What John Liu said, and what his mayoral campaign would look like

John Liu. (Azi Paybarah)
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New York City Comptroller John Liu said during his State of the City speech in Manhattan today that hiking the state's minimum wage to $8.50 isn't enough, and proposed raising New York City's minimum wage to $11.50.

Liu, who as far as anyone knows is running for mayor, also proposed eliminating tax breaks for big businesses in exchange for cutting taxes on small ones, providing free tuition at City University of New York schools for top high school graduates, and spending millions of dollars more on education as part of what he called a "cradle-to-career" approach.

To pay for these and other proposals, Liu said he wanted to eliminate tax breaks for Madison Square Garden, insurance companies and private equity firms.

"It's about shared prosperity and economic equality," said Liu, whose newly established annual event was held at John Jay College of Criminal Justice this afternoon.

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In case the theme of the event wasn't clear, he told reporters afterward, "The issue here is the growing wealth gap and the economic inequality."

The event was attended by a handful of elected officials, including Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who is running for comptroller.

Liu hasn't announced his plan to run for mayor, but he is attending mayoral forums and he and his aides strongly suggest that is the plan.

Liu's political prospects were upended when his campaign treasurer and one donor were arrested on federal charges of using "straw donors" to hide the source of some donations, allowing one donor to exceed the contribution limit. Liu has not personally been accused of any wrongdoing.

Today's speech was the second State of the City speech he delivered in 2012. The earlier one, delivered in February, featured a dance troupe and traditional Chinese dragon costumes. Today's by comparison, was subdued, opening with a children's choir from the elementary school he graduated from in Queens. (Underscore the diversity theme his aides believe to be a key part of his appeal, the event also featured an African-American dance troupe and a trio of Hispanic violinists.)

Bill Lynch, a former deputy mayor under David Dinkins who is helping Liu with his campaign strategy, told me Liu "put down the marker," and set the narrative for his campaign.

"People have been left out in the past," Lynch said. "He's not leaving them out now. And what happens is everybody talks to the top, talks to that one percent, doesn't talk to that middle class and doesn't talk to the 99 percent. And I think that's who John was talking to."

State Senator Valmanette Montgomery said, Liu's plan to fund education programs was "significant."

When I asked her about Liu's viability as a mayoral candidate, she said, "I think he certainly is a viable candidate," and "Right now, he looks very good to me."

Among the people who swarmed Liu after the speech was 82-year-old James Buntin, a pastor at Trinity Holy Church of Christ in Bed-Stuy.

"Can I get a picture with the next mayor?" Buntin asked, before working his way through the crowd and next to Liu.

Afterward, he told me, "I believe John is very qualified," and "I think he'd be mayor for all the people. I think because of his background he'd understand the need for all the people."

I asked Buntin about the other Democratic candidates for mayor. He frowned when I mentioned City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who would be the first female and first openly gay or lesbian mayor of New York.

"The only thing I can see adverse about Christine Quinn is the lifestyle," he said. "If you want to have a family, it takes a man and a woman. But I'm not saying she wouldn't be competent."

A Liu victory, he said, would be historic.

"I think that if Obama could win, that they are ready for an Asian mayor of New York City," he said.