Liu's ominous run for New York City mayor

Updated: 2013-04-18 12:00

By Michael Barris (China Daily)

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Liu's ominous run for New York City mayor

You've got to hand it to John Liu. The New York City comptroller has chutzpah.

How else to explain this elected official's desire to become the Big Apple's first Asian-American mayor, amid headlines like: "NYC Comptroller John Liu's fundraiser arrested on fraud charge" in the New York Post; "Controller John Liu's mayoral candidacy threatened by trial of his campaign's ex-treasurer and an ex-fund-raiser" in the New York Daily News ; and "John Liu aides scandal: Trial starts for associates of NYC mayoral hopeful" in Newsday?

Liu, an actuary by trade, won the New York City comptroller's seat in 2009, becoming the first person of Asian descent elected citywide. Before moving into the role of the chief fiscal officer, the Taiwan native spent seven years honing his political skills on City Council. After months of anticipation, Liu, a Democrat, announced in March he would be a candidate for mayor in November.

But the 46-year-old's bid to take over as NYC's chief executive after three-term incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg departs is under a cloud of scandal. His former campaign treasurer and a former fundraiser face federal charges of conspiring to break campaign finance laws to enrich his campaign funds. Their trial, which began on Tuesday, has created a distracting story line against Liu's election hopes. Despite his popularity with local Chinese Americans - and most of the Chinese media in the city - he is seen as a long shot at best. But he remains confident he can win.

"John would not be running a campaign that doesn't have a strong chance of winning," Liu's campaign office said in an e-mail. The office declined a request by China Daily for an interview with Liu.

Does he think the recent reports about the fundraising conspiracy case will hurt him? Liu's campaign team replied last Sunday that it was looking forward to the start of the trials "because the more information that comes out, the better it will be for (his wife) Jenny, his campaign, and the public".

Liu's latest foray into city politics is exciting the city's Asian residents. For many, the idea of a Taiwan native, moving to New York at the age of 5, growing up in a heavily Asian-American section of Queens to become an important city figure, is inspiring. But Liu's political celebrity also draws attention to a curious shortcoming among Asian Americans in New York. While the "City that Never Sleeps" boasts the largest Chinese population outside Asia, New York's Asian Americans have not enjoyed the same degree of success in the electoral arena as their West Coast counterparts.

Although Liu "wishes that Asian Americans had been elected long before," according to his campaign office, he is "honored to be the first and embraces the opportunity to broaden representation and public service".

We won't try to guess why New York politics has fewer Asian Americans than some other regions of the country. Certainly, Asian Americans aren't reluctant to take part in politics, according to C.N. Le, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who has analyzed Asian-American behavior on his public blog, He found that back in the late 1800s, Asians mobilized to lobby for "equal rights and access to economic, land, and occupational opportunities that they were being denied". Defying a stereotyped perception of Asian Americans as quiet, modest, and reluctant to rock the boat, the community does have "a clear sense of justice", the blog says.

The list of past and present Asian American political stars includes Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii; Dalip Singh Saund of California, the first mainland Asian American elected to the US House of Representatives; S.I. Hayakawa of California, the first mainland US Senator; Bill Lann Lee, Clinton-era US assistant attorney general for civil rights; Gary Locke of the state of Washington, the first non-Hawaiian Asian American governor; and George W. Bush-era Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta.

The political success of a member of a particular ethnic group can increase that community's political visibility and influence. In the end, however, politics should be about character rather than race or ethnicity. It's likely that the trial in John Liu's campaign aides' scandal will have something to say about that.

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