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The Most Surprising Proposal in the New York Mayoral Race

As my colleague Marc Tracy wrote yesterday, progressive New Yorkers seem to have fallen in love with Bill de Blasio, the public advocate who “lives in Park Slope with his multiracial family, and talks a lot about inequality.” This is a particularly harsh blow for the other bona fide progressive in the race, current city comptroller John Liu. And that may be why Liu made such a flamboyant play for the granola vote last night, telling NY1 he wants New York to legalize marijuana and use a steep pot tax to halve the tuition at the City University of New York.

"By keeping it illegal, you actually encourage more violent crime," Liu said. "Why not regulate and tax it? We can derive $400 million in revenues for the city, use that money to cut CUNY tuition in half and reduce the disparate social impact that's occurring in too many of our communities.”

There seem to be two reasons Liu’s campaign never picked up momentum like de Blasio’s. For one, two of his former associates were convicted of campaign-finance fraud, staining his image and preventing him from getting Campaign Finance Board matching funds. For another, as my colleague Noreen Malone has written, it’s hard to find something less sexy than the post of city comptroller, which handles the municipality’s finances. Liu has, in fact, devoted himself to education issues before. On the airwaves, he has spoken about New York’s unfair high school sorting process, and about the need for better channels of parental input. As comptroller, though, his greatest contribution on this front was his health-conscious but utterly dreary crusade to remove Polychlorinated Biphenyls, a kind of toxic chemical, from the old fluorescent light fixtures that shine above students’ heads. His smoking hot suggestion last night is something of a departure.

As for the proposal itself, it seems possible Liu was taking a page out of President Obama’s book; the Commander-in-chief proposed hefty taxes on tobacco to pay for his early childhood education pipe dreams. Just like the president’s plan, Liu’s seems likely to go exactly nowhere. “I don't think this proposal, as Mr. Liu has put it forward, is likely to get traction in Albany any time soon,” Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance told NY1. It also might be too little, too late to get people high on Liu’s campaign, since yesterday’s Quinnipiac poll had him at 6 percent, behind every other major Democratic candidate. Liu, for one, won’t be lighting up any time soon—in celebration or defeat. “I've never thought of smoking marijuana,” he said. “And I don't have any plans to do so, certainly when it's illegal and even when it's regulated.”

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.