Tue, Feb 25, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Living the American dream

Taiwanese-American John C. Liu discusses his remarkable career path from actuary to the first Asian American to serve in New York’s city council and a federal investigation into campaign irregularities that he says derailed his 2013 mayoral bid to become the city’s first Asian-American mayor

By Chris Fuchs  /  Contributing reporter in New York

ROAD TO CITY HALL

Liu said he was active in clubs while attending the Bronx High School of Science, one of New York’s most prestigious public schools, but it wasn’t until his college years at SUNY Binghamton, where he majored in mathematical physics, that he really cut his teeth on politics.

“I was elected to the student assembly from my dorm, and I campaigned to be the head of the assembly in student government,” Liu said. “I was the underdog, but I won that campaign by going door-to-door.”

After graduating, Liu went to work as an actuary, his career for 14 years, and in 1993, when he and his wife bought a house in Flushing, the Lius were soon roped into attending a local civic association meeting. They were the only Asians in attendance, Liu said.

“And so, one way or another,” he said, “I became president of that, and the rest is, as they say, history.”

Liu’s first bid for city council came in 1997, when he lost to then incumbent Julia Harrison, a four-term member who in a New York Times interview once referred to Asians as “invaders” and “colonizers.” With Harrison out in 2001 because of term limits, Liu ran again amid a crowded field of candidates, several of them Asian, and won.

In the time since Liu was first voted into city council, the US has seen a growing number of Asian-American candidates, including those of Taiwanese heritage, elected to city and statewide office. Most recently, in 2013 Michelle Wu became Boston’s first Asian-American city councilor, while Margaret Chin (陳倩雯) and Peter Koo (顧雅明) continue to represent their respective city council districts in New York’s Chinatown and Flushing.

Liu said he disagrees with the characterization that Asian Americans do not participate in government. “But I do believe,” he said, “that Asian Americans go through the same learning curve that every other group goes through, and it’s a steep learning curve.”

After eight years as a councilman, Liu said he was proud not only of the legislation he helped pass — including a law, he said, requiring citywide agencies to provide services in languages other than English — but also of bringing his Flushing community closer together.

By 2009, though, Liu felt it was time to move on.

“So I took a shot at comptroller,” Liu said. “And for whatever reason, the pundits gave me little-to-no odds of winning a citywide race. But we won.”

PINING FOR MAYOR

As New York’s newly elected chief fiscal and auditing officer, and the first Asian American to hold citywide office, Liu already had his eye on an even bigger prize.

“The second I got elected comptroller, I was thinking of running for mayor,” Liu said. “And in fact, that’s what every comptroller thinks about the second they get elected comptroller.”

Long before officially announcing his mayoral bid in March 2013, Liu had built up a reputation in New York’s media as the city’s “hardest-working” elected official, and later mayoral candidate. In fact, he often kept daily public schedules jam-packed with events that had him crisscrossing the five boroughs. Today, Liu bristles when he hears the term “hard-working” or “indefatigable” mentioned in tandem with his name, saying that he was just making the most of his time in office.

“Learning about the city, learning about the world, mostly by talking with people and going everywhere I possibly could in the city,” Liu said. “That was a huge perk of office.”

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