face.

“Up to this point, this office has not fulfilled its potential,” he says. “When I’m public advocate, people will know who the public advocate is.”

The other candidates at the forum, Council Members Eric Gioia of Queens and Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn, offer eloquent opening remarks (the fourth Democratic candidate, Mark Green, and Republican contender Alex Zablocki said they could not participate.) The Council members are more polished, more specific. But they don’t rouse the audience like Siegel does.

While all city offices represent and serve the people, none are quite as direct as public advocate. The post is meant to provide a voice for New Yorkers. Or as Siegel describes it: to be visible, a big mouth and a fighter.

The public advocate is also next in succession for mayor, making it the second highest elected office in the city. Yet few New Yorkers know what the office is or does. Siegel plans to change this.

A high-profile civil rights lawyer and former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Siegel says he has represented New Yorkers for 40 years. In many ways, he embodies the city. A graduate of Brooklyn College, he’s loud, outspoken and a little zany (he has mentioned organizing a doo-wop singing contest among the candidates; he grew up on the music in Brooklyn). He’s passionate and a little angry. He quotes Clint Eastwood, telling corrupt officials they can “make his day.” And he’s a dreamer. When he talks about becoming public advocate, his eyes gleam. He came of age during the civil rights movement—during law school at New York University, he spent summers in the South, fighting for equal rights—and the zeal of that era continues to propel him.

Among the candidates, Siegel is also the only non-career politician, something he often points out. Yet while his outsider status could help him, it could also serve as a disadvantage. He’s rougher around the edges than the other Democratic candidates, arguably with less name recognition. And while it’s his third bid for the office, he’s still honing his campaigning skills.

“I believe I’m the only one of the four who can transform this office,” he says, so that it “makes a huge difference in people’s lives.”

Throughout his career, Siegel has fought for outcasts and radicals, the privileged and destitute. During the Republican National Convention in 2004, he successfully lobbied to release protestors who’d been arrested and held inappropriately. He fought for public access to the steps of City Hall and the right to protest on Central Park’s Great Lawn. And he represents tenants in West Harlem in their fight against Columbia University and eminent domain. Siegel and his wife, Saralee Evans, an acting justice in the State Supreme Court for New York County, are residents of the Upper West Side. They have five grandchildren.

Siegel has far-reaching plans for the office. He hopes to recruit hundreds of volunteers to be “surrogate public advocates” in each community—every week they’d meet with residents and report back to him. He also wants to create an “Institute of Advocacy” through which he’d train New Yorkers to make themselves heard.

Other priorities include helping New Yorkers navigate the recession and improving public education and literacy for all ages. He also wants to address race relations head-on, particularly within the law enforcement community.

If a city agency isn’t serving the public, he says he’ll use the “bully pulpit,” as the office has been called, to its full advantage. He’ll embarrass whoever’s responsible via the media, and if he has to, he’ll sue.

In the latest Marist Poll, Siegel placed second to Green, who’s running for the office again after being the first to hold it in the 1990s (Green scored 39 percent of the vote, while Siegel had 16 percent). Yet Siegel has raised more money than in his previous two campaigns—$134,000 of matchable amounts, totaling more than $800,000—thanks largely to phone calls and house parties. He’ll now be able to advertise widely.

Still, Green has the advantage of name recognition. And Gioia and de Blasio have long records to show for their own public advocacy.

In the end, Siegel’s chances will, in part, come down to whether New Yorkers are ready to take a leap of faith on an outsider. Of course, if Siegel had his way, the race would likely be decided by a doo-wop sing-off. In that contest, Siegel would surely project his voice above the rest.

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