That was until the Oliver Pan story broke. Long regarded as a cheerful, attention-seeking motormouth, Liu found his press image had gone seriously south. In the 119 days between the October 12 Times piece to February 8, the New York Post, never fond of the comptroller’s extensive union ties and progressive political positions, ran 54 pieces dwelling on the finance scandal or otherwise portraying the “embattled” Liu in an unflattering light. Even Cindy Adams bashed him. The Daily News was hardly more favorable. One piece that raised eyebrows was a January 10 Times story, played on the front page, detailing how Liu had given out an inordinate number of commendations to various church and business groups—a pretty standard political practice.
The barrage engendered push-back, as Liu’s union and outer-borough minority base rallied behind him. He received standing ovations at venues all over town, including Al Sharpton’s House of Justice and a LGBT forum. Council member and prospective candidate for public advocate Tish James said, “John Liu has been saying things that have scared some people. This is a blatant attempt by the permanent and invisible powers-that-be to bring John down.”
Conspiracy theories flowered. Someone was out to get Liu, and it wasn’t hard for many to point a finger at who that might be. “Bloomberg hates Liu,” said one well-known former Queens-based elected official. “Bloomberg doesn’t like to be audited, you know. That CityTime thing was a disaster, and Liu has milked it for all it is worth.”
The CityTime thing is a scandal that, if it hadn’t been so mysteriously underreported, might by now have taken its place beside the Parking Violations Bureau corruption case that ravaged Ed Koch’s third term, minus the knife in the ample breast of Queens borough president Donald Manes. When the CityTime project (aimed at automating the city’s payroll, among other things) first began in 1998 under the Giuliani administration, the cost was projected at $63 million. Thirteen years later, by the time Liu became comptroller, the city had already spent as much as $760 million, the lion’s share going to outside consultants. Liu made it an issue, declaring himself “absolutely shocked to find this sort of waste and mismanagement at a time when the mayor is talking about closing schools and firehouses.”
“That sort of stuff pisses Mike off, especially if he thought Liu was using the comptroller’s office as a cudgel to run for mayor, which he has been doing since the day he got into office,” asserted the Queens pol, repeating the oft-heard charge that Bloomberg, who everyone assumes will support Christine Quinn in 2013, “uses his chairmanship of the Billionaire’s Club to influence coverage in the three daily papers.”
A more anguished form of push-back came from the Asian-American community. After all, for better or worse, John Liu is their guy, the first one across the line. No other Asian-American politician even vaguely approaches Liu in stature, experience, or easy crossover grace in front of a TV camera. The guy is just so damn friendly, so obviously pleased as punch when people recognize him and shake his hand. Even as the bad stories in the papers piled up, Liu continued to attend multiple events a day, continued to speak as if running for mayor. He seemed unstoppable, unflappable. Grace Meng, the Flushing Democrat who holds the State Assembly seat first won by her father, Jimmy Meng (the first Asian-American to do that), has had her differences with Liu in the past but says, “If anything happens to John, that could be difficult for us.” Virginia Kee, the longtime downtown political figure, went as far as likening Liu’s troubles to those of the Chinatown-born Danny Chen, the U.S. Army private who is thought to have committed suicide following a series of alleged hazing incidents by fellow servicemen in Afghanistan.
Beyond this is the overwhelming, unshakable attitude on the part of many that Liu is being singled out for no other reason than he is Asian. Uppity and Asian. Feelings in the Chinese community were more or less summed up by an elderly man named Chu, whom I encountered at a Year of the Dragon banquet held at the massive Jing Fong restaurant. Becoming a citizen after nearly 25 years of living in and around Flushing, Chu had never voted until casting his ballot for John Liu in 2003. He said, “When Chinese people first come here, they make us work on the railroad. That’s what they do to John Liu. Railroad him!”
At least this was the way it seemed back in January, before the FBI arrested Liu’s 25-year-old campaign treasurer, Jia “Jenny” Hou, last week on fraud and obstruction-of-justice charges. According to the 24-page federal complaint, Hou coached a campaign worker to imitate the handwriting of donors, offered to personally reimburse a donor for a contribution, and collected fraudulent forms from “straw donors” while in the employ of an individual identified only as “the candidate.”