Nothing Personal: John Liu Is Running for Comptroller

“The only way that you can make ‘John Liu’ easier to pronounce is you change the spelling of my last name to something like ‘L-o-o,’ at which point both my first and last name really would be just like slang for ‘toilet,’” said the councilman and city comptroller candidate as he rushed his black Nissan Altima hybrid the short distance from a downtown press conference to City Hall for a couple of land-use votes.

While Mr. Liu chattered at the steering wheel, aides Juanita Scarlett and Sharon Lee passed a laptop back and forth, hurriedly editing a media advisory.

“And I represent Flushing,” he said, continuing the apparent stream of consciousness.

Mr. Liu had actually covered this territory—in print—before. In 2006, he told a New York Times reporter that “except for the spelling, both my names are slang for toilet…And I represent Flushing. Maybe there is something to be said for destiny.”

 

MR. LIU, who is 42, puts a staggering amount of effort into the construction and maintenance of his public persona, even by a politician’s standards. It’s not just the precisely calibrated banter, but also the spamlike frequency of his press releases—ask any reporter in New York about that—the immaculately packaged immigrant-made-good biography and the more-or-less continual roll-out of institutional endorsements.

His ability to project himself in this way has done good things for his name recognition, arguably positioning him as the most formidable candidate in a four-way primary. The image-making has also had the effect of covering up the somewhat improbable fact that this most garrulous and aggressive of New York officials is actually exceedingly reserved and, according even to sympathetic observers, opaque.

“He doesn’t express a tremendous amount of emotion, which immediately colors your conversations with him,” said Michael Tobman, a Democratic consultant, who stressed that he could think of nothing negative to say about Mr. Liu’s tenure in the Council. “It’s a shame, because he’s a good candidate with an impressive list of accomplishments.”

Political consultant Norman Adler, a friend of Mr. Liu’s who advised him in his first run for Council, chalked up Mr. Liu’s reserve to cultural factors.

“He’s Asian! He’s traditional Asian,” Mr. Adler said. “He’s not like the Asian kids you see at City College. He’s more tied to the older traditions, and the older traditions of Asians in New York are to be personally very reserved.

“And the other thing is, he’s basically an accountant,” Mr. Adler continued. “You don’t see too many accountants out there rocking and rolling.”

For his part, Mr. Liu described his reserve in typically deadpan fashion: “If people ask me to speak out on an issue, I’m not going to be reserved. If people ask me to stand up and sing karaoke, I could be more reserved. Not so much for my benefit as for everybody else’s.”

Mr. Liu was born in Taiwan on January 8, 1967. His father, Joseph Liu, was a bank clerk in Taiwan who later immigrated to the United States to get his master’s degree in business. When Mr. Liu was 5, his father brought the rest of the family over. Joseph, a fan of the Kennedy clan, took his American name from Joseph Kennedy, named his first son after J.F.K. and named the next two Robert and Edward.

“My mom is not Rose,” Mr. Liu said. “She doesn’t listen to anything my dad says, so she chose her own name.”

Mr. Liu said his father initially got “a grunt job at a Japanese bank” called Hokkaido Takushoku, the position so low-paying that he, his mother and his two brothers had to work in sweatshops. Mr. Liu says he worked in two garment factories, one in Flushing and another in Astoria, after school and during summers from age 7 to 10.

“Basically, the thread came in these humongous spools, which were impossible for the seamstresses to use, and my job was with a little gadget to make more manageable streams of thread, which would be used by seamstresses like my mom.”

Mr. Liu did not recall the names of the sweatshops, which, in anycase, he said no longer exist.

In 1977, when Liu was 11, his family moved from a Flushing apartment to a one-family house in Bayside. Mr. Liu said his father was still was working at the Japanese bank at the time, and his mom working in the sweatshop. The purchase price is not in city records.

Ultimately, Mr. Liu’s father earned an accounting degree, and then, with his friends, started Great Eastern Bank.

“At the time, it was sorely needed,” Mr. Liu said. “It provided access to the credit markets, for growing businesses in Flushing.”

Mr. Liu attended the Bronx High School of Science, then went on to SUNY Binghamton, where he studied mathematical physics. After college, he worked at Equitable Life and then managed a team of actuaries at Pricewaterhouse Coopers while getting more involved in Flushing civic associations.

He first ran for election to the City Council in 1997 against Councilwoman Julia Harrison, who called Asian-Americans in Flushing “colonizers.” He lost. Four years later, right after his father, by then a bank president, was convicted of conspiring to embezzle $1 million, Mr. Liu won election to the Council by 202 votes.

He became the first Asian-American elected to city office, and he fast became the spokesman for the Asian-American population, fielding endless requests from ethnic media and from fellow elected officials, many of whom wanted advice on how to best work with Asian-Americans in their districts (and apparently didn’t understand that Mr. Liu is Taiwanese and not Japanese, or Korean, or Southeast Asian).

