Not good at all, especially since the real kicker in this were alleged violations of the city’s matching-campaign-funds program, which provides $6 for every dollar of the first $175 of each donation, i.e., $1,050 in free money for each of those $800 contributions. If Liu’s campaign had authorized this, it would amount to stealing from city taxpayers. If the allegations were true and Liu had been unaware of the scheme, it still looked bad. He was the comptroller, after all.
Back in January, asked if he was worried about the allegations, Liu looked up from his noodle soup and smiled. He has a serene, supple smile. “I am cooperating fully with the investigation, wherever it leads,” Liu said. Were mistakes made in his campaign filings? Certainly, he said: He should have listed his intermediaries, but now that was being taken care of. Any questionable funds would be returned immediately. Beyond that, he was not overly fixated on what would happen. He was “a humble mathematical physics major,” a trained actuary. He dealt with the numbers, “things that I see right in front of me. I don’t tend to speculate on what may or may not happen.”
So there were no sleepless nights, he wasn’t maniacally tearing down cubicle walls in his office searching for government bugs, as the tabloids were saying? Liu shook his head and offered another smile. His conscience was clear, he said, “because I always knew my campaign finances would be scrutinized. Fund-raising efforts in the Asian community have often been closely scrutinized and questioned. We knew we had to be very careful, to look over every credit-card slip, every check. I am confident we did that to the best of our ability. So I am not worried. Not at all.”
Liu stopped and swirled his spoon through his soup and offered this caveat: “This is not to say I believe our system of justice is perfect.”
That was John Liu’s story back in January, when there was every reason to hope that he was telling the truth, or close enough to it. This was because John Liu’s story is that same old New York story we never tire of hearing about ourselves, preferably with swelling Aaron Copland music and the Statue of Liberty in the background. Liu’s family were “pioneers,” part of the initial wave of Taiwanese to come to Queens following the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which swept away the last vestiges of the neo-genocidal Chinese exclusion acts that once effectively prohibited Chinese women from entering the country. The Lius settled in Flushing, in part, because Manhattan’s Chinatown was viewed as a packed tenement pile, devoid of grasslands and terrorized by youth gangs. Chinatown was also controlled politically and economically by a Cantonese-speaking Old Guard with strong ties to Chiang Kai-shek’s mostly despised Kuomintang. In comparison, Flushing, which had maybe a couple of chop-suey restaurants, was wide open, a veritable golden mountain of opportunity, and low rents, with access to the 7 train. With people like me moving out, there was plenty of room to build another, better life.
After all, is it not a key article of faith here in the roiling melting pot: that new groups will set up shop in whatever concrete backwater; bide their time; and then, through persistence, savvy, and the accumulating force of numbers, make their move toward a seat at the table of power? John Liu, son of Asian-American Flushing, product of luck, pluck, parental expectation, and the public-school system, is firmly in that tradition, stitched into the same however unkempt quilt of New York ethnic politics that includes Paul O’Dwyer, Fiorello La Guardia, Ed Koch, Adam Clayton Powell, Herman Badillo, and thousands more.
What’s different about John Liu is that he’s the first major politician to come from what one CUNY professor calls “the new demographic”—the umbrella term for the millions who have arrived in New York since the 1965 law change, a now near-50-year migration that has reconfigured the entire country, not just New York. Try this factoid on for size: We currently live in a city where just a bit less than 40 percent of the people are foreign-born.
One reason these seismic changes haven’t yet been felt in the political realm is that the city has been living through a period of political suspended animation since 9/11 and the election of Mike Bloomberg, who, nasal whine aside, belongs to a cultural taxonomy unto himself, one that transcends (or simply buys out) quaint distinctions like where you’re from, what you eat, what leg you kick with. But now that Bloomberg is finally about to bite the Big Bermuda, what potential mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio calls “the new identity politics” is back on the front burner. New numbers, new coalitions will come into play. In the forefront of this arithmetic is the Asian-American community, the city’s fastest-growing demographic. Once politically invisible, New York’s Asian population has increased 32 percent in the past decade to just over a million, half living in Queens. Nowadays, no serious pol can afford not to show his face on Chinese New Year’s. So it makes sense that an exceedingly ambitious politician like John Liu, a man with a talent for assembling cross-ethnic coalitions, might consider this to be the time to make his move—and indeed, Liu was a strong contender to be the next mayor.