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

Tue, Feb 25, 2014 - Page 12

When John C. Liu (劉醇逸) ran for New York City Council in 2001, skeptics wondered whether an immigrant from Taiwan could win the hearts and minds of non-Asian middle-class voters in Flushing, a Queens community where Liu was raised and where tensions ran high between longtime residents, many of them white, and their newly arrived Taiwanese, Korean and Chinese neighbors.

But Liu defied the odds and became New York’s first Asian-American city councilman, a victory that marked the start of Liu’s 12-year run in public office, including a four-year stint as city comptroller that ended last year when he ran for mayor and lost. Liu captured a mere 7 percent of the vote amid a campaign donations scandal in which he was never charged.

Now settling into his new post as a professor at Baruch College in Manhattan, Liu, 47, says he is proud to have paved the way for other Asian Americans who have been elected after him — but added that New York voters haven’t seen the last of him yet.

“You never know what comes up,” Liu remarked. “But yeah, I expect at some point I’ll run for office again. When that is, I don’t have any plans now.”

In an interview with the Taipei Times, Liu, just two months out of public office, reflected on both his personal and public life, discussing his childhood growing up in Taipei and Flushing, his improbable career path from actuary to the first Asian American to serve in New York’s city council and in citywide office, and a federal investigation into campaign irregularities that Liu says derailed his 2013 mayoral bid to become the city’s first Asian-American mayor.

EARLY LIFE

Liu has only a vague recollection of Taipei, the city where he was born. He says he remembers a nice park, and the sausages and bean cakes his mother used to buy for him from street carts. In 1972, Liu’s father, a Bank of Taiwan employee sent to New York to earn his MBA, decided after graduating from Long Island University that he wanted his sons to grow up American. Shortly after, Liu, then 5, and his family emigrated from Taiwan. New challenges awaited the Lius, especially Liu’s mother, who in Taipei, Liu said, had three housekeepers.

“Coming here, it was completely different,” he said. “She had to get a job to support the family, and the only thing she could get was to work in a sweatshop. So there were many years of struggle here in New York.”

Liu’s family settled in Flushing, in part because of the good elementary schools, and moved into an apartment eight blocks from where he, his wife, Jenny, and son, Joey, live today. Growing up in Flushing, where few Asians lived during the 1970s, Liu and his family held onto Confucian and Buddhist traditions instilled in them in Taiwan, he said. But there was also a big focus on becoming American — and not speaking Chinese.

“We should have tried harder to retain the language,” Liu said, noting that he and his two brothers were named after members of the Kennedy clan. “I mean, my Chinese is not something I’m proud of.”

At 14, Liu had a chance to travel back to Taiwan, the first time he visited since immigrating to America. During that summer, he said, he learned about his family, which he says has an ancestral shrine in Greater Taichung, and his roots in Taiwan that Liu says stretch back several hundred years. “It was a good reinforcement of identity,” Liu said.

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.”

After only a short time as city comptroller, Liu had become regarded as a formidable fiscal watchdog, and with high approval ratings among New York voters, he was seen as a strong contender for mayor.

“People were banging on my door to get on the 2013 bandwagon,” Liu recalled. “In the middle of 2011, I was thinking to myself, it can’t be this easy.”

Soon after, scandal hit.

‘STRAW DONOR’ SCHEMES

Beginning October 2011, the New York Times published a series of articles about Liu’s campaign contributions that questioned the “source and legitimacy of some donations, as well as whether some of the donors even exist.” Liu, who called the Times’ articles “pieces of crap,” said he believes the newspaper had been given the scoop by federal investigators, who at that point, he says, had already been looking into his fundraising activities for more than two years.

Times spokesman John Bianchi said in an e-mail that the newspaper had no comment on Liu’s remarks.

Part of the government’s investigation included sending an undercover FBI agent to pose as a businessman looking to donate more than the legal amount for individual contributions to Liu’s campaign in August 2011.

“That undercover operation was successful in getting my campaign to accept illegal contributions, but contributions we had no way of knowing were illegal,” Liu said. “If they had run that undercover operation with any other campaign, they would have gotten the exact same outcome.”

To be sure, other campaigns, including that of former presidential candidate and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2008, have also been linked to “straw-donor” schemes, in which one person uses another’s name to make donations in excess of what the law permits. A Virginia businessman pleaded guilty in that case, but Clinton was never charged.

Last year, a jury convicted Liu’s former campaign treasurer Jenny Hou (侯佳) and fundraiser Oliver Pan (潘心武) for their roles in the illegal fundraising scheme. Hou was sentenced to 10 months, and Pan four months.

Liu, however, was never charged.

Following the Times articles and federal investigation, the scandal’s ripple effects were soon felt throughout New York, creating what Liu called “a frenzy” in the media and sending his poll numbers into a tailspin. And with the city Campaign Finance Board, citing the irregularities, deciding last August to deny Liu US$3.5 million in matching funds, Liu said it was impossible to buy airtime to run commercials against his opponents.

“Many of my strongest supporters didn’t even know I was still running,” Liu said.

Liu said he was suing the board for its “arbitrary and capricious” decision. Campaign Finance Board spokeswoman Bonny Tsang said she could not comment on Liu’s allegations, referring instead to an August press release that said Liu was denied funds because of his “campaign’s inability to demonstrate it is in compliance with the law.”

In the end, Liu lost the September Democratic primary, garnering just 7 percent of the vote, and former Public Advocate Bill de Blasio became New York’s 109th mayor.

“What happened was that my campaign was derailed by this ridiculous federal investigation,” Liu said. “At the end of the day, it netted nothing, except for a couple of pawns they were able to capture.”

RIGHT TIME

When asked if New York was ready for its first Asian-American mayor, Liu replied: “Why wouldn’t they? I mean, would there still be people slamming their doors saying they would never vote for a ‘gook?’ Quite possibly. But I think the city was clearly ready for change, and I was the change candidate …”

A month into the spring semester, Liu has settled into his new role as a professor at Manhattan’s Baruch College, where he is teaching a graduate-level elective in municipal finance. Liu, who said he recently guest lectured at Fordham University, added that he plans to continue at Baruch in the fall while also teaching at Columbia University.

Recently, local newspapers and blogs in New York have been abuzz over whether Liu might run for Taiwanese-American Congresswoman Grace Meng’s (孟昭文) seat this November. While Liu said he expects to run again in the future, he declined to say for which office.

“This is New York City, so any kind of office … you can’t define things that way here,” Liu said. “I mean, city office in New York City, some people say, trumps state office. Who knows. We’ll see.”