Would it take a revolutionary? A leader with the fire of a Malcolm X and the resonance of a Reverend King? Would she emerge from among the working masses, a representative of those who are overworked, overcrowded, and underpaid? Or would he come from among the advocates and organizers committed to advancing the cause of a population for whom government representation remained frustratingly elusive?
It turns out the first Asian American to win elected office in New York City or State is none of the above. Flushing city councilmember-elect John Liu—husband of Jenny, father of Joseph, upper-middle-class homeowner, and Democrat—is as traditional a New York pol as his win is unprecedented. Despite the aura of novelty enshrouding the man like so much victory confetti since Election Day, his history-making triumph relied on the tried-and-true formula that’s elevated many a local candidate to office: machine backing, money, mainstream credibility, and luck.
He was born in Taiwan, but his appeal is far from foreign. A straight-backed, square-jawed, limber 34, he projects an optimism that is more pragmatic than idealistic and not at all naive. “I want to clean up downtown Flushing,” he repeats like a mantra during a discussion about future plans, echoing a service-oriented campaign platform designed to sway the broadest swath of voters in the ethnically diverse, pseudo-suburban district. A decades-long neighborhood resident and a graduate of local public schools, Liu knows well the lay of this land.
“I’m very proud to be the machine’s candidate,” he says in a year when term limits made room in the system for outsiders and reformers. Liu wrangled the endorsement of every major Queens elected official and major unions, and the county Democratic party “made a specific effort” to get him elected, according to its chair, Tom Manton. (In 1997, the party backed current officeholder Julia Harrison—who infamously derided Asian immigrants as “colonizers” in a 1996 news article—against Liu. Lucky for Liu, term limits barred Harrison from running this time, and he’ll never have to know whom the county might otherwise have run.)
‘I’m very proud to be the machine’s candidate.’— John Liu
“He made himself known,” says Manton, explaining how the party came to favor him. A constant and energetic local presence but never a troublemaker, Liu served as the president of North Flushing’s civic association, a member of Community Board 7, and an officer in numerous political clubs.
The machine’s “special effort” included fundraising, get-out-the-vote support, and legal challenges to his competitors’ ballot petitions. Liu also got guidance from well-connected party operative and consultant Evan Stavisky, who helped a staff of inexperienced volunteers establish Liu early on in the press and in political circles as the can-do candidate.
Money, of course, mattered, and Liu had plenty of it. He not only trounced his opponents in fundraising but had the third biggest bank among all council contenders in the city’s campaign finance program. A manager in a Big Five accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, he pulled from backers in the financial world as well as from developers and business owners. Those kinds of connections meant accusations of corruption would dog him. He faced one allegation that he’d unethically cast a community-board vote in favor of a developer who was also a contributor. Liu now dismisses the charge as “a political ploy by one of my opponents,” but he returned the money anyway. And he has been persistently shadowed by the conviction of his father, a former banking executive, on bank fraud. Liu calls the verdict “totally unfair” and vows, “We’ll take [his appeal] all the way to the Supreme Court.”
Amid typical election politics, though, history was made. There was no ignoring Liu’s race. Racism, he says, “has existed throughout my entire life. It certainly exists in a campaign.” But he’s developed a gentle humor about it: “We have broken a barrier here. I am certainly very proud to be an Asian American. I’ve been an Asian American all my life.” And, “I formed an Asian caucus today. I elected myself chair!”
Some in the city’s Asian communities are not amused by his lighthearted take. They’re wary of his allegiance to the mainstream and to money rather than to the disadvantaged in his racial community. Although Liu says he favors amnesty for undocumented immigrants, his generally middle-class priorities—better sanitation, increased public safety, establishing a business improvement district—contrast with those of other Asian candidates, like the three who ran in Manhattan’s District 1 on issues like low-income housing and jobs and the rights of immigrant laborers.
All that mainstream backing and posturing paid off. Liu won the primary by only 202 votes—the kind of slim margin common in this year’s crowded primaries—but scored a landslide of 22 percentage points over Republican Ryan Walsh in November. In so doing, he became the First and the Only. But he is also, now, one among many New York pols. Says one staffer at an Asian American advocacy organization: “A lot of people focus on Liu as being Asian, but his politics are clubhouse politics-as-usual. With an Asian face on it.”