After dancing dragons and choir songs, Liu defends public-employee pensions in his State of the City speech

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John Liu with constituents. (Azi Paybarah on Flickr)
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Embattled city comptroller John Liu pitched himself as a defender of public employees and their pension benefits, saying it was "silly" to try scaling back those benefits since it was Wall Street's poor performance that drove up pension costs.

In a campaign-like speech that was preceded by a pair of Chinese dragons dancing on stage and two songs by a church choir, Liu said "economic equality" was one of his major objectives.

Sounding a sympathetic note for the Occupy Wall Street movement, Liu said "There is no prosperity when wealth is shared by only a tiny portion of the city's residents."

Liu, who was elected with strong support from organized labor, strongly defended public employees. Their support would be crucial to his mayoral hopes, which have been damaged by federal investigations into his fund-raising.

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(One Liu donor was indicted yesterday; Liu himself has not been accused of any wrongdoing.)

The most far-reaching idea he unveiled in his speech was that the city should help manage private-sector pensions, which he proposed could be "pooled together to leverage the economy of scale and provide portable, efficient and low-cost pension benefits."

Under the plan, which would be optional for private companies that operate pension funds, the accounts would be managed by the same people overseeing the pensions of public-sector employees, but no taxpayer money would be tied to the accounts.

Liu said the move to help the private-sector better manage its pensions would benefit the city.

"If we don't help people plan for their eventual retirement now, the increasing strain on the city's social services from seniors living in poverty will be overwhelming," he said.

The idea of scaling back current public-employee pension benefits—an idea that has been proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo and which has strong support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg—is not something he's entertaining.

"Poor market returns have been the main driver of escalating pension costs," Liu said.

"It's just silly to blame our police officers, firefighters, teacher and other city employees for what happened during the recession," he said. "They didn't cause it and they're certainly not responsible for the economic problems we have today."

Liu gave a brief autobiographical history, explaining how he immigrated here from Taiwan with his family and settled in Queens. He did not repeat the claim that he and his mother worked in a "sweatshop," an assertion he made during the 2009 comptroller race that was later disputed by his mother. Liu, at the time, said she denied it because she was embarrassed.

The only acknowledgement Liu made of his fund-raising troubles was when he joked about needing to take advice from Jeremy Lin, the craze-inducing Knicks superstar who, Liu noted, gets "great headlines" in the New York Post.

McFadden and Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin Us Now" blared from the speakers after the speech was over.

Lillian Roberts, executive director of DC37, which has 125,000 members in New York City, was in the front row for the speech and told me it was "excellent, innovative, outside of the box."

"He knows where the money is and he knows how to make necessary changes," she said.

I asked whether Liu's fund-raising issues might hamper his ability to get things done in office.

"I don't think so," Roberts said. "As long as it's not him, I don't know why it would."

Bill Lynch, the operative and former deputy mayor who helped elect David Dinkins in 1989 and is currently working as a consultant to Liu, was also in the front row for the speech.

I asked him whether the speech might have helped Liu put the questions about his campaign fund-raising behind him in any way.

"It's not going to reset the discussions [with reporters]," Lynch said. "I think it will reset the conversation with rank-and-file voters."

Before leaving the event, I saw a bunch of business cards on the ground advertising a web site called the "Unofficial John Liu," billed as "Breaking the Media Bias Against the NYC Comptroller."

The site is run by Andrew Kaminski, an attorney who said he likes Liu but is not a "blind follower."