New York elections: American-Chinese political star John Liu withdrew from the New York City mayoral election

New York elections: American-Chinese political star John Liu withdrew from the New York City mayoral election

(After the election results, John Liu and his wife thank all the participants. Source: Miley Kim)

Marietta Lam, a volunteer from New York City’s Chinatown chanted a song in support of John Liu in September last year, at the New York City primary elections. When this fifty-year old woman heard that Chinese media wanted to interview her, she seemed quite excited. In Chinatown there are many like Marietta. For them, this mayoral election had a special significance, because for the first time in its 150 years of existence, Chinatown had a candidate running in the election – John Liu.

In September in New York, in addition to the mayor election, there were also elections of the City Council, the Comptroller, and the Public Advocate taking place. Posters of candidates and leaflets with their political programs were everywhere, and occasionally the candidates could be seen delivering leaflets themselves in the streets. Chinatown, known to be politically apathetic, was no exception. Chinatown’s every street, shop, restaurant and kiosk were covered with posters of the various candidates, and, among them, mayoral candidate John Liu’s were particularly prominent.

New York City mayoral elections are similar to the American presidential elections in that they are divided in primary and secondary elections. The primaries select the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties, and the secondary elections are organised between these two candidates. Since New York has long been under Democratic government, the ratio of people registered in the Democratic and Republican parties is 4 to 1, and it was widely accepted that whoever won the Democratic primaries would be the final winner of the mayoral elections. Apart from John Liu, Christine Thompson, who once helped Bloomberg modify the law about third-time re-elections, former Comptroller William Thompson, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and former Congressman Anthony Weiner were all Democratic Party candidates. The Party’s primary elections took place on September 10th and the final elections on November 5th. John Liu polled almost 7% on September 10th, ranking fourth within the Democratic Party.

A Chinese family’s American Dream

In the week after his defeat John Liu expressed his gratitude to his supporters through Facebook. At the end of the message he wrote: “if you work hard, dream big, and then you work even harder, you can achieve success and the opportunity to make good”. John Liu’s struggles are a true portrayal of these words.

In 2001, at 34 years old, John Liu was the first Asian-American to be elected City Councilman in New York. The New York Times called him “the Asian community’s brightest political star”. In 2009, he got elected to Comptroller, the third top spot in New York City, only preceded by the Mayor and the Public Advocate.  

In his campaign debates and speeches, John Liu frequently referred to his own migrant background. He was born in Taiwan in 1967 and moved to the United States with his parents when he was five years old. His father, Chang Liu, admired President Kennedy and named his children after the Kennedy family members: John, Robert, and Edward.

John Liu said that his parents believed that a Liu could, through their own efforts, become similar to the Kennedy family. John Liu’s parents crossed the ocean to pursue the American Dream. The Lius were a middle-class family in Taiwan who had several employees, but once they arrived in New York, John Liu’s mother was an ordinary worker in a sewing factory. In one of his debates for the mayoral election in early August John Liu said that, once elected, he would work on developing small and medium businesses and freezing rent increases: “Because I grew up in the streets, I can understand the difficulties of small businesses.”

Many obstacles on the campaign road

From City Counsellor secondary elections to being elected New York City Comptroller, from being relatively unknown to openly opposing former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, from tracking down city government wasteful expenses to losing funds for his own campaign, John Liu’s political path has not been smooth. The fights between him and Michael Bloomberg, the fundraising scandals and the declining poll results, have all cast a dark shadow on John Liu’s road to the municipal government.

The relation between John Liu and Michael Bloomberg has long been a topic of concern for New York English-language mainstream media. American newspaper World News has described their relationship as “frozen cold”. On July 21st the New York Times announced in its article “Bloomberg Sues Liu for Rejecting City Contracts” that John Liu had prevented the signature of two contracts related to the creation of two homeless shelters. Mayor Bloomberg filed a lawsuit at the New York State Supreme Court in response. The court proceedings had not yet started when both parties’ spokesmen had already started a war of words. Michael Bloomberg’s spokesman accused John Liu of abuse of power, and condemned him for not being loyal to taxpayers and wasting their money, aiming at running for mayor ever since he assumed office. John Liu’s office argued strongly against this point, saying that they had been blocking Mayor Bloomberg’s wasteful expenditures, in accordance with New York City regulations, in order to save taxpayers’ money. John Liu’s spokesman also ridiculed Bloomberg for not complying with the regulations.

Apart from his difficult relationship with Michael Bloomberg, campaign funding was another obstacle on his path. On August 5th the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB) refused to issue 350 matching funds to John Liu, on the account of the funding not complying with electoral rules. This resulted in John Liu ending up with less than half of his competitors’ funding. The New York Times had revealed the existence of illegal funding in John Liu’s campaign as early as October 11th 2011. This report shocked Chinatown. Following an FBI investigation, Oliver Pan, a fundraiser, was arrested on suspicion of illegal fundraising operations. Oliver Pan was the former Vice-Chairman of the American Fujian Association and the Chairman of the Board of New York Golden Arrow Property. In 2009, when John Liu was campaigning for City Comptroller, Mr Pan had raised over $3000 for him. The FBI investigation also led to the arrest in February 2012 of Jenny Hou, John Liu’s campaign finance director, on similar charges.

These so-called “wire fraud” illegal operation charges refer to illegal and excessive (this time the limit was set at $4950) political donations. It consists in having friends or fictitious organisations act as straw donors and fill in donation forms under their name in order to receive more public matching funds. In the report of the investigation on John Liu, the New York Times found out that a number of people did not donate the money received to Liu or that the registered addresses did not match. It also argued that John Liu was fully aware of these illegal fundraising operations. This report and subsequent investigations undoubtedly took their toll on John Liu’s political ambitions. According to a December 15th 2011 survey by Quinnipiac University, John Liu’s approval ratings had fallen from 51% in May 2011 to 38% in December. Johnson Lee, General Counsel in the Chinese American Voters Association, is familiar with election regulations, and he indicated that this case had had an extremely negative impact on the public. “Forget about John Liu running for Mayor, even saving his Comptroller position is already difficult”, he said at the time.

But John Liu, despite losing $3.5 million on campaign funds, did not give up. According to the American newspaper Sing Tao Daily, John Liu expressed his disappointment over the Finance Committee’s decision at a press conference, but declared that he would not abandon