By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska, Polish Daily News and FI2W reporter
[* Editor’s note: This article was amended to correct election results in the last paragraph.]
John C. Liu’s victory in the race for New York City comptroller on Tuesday marks the first time an Asian American has been elected to citywide office.
Ever since Liu won the Democratic nomination in a primary runoff on Sept. 29, excitement had been building in Asian neighborhoods — in Chinatown and Sunset Park, but especially in Flushing, Queens, the neighborhood where Liu lives and which he has represented for the last eight years in the city council. People constantly kept stopping him on the street to congratulate him.
“It takes a long time to walk now,” Liu said with a laugh recently.
Liu’s believes that his victory in the general election over Republican rival Joseph A. Mendola, and over three other Democratic candidates in the primary, was no accident. “We won this election in the streets,” he said, referring to his busy campaign schedule, which often included meeting average New Yorkers. Liu, 42, is also extremely meticulous and proper in his relations with people. He pays attention to the details and always returns phone calls from reporters.
“I think he is a workaholic,” said Lotus Chau, chief reporter at Sing Tao Daily, one of the city’s Chinese-language newspapers. “Once, he replied to my e-mail at 2:30 a.m. Another time, at 4 a.m.”
His attention to the ethnic press, during his time as a councilman and also during the campaign for city comptroller, was unprecedented. Liu found time to visit a great number of ethnic papers — not only Chinese, but also Polish, Bangladeshi and Irish, stirring excitement in newsrooms usually overlooked by politicians. During his visits, he patiently answered questions about issues related to the development of ethnic communities and his plans to help government better serve immigrants.
“For me the most important issue is expanding economic opportunity, making sure that the smaller and new upcoming businesses have a chance at the economic pie. We should not continue to give billions of dollars in city contracts to the same big companies, but really allow some of the smaller businesses –most of which are run by immigrants– to get their piece of the contract dollars,” he said during his recent visit to the Polish Daily News.
“I want to make sure that part of the city budget is devoted to immigrants’ needs,” he added. “I want more jobs created for them in neighborhoods where they live, whether they are Polish, Chinese or others.”
Speaking with a slight accent, he also said that he had fought for funds and services for the city’s immigrants.
“The first bill I sponsored as a councilman introduced interpreters in city agencies, so that non-English speakers are not discriminated and can have equal access to services offered by the city,” he said. “Later the requirement was expanded to the 311 city information line.”
Liu’s believes his visits around the city paid off. “There is no question in my mind that the ethnic papers helped raise the awareness and helped generate enthusiasm — because this election was about enthusiasm. A lot of people, if they weren’t enthusiastic, stayed home,” he said.
The Queens politician also got support from many labor unions and from the Working Families Party, well-known for their mobilization skills.
Chinese papers spent a lot of time explaining what a runoff is to their readers. During the runoff, when the turnout was historically low (8% of the city’s three million enrolled Democrats voted), only determined voters made it to the polls. Of those who did vote, 56% supported Liu while his opponent, Brooklyn Councilman David Yassky got 44% of votes, despite having the support of all the city’s major mainstream newspapers.
Even stories in some mainstream papers challenging a Liu ad where he claimed to have worked in a sweatshop as a child did not discourage voters.
“All Asians were unified,” said Lotus Chau. “Not only because he will be the first Asian in citywide office but also because they remembered how Liu stood up for immigrants whenever they got robbed, mobbed, hurt or attacked in hate crimes.”
Born in Taiwan and originally named Chun, John Liu came to the U.S. with his family when he was 5. His father, Chang F. Liu, admired the Kennedys so much that he changed his own name to Joseph and his sons’ to John, Robert and Edward. But despite the name change John preserved his ethnic identity.
“To me the conclusion of this election is that immigrants are clearly a voice and a growing influence. And people better wake up, because we are going to change this city,” Liu said, noting that immigrants comprise almost 40% of the city’s population.
Even before the general election, some ethnic papers had started speculating that he would run for city mayor in 2013. Liu does not deny it, but does not want to discuss it either, at least not yet. He predicts, however, strict control by Michael Bloomberg, whom he vocally criticized for his push to change the city’s term limit law so he could be reelected to a third term as mayor.
“The comptroller is a pretty important position. I know I can create change in this city, which is why I’m in public service. And professionally I’m trained for this kind of position,” said Liu, who has a degree in mathematical physics from SUNY Binghampton and worked at the consulting company PriceWaterhouseCoopers for 14 years. In 2001, he quit his career in finance to become the first Asian American councilman in the city.
To immigrant activists his victory brings hope. “Every time an immigrant or person of color is elevated to a higher office, our hope is that they will use that office to engage more New Yorkers in civic participation and that they will create pipelines for immigrant minorities who have been shut down from the political establishment most of the time,” said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.
Indeed, this year’s city council election results seem to have already fulfilled that hope to some extent, as two more Asian Americans, both from Hong Kong, were elected. Peter Koo won in Flushing and Margaret Chin will become a new council member from Chinatown.