Shouldn’t Bill Thompson be worrying about John Liu first?

John Liu. (Azi Paybarah on Flickr)
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Former comptroller Bill Thompson told the Times' Michael Grynbaum that it was time for police commissioner Ray Kelly "to make a choice" about whether to run for mayor in 2013.

But Thompson, who came close to beating Michael Bloomberg when he was the Democratic nominee in 2009 and is planning to run again, might more profitably be wondering about another possible candidate: the current comptroller, John Liu.

Liu, unlike Kelly, has declared his intention to run. Liu, not Kelly, is arguably in a unique position to complicate Thompson's effort to get the nomination again. And Kelly's refusal to say anything meaningful about the next mayor's race—which, after all, he's never actively sought to involve himself in—can't possibly be as surprising, or vexing, to Thompson as Liu's insistence that his mayoral plans are perfectly on track, despite everything that's happened.

It's not unreasonable, after all, to think that the indictment of Liu’s campaign treasurer and one of his top fund-raisers would have put an end to his 2013 mayoral ambitions, if not also to the possibility of running for re-election for comptroller.

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But Liu is very convincingly playing the role of someone whohas been utterly unaffected by those events, going about his public-facing business as comptroller with his usual headline-generating intensity.

In the wake of a corruption scandal that involves not him, but Wal-Mart, Liu said he would vote against the corporation’s top leadership at a shareholder meeting next month. The city’s pension fund owns about $278 million in company stock.

“Wal-Mart presents itself as a leader in corporate ethics, but it is clear that the company’s leadership does not practice what it preaches,” Liu said, with no apparent sense of irony.

The day before his 25-year-old campaign treasurer was to appear in court on fraud and obstruction charges, Liu told a boisterous crowd of supporters in Harlem that he was, "going all the way.”

He even made light of his newfound reputation.

“I have a new nickname. 'The embattled comptroller,'” he said. “Well, let me say this: I am ready, willing and able to go into battle for what I think is right."

This week, Liu said he would reject the Bloomberg administration’s contract with Nissan for the Taxi of Tomorrow, a boxy new vehicle that has passenger airbags and a sunroof, but no wheelchair accessibility, and that will ultimately replace most of New York City’s taxis. He promised to reject the contract on the grounds that its wheelchair inaccessibility violates civil rights. He was also seriously stirring the pot, since the Taxi of Tomorrow is one of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s signature initiatives. 

The conventional wisdom among the other campaigns and presumptive campaigns for mayor in 2013 seems to be that Liu isn't just faking it—that he's driven by a great deal of faith in himself, and that level of self-regard is something they have to contend with, at least for now.

But if Liu runs, despite the investigations, in a primary that looks as if it will include Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, it would arguably complicate Thompson's plans more than anyone else's.

Absent Liu, Thompson, who is African-American, is the only candidate of color in the race, and that, coupled with his impressive performance last time around, puts him in a particularly good position to at least become one of two Democrats to make it into a runoff, no matter how understated his actual campaign appears to be.

Liu, who’s Asian-American and has done a lot of outreach to minority communities, complicates that formula. He would be drawing, or attempting to draw, from much the same coalition that gave Thompson the nomination in 2009.

It's not just Thompson who would be affected if Liu actually followed through and ran, of course.

De Blasio, for example, is very closely affiliated with the Working Families Party, and without Liu, he would be expected to win a significant share of union support in 2013. But Liu was elected with significant union backing, too.

In fact, in January, when furor over Liu’s campaign mismanagement was running white-hot, DC 37 executive director Lillian Roberts, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union president Stuart Appelbaum and TWU Local 100 president John Samuelson helped host a fund-raiser for him at a restaurant near City Hall.

The election is still more than a year away, so for now, Thompson, de Blasio and the other candidates don't have to do anything but wait and see whether Liu's mayoral ambitions finally succumb to the agglomeration of bad news. ("[T]he charges filed by the United States attorney, Preet Bharara, against [campaign treasurer Jenny] Hou suggest that she was taking instructions from Mr. Liu as she was carrying out what is alleged to have been a fraudulent fund-raising scheme ... ")

But they can say what they like about Ray Kelly. Until John Liu goes away, they're getting ahead of themselves.