To understand the current case against him, one that involves a campaign brazenly skirting the campaign finance system in the most ham-handed way imaginable, it is first necessary to know a little something about John Liu and his variegated career.
Capitalizing on his American-story ethos—the kid from Taiwan whose nose was kept to the grindstone as a student at Bronx Science, through his brief career as an actuary at Price Waterhouse and on to becoming the first Asian-American to bubble up out of the melting pot into elected city office—Mr. Liu won his seat in the City Council by knocking on more doors and shaking more hands than his competition, but also by getting the imprimatur of the powerful Queens County Democratic Party.
Mr. Liu was eyed as a potential and path-breaking mayoral candidate almost as soon as he landed on the City Council. His march to City Hall helped blaze a trail for a slew of young Asian political operatives, a tight-knit crew mostly from Flushing and other Asian neighborhoods in the city. They kept to themselves mostly, didn’t socialize with the other staffs and were recognized by their slavish devotion to the principal. Mr. Liu quickly made a name for himself by keeping a watchful eye on any anti-Asian bias in the news media or among his fellow elected officials, and by being wherever a camera and a pack of microphones were gathered.
“Few members of the City Council can mobilize news conferences as quickly and effectively as Mr. Liu, and few have shown his willingness to do so,” wrote The New York Times early on in Mr. Liu’s career. “In his five and a half years on the Council, that has become a hallmark of Mr. Liu and his seemingly tireless aides, who are known to send reporters as many as four news releases a day detailing Mr. Liu’s various undertakings.”
He relentlessly worked the phones, amassing a formidable war chest in anticipation of a 2009 run for public advocate, but midway through the campaign, he abruptly decided to run for city comptroller—and implausibly denied to the press that he was ever running for public advocate.
Later, his campaign came under fire for its television ads. In one, Mr. Liu claimed to have discovered, while head of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, that the M.T.A. was keeping “two sets of books.” In fact, the discovery was mostly the work of two other elected officials, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson and former State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, and turned out to be a rather exaggerated claim in any case. Then, Mr. Liu’s campaign ran an ad in which he reminisced about how at the age of 7 he joined his mother and worked after school at a Flushing sweatshop. It was central to the campaign’s narrative—Mr. Liu was an up-by-the-bootstraps immigrant who knew the value of a dollar. When a Daily News reporter was trailing Mr. Liu for a profile, and they visited his mother’s house, she not only denied that young John had worked in a sweatshop, she denied that even she had.
Campaign aides accused the reporter of bias, saying she didn’t realize how a former factory worker might be ashamed of her past. Mr. Liu plowed right on ahead, knocking on doors the very next day, and the ad remained on the air.
The race was notable not only for Mr. Liu’s ads, but also for its racial politics. Against an all-white field, Mr. Liu transformed himself from Asian candidate and symbol of the new New York, home to immigrants from all over the world, to standard-bearer of the old-school black and Hispanic political machines.
Considering the historic antagonism between the two groups, it was quite a nifty political trick, one partly attributable to luck—an even minimally qualified black or Hispanic candidate would have forced him to recalibrate—and partly to his skill and dogged determination. He became a regular visitor to black churches around the five boroughs, was frequently at the side of Al Sharpton, spoke out early on the Sean Bell shooting and was one of the few nonblack elected officials to come out in favor of naming a Brooklyn street after black nationalist Sonny Carson.
None of the daily newspapers endorsed Mr. Liu, but with the unions and the black and Latino power structure behind him, he cruised to victory.
In office, Mr. Liu continued to operate in a world apart. He spurned Mr. Bloomberg’s suggestion for a postelection fence-mending session. He issued reports praising public sector workers as budget saviors just as they were coming under attack around the country. In a Village Voice interview with longtime investigative reporter Wayne Barrett, he seemed unaware of some basic functions of his office. The tabloids mocked him relentlessly, enough that the joke around the comptroller’s office was that the Post had assigned one reporter to “Liu Duty,” to write a damaging story about him for every Sunday’s edition of the newspaper. Again, Mr. Liu plowed ahead.
A Quinnipiac poll from last May gave him the highest approval rating of any politician in the city.
But trouble loomed, and at least part of it could be attributed to an insular team around Mr. Liu that would occasionally stumble on the candidate’s message. Over the summer, when the prospective mayoral campaigns leaked their fund-raising totals to an eager press corps, Mr. Liu’s office refused, holding out hope that The Times would run a story on Mr. Liu’s numbers alone. The paper declined, and noted Mr. Liu’s offer in the next day’s story.
It was a telling gaffe, mainly because at the time at least it seemed like Mr. Liu had a good story to tell. They had limited donations to $800 a piece, eight being a lucky number in Taiwanese culture, but they still had outraised most of the competition.
“Jenny Hou, Mr. Liu’s [now-indicted] campaign treasurer, said if the comptroller hadn’t self-imposed a cap on his donations, he would have raised more than $2 million in the past six months,” The Wall Street Journal reported, noting that the haul would have topped a record for donations during the same time period. In retrospect, it was a fateful piece of information.
Little did anyone know then about straw donors, or about Oliver Pan, the Liu campaign bundler who approached an FBI agent in what appeared to be an effort to solicit donations in exchange for face time with Mr. Liu.
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