After opposing Michael’s Bloomberg’s successful push to overhaul term limits last year, Mr. Liu had to contemplate his next move. He very publicly toyed with running for public advocate, before jumping a few weeks ago into the comptroller race, one already contested by three candidates: Councilman David Yassky of Brooklyn; and Councilwoman Melinda Katz and Councilman David Weprin, both of Queens.

His flirtation with the public-advocate race notwithstanding, Mr. Liu insists that comptroller is the office he’s cut out for. He talks about his outspokenly critical oversight of various agencies in his capacity as chair of the Council’s Transportation Committee and a member of its Education Committee, and points to his sponsorship of legislation requiring city services to be provided in different languages, and of legislation prohibiting buses from idling near schools. 

“The goal is to do more,” Mr. Liu said. “And to do more could entail a number of different offices, but based on my professional background, I feel that there is the best fit for me in the office of the comptroller. Even if you look what I’ve done over the last eight years, with regard to the M.T.A., the Department of Education, it is always something around holding them accountable, not to my own issues, but to their own statements and promises. And many of them have been financial or numerical in nature.”

 

ON APRIL 19, Mr. Liu, in a dark suit and red checked tie, stood inside the entrance to City Hall leaning against a tall white table. It was a cool, beautiful spring Sunday. His black hair was perfectly coiffed and swept to one side, his face stuck in courteous mode and his reserve only underscored by the arrival of the expansive Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat, there to endorse him for comptroller.

Mr. Espaillat, the top button of his shirt open, gave Mr. Liu a big bear hug. 

“I think John should be elected comptroller,” Mr. Espaillat said. “He has the finance background, but he’s also a New York City story. He’s an immigrant, his parents worked hard for him to succeed. And he’s worked hard in the City Council.”

During his seven years in office, Mr. Liu has won the support of minority members like Mr. Espaillat for his willingness to speak out on questions of discrimination and race.

Councilman and former Black Panther Charles Barron of Brooklyn said he is endorsing Mr. Liu because he “has shown consistently he is not afraid to stand up to the powers that be to protect the vulnerable in our city.”

“I think Weprin and Katz have shown they definitely are good candidates,” Mr. Barron said, omitting Mr. Yassky’s name. “I think John Liu would be best for our communities, to make sure we go beyond this disproportionate amount of contracting that goes to white contractors and rich developers. A lot of communities of color are neglected.”

Mr. Liu has also won the support of Congressman Edolphus Towns of Brooklyn and Councilman Larry Seabrook of the Bronx, among others.

Outside, reporters arrived from Sinovision, China Press and NY1 (taped in English and Spanish). A coterie of Northern Democratic Club members held “Latinos por Liu” signs. 

“Mi nombre es Juan Liu,” Mr. Liu said. “Elíjame y no … no …”

“… fallaré,” suggested a woman standing behind him.

 

“… fallaré,” he repeated, in a passable accent.

 

THREE DAYS LATER, following a press conference in which N.A.A.C.P. board member Hazel Dukes called Mr. Liu a “councilman par excellence,” Mr. Liu stood under the eaves of City Hall and made phone calls, PDA in hand, Bluetooth in ear.

Below him, on the steps to City Hall, Comptroller Bill Thompson, the man Mr. Liu hopes to replace, was participating in a press conference decrying the city’s reduction of Kindergarten day-care slots. 

After a solid 10 minutes on the phone, Mr. Liu went inside and walked upstairs, fiddling with his phone all the while, and stopped in at Speaker Christine Quinn’s office.

“You’re the man!” said Phyllis Henderson, a legislative assistant in Ms. Quinn’s office.

“No, you’re the …” Mr. Liu paused. “The one.”

Mr. Liu walked into chambers and sat next to Mr. Barron to vote. Ms. Katz, his competitor in the race for city comptroller, was presiding over the committee. A few minutes later, after another round of phone calls, he sat on the side and spoke with a reporter. Mr. Liu called his chances in the race “fairly decent,” and said that if he loses, he will rejoin the private sector, where he has “a number of very lucrative opportunities.”

His personal options, post-campaign, didn’t seem like a very interesting topic to him. Not that I could really tell.

“I generally prefer to focus on the issues and what I’d like to do, but there are people who have said I need to talk about my own history and my background, my personal background, not just the professional background,” he said. “That’s something that I have been doing. Whether it’s something that I do a lot? No.”

drubinstein@observer.com

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Our full coverage of the comptroller’s race can be found here. Content specifically about candidates in the race other than John Liu Melinda Katz, David Yassky, and David Weprin–is also available.

More articles by Dana Rubinstein can be found here.

Nothing Personal: John Liu Is Running for Comptroller