John Liu & NYC: A Battleground for Political Equality

This piece also appeared in the Fall 2009 issue.

By Fay Gan
With correspondence from John Liu Associates

Councilman John C. Liu, the Democratic candidate for New York City Comptroller, is known among New Yorkers as the first Asian American elected to City Council.  As of Sept. 29, 2009, with 56 percent of the vote, Liu became known as the first Asian American to hold citywide office.  Despite the general election on Nov. 3, Liu’s victory was generally accepted as secure in September (Democrats outnumber Republicans 5-to-1 in New York City and often vote along party lines).  Yet, Liu’s victory in September was more than just a symbol for Asian Americans.  It was a sign that the political culture and society we live in, at least in New York City, is drastically changing.

While a triumph for Asian Americans in politics, one wonders why it took so long for an Asian American (AA) to be elected to public office, especially since Asians have lived in New York City for the past 150 years.  Today, the number of AAs holding major public office on the east coast is remarkably low, and it is a wonder as to what has kept AAs out of politics.  After a summer of interning with John Liu’s campaign for City Comptroller, this is what I saw as some of the challenges for John Liu as an AA candidate.

An obvious challenge to the campaign was the significantly low number of registered AA voters.  Unlike other minority candidates who can sometimes rely on a bloc of support, AA politicians do not have the same benefit.  Recurring trends show that AAs have proven themselves to be non-participatory in politics, and thus, an underutilitized potential voting bloc.  For example, AAs comprise 12 percent of the city’s population, but according to the National Asian American Survey by Rutgers University, less than 20 percent of registered AA voters turn up at the poll sites.  Considering this situation, Liu’s campaign for Comptroller was another “first” for AA politicians and an intimidating endeavor.

In highly concentrated AA areas, the campaign put a lot of effort into registering voters and increasing a pan-Asian vote.  After the Sept. 15 primary, it was obvious that the campaign had made an impact on the number of AAs who voted.  The following day, polls announced the primary victories of three other AA candidates for City Council — including, for the first time, an AA (Margaret Chin) representing District 1, Chinatown’s district.  The New York Times attributes the victories of these three politicians to the exceptionally high turnout of AA voters in these districts saying that they were “the highest in the city: 17 to 18 percent, compared with a citywide average of 11 percent, according to the Board of Elections.”  For the first time in the history of New York City politics, AAs have turned out as a single decisive political voice.

Nevertheless, Liu faces confrontation and distrust from some within the AA community — namely from Falun Gong (FG).  A spiritual group begun in China in 1992, FG has been referred to as a political, sometimes radical, group in New York City.  While campaigning at events or on the street for Liu, it was not an uncommon sight to see FG members handing out anti-John Liu fliers.  For reasons still unbeknownst to me and my colleagues, FG proclaims that “John Liu is the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party’s) aggressiveness in seeking to subvert democratic values and processes abroad.”  This statement is completely untrue; Liu had emigrated from Taiwan at age five and cannot speak or understand Chinese.  Unconvinced, FG still harbors animosity for Liu and their interest paper, The Epoch Times, continues to publish stories against Liu and his family.  Fortunately, these fabrications were never widely embraced, so there was not a significant impact on the outcome of the election.  Regardless, it shows that getting the “Asian vote” is not as cut and dry as it seems on the surface.

The next hurdle that Liu and the campaign came across was trying not to just be the “Asian candidate” whose goal was to be the first AA in citywide office.  Instead, the Daily News quotes Liu saying, “my goal and objective was always to apply my professional background and my understanding of city government to work for the people of New York.”  Being the first AA councilman and the first AA candidate for Comptroller put Liu in a unique position.  In a way, his campaign ran along two separate banks of the same river.  On the one side, the campaign would focus on his qualifications and experience as a financial planner for PricewaterhouseCoopers.  On the other side, Liu represented diversity and boasted a record for speaking out to expand his outreach beyond what was expected of him.  Rather than remain exclusively with AAs, he communicated to all New Yorkers that his candidacy was about more than race; it was about all of New York.  As a result, he was successful in capturing the majority of Black, Latino and LGBT votes in both the primary and run-off elections.

Though it was a long climb up the proverbial mountaintop, AA New Yorkers are now starting to be represented in key positions of their local government.  AAs are still underrepresented in New York, so there is more improvement to be made, but at least the improvement is noticeable.  Eight years ago, John Liu was the first AA elected to City Council.  Today, John Liu is the Comptroller-elect of New York City and three AA politicians are forecasted to join the City Council: Margaret Chin, Yen S. Chou and Kevin Kim.  As an Asian American interested in politics and government, I was inspired by Liu’s victory.  It was more than just the gain of a highly qualified candidate for the office of Comptroller, but also a comfort to know that in future elections we will not be ignored.

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