A few weeks ago, on the eve of the lunar Year of the Dragon, New York City comptroller John Liu and myself, two guys from Flushing, sat over $4 bowls of beef noodle soup speaking of our respective boyhoods in northern Queens. There was a generation between us (I’m 63, Liu is 45; I left Flushing to go to college in 1966, six years before Liu arrived), but much mnemonic overlap remained. We both recalled Saturday afternoons spent amid the mock-Moorish-palace splendor of the RKO Keith’s, where I viewed Roger Corman opuses like Attack of the Crab Monsters and Liu saw his first movie. “Star Wars!” the comptroller exclaimed with a jolt of nostalgia. There were also shared memories of interminable jaunts back from “the City” on the 7 train to Main Street, the last stop on Liu’s daily two-and-a-half-hour round-trip to the Bronx High School of Science. We talked of freezing on street corners waiting for buses (the Q17 for me, the Q27 for Liu), and inhaling a slice or two at Gloria Pizza near 40th Road—RIP, the best, forever!
Yet even though we’d both walked these same small-townish streets and gone to the same YMCA, John Liu’s Flushing and mine are radically, cosmically disparate places. My most enduring Flushing memory is standing at the then-desolate corner of Main and Roosevelt, a 15-year-old returned from a beatnik-wannabe Friday night in the Village, peering into the steamy window of the Main Street Tavern. Visible within was a carving fork jammed into a giant roast beef and a couple of middle-aged drunks at the dimly lit bar. It was a future to avoid at all costs. When John Liu came here in 1972 from Taiwan (making him forever MIT, or “made in Taiwan,” as opposed to FOB, “fresh off boat,” from the mainland and Hong Kong, or ABC, “American-born Chinese”), Flushing was his future.
It was a newer Flushing, where the ever-thickening signage was in Chinese and Korean and the formerly dowdy intersection of Main and Roosevelt was getting more foot traffic than any stretch of New York sidewalk outside Manhattan, that would nurture and empower John Liu. It was here that a onetime PricewaterhouseCoopers actuary would be elected the first Asian-American to serve in the New York City Council and, later, become the first Asian-American to hold citywide office.
Asked how it felt to be a sort of Asian-American Jackie Robinson, Liu, attired in a casual pullover (it was a Saturday morning; otherwise it’s a suit and tie), laughed. “Believe me,” the comptroller said in his genial, matter-of-fact tenor. “It isn’t lost on me, the incredible opportunity and the even greater obligation of being the first. The pressure is always there. I understand the stakes, the risks of being who I am.”
It was those risks that Liu and I had convened to discuss that January morning at the Gu-Shine Taiwanese Restaurant on 39th Avenue. This was because, along with his other firsts, Liu was the first Asian-American citywide officeholder to have a campaign fund-raiser arrested by the FBI, an incident that not only threatened his long-assumed bid for higher office but also could eventually get him indicted on federal charges.
To fill in: After persistent whispers over the summer regarding possible problems with Liu’s Campaign Finance Board filings (he raised more than a million dollars but listed zero intermediaries, or “bundlers,” responsible for aggregating the money), on October 12, 2011, the Times ran a front-page story asserting that a number of Liu’s supposed donors either could not be found or said they hadn’t given money to the campaign. Authorities believed the “straw” donors were part of a larger scheme to circumvent the city’s campaign-finance laws, the Times piece said, adding that “many of the irregularities in Mr. Liu’s campaign account are tied to companies in the Chinese business community in Queens, where he has been hailed as a hero and his picture adorns the walls of shops and restaurants.”
Then, on November 16, a federal complaint was issued against the 46-year-old Oliver Pan, a.k.a. Xing Wu Pan. The Feds contended that Pan sought to funnel an illegal $16,000 contribution, far beyond the individual limit of $4,950, into the campaign war chest of an individual identified only as “the candidate.” To cover his tracks, Pan told a would-be contributor, who turned out to be an FBI undercover agent, that he (Pan) would recruit twenty phony donors to claim they had given the campaign $800 apiece—eight being a Chinese lucky number. According to the complaint against him, Oliver Pan told the undercover that his $16,000 would buy, among other things, a meeting with the candidate at which a number of the fake donors would be present. The extra people were necessary, Pan is quoted as saying, because if there was no one there except Pan, the contributor, and the candidate, “it don’t look good.”