He has plenty of campaign funding, support from the Democratic Party and backing from many large unions, but does John Liu have what it takes to beat incumbent state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) for the 11th District seat?
Liu thinks so and in a recent interview at the Queens Chronicle office elaborated on why he should wrest the seat from Avella, who has held it since 2010. He cited party unity, his legislative and fiscal experience and his ability to work with others.
Last spring, Avella joined the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of maverick Democrats who caucus with Republicans in the state Senate to form a majority. That move garnered him lots of money for the district — more than $2 million for area improvements — and the wrath of the Queens Democratic Party, which soon after endorsed Liu as its candidate.
Liu and Avella first served in the City Council together, beginning in 2001. After being term-limited out of office, Liu ran for and won the city comptroller’s race, serving four years. He then ran for mayor, finishing fourth in the Democratic primary last year.
Since then, Liu has been working as an adjunct professor of municipal finance at Baruch College.
Throughout the interview, he stressed the importance of teamwork in Albany, something not easily found there in recent years. “You need a united front with elected officials,” Liu said. “You want colleagues working with you,” claiming that Avella has not been a team player “for years and years.”
The candidate admitted that as a member of the IDC, Avella was able to bring a lot of money to the district this year but said “it was an aberration. It won’t be repeated. The Democrats will be in the majority, so I don’t think it will continue.”
Liu said it is necessary to examine Avella’s record over four years, which he claimed has not been as good.
“Look at the legislation he’s proposed and how much has been passed and the money brought in,” Liu said. “He offers a lot of proposals, but is at the bottom rung of actually getting things passed. I’m at the top.”
Heather Sager, spokeswoman for the Avella campaign, issued the following response: “Whether it’s working with Mayor de Blasio to deliver universal pre-K to 50,000 four-year-olds or securing middle class tax relief for Queens residents, there’s no question that Sen. Avella has been instrumental in fighting for a true Democratic agenda. On the contrary, while John Liu has endured federal investigations for his own ethical lapses, Sen. Avella has successfully worked to root out corruption in the Queens Public Library System and protect taxpayers’ dollars. There is a clear choice in this election and only one candidate you can ultimately trust.”
A staffer and fundraiser of Liu’s for his mayoral campaign were convicted of election law finance violations, though the candidate was never charged. He also owes the city hundreds of thousands of dollars for allegedly posting illegal campaign posters during his run for comptroller, though he disputes those charges.
Liu said his candidacy is based on his desire to serve, adding of Avella, “I have no qualms running against him.”
He said he can make a difference. “There is quite a bit of dysfunction in Albany,” Liu said. “I think I can make an impact here and in the state.”
He added that while he has been campaigning, some people have told him they are appalled at Avella joining the caucus, but he acknowledged that others are pleased with the money he’s gotten for area projects as a result.
On education, the candidate says he favors a change in admission procedures for the city’s specialized high schools, which now are based on one exam. Some in the Asian-American community in particular want to keep the status quo.
“Testing is the norm in the Asian culture but in a diverse society, it should be weighed a lot less,” he said. “We’re not in Asia, this is America. We can do better. There are flaws and colleges don’t base admission solely on SAT scores. Why do they think it works for high school?”
He favors Common Core, the controversial curriculum designed to be used throughout the country, calling it a good thing in the long run to eliminate disparities between states. “But to emphasize tests without preparing for them is wrong,” he said. “Testing does not equal learning.”
Liu believes more work needs to be done on the program. “One size doesn’t fit all, especially English language learners and special-needs students.”
He pointed out that next year the state again will decide whether to keep mayoral control over the city public schools. “I think it needs to be modulated so that there is more input from parents and educators,” Liu said. “The community education councils have no authority and parents want to be engaged.”
Of the ongoing dispute over the Queens Library’s finances and governance, Liu said, “It’s time for a change. The system needed reform,” adding, “The library is funded by taxpayers and needs accountability.”
Avella for years has been a strong opponent of the Willets Point redevelopment project and if elected, Liu said he would also oppose it. “The plan is a total disappointment and a sweetheart deal with the Mets owners.”
The 11th District includes College Point, Whitestone, Bayside, Auburndale, Douglaston, Little Neck, Bellerose, Jamaica Estates and parts of Jamaica, Hollis, Queens Village and North Flushing.
Liu said he would like to see more resources for the district and he’s the one to accomplish that goal. “Without a doubt I can do it on a long-term basis, not just once,” he said. “The district didn’t get its fair share in the past. I will get an ongoing stream of revenue.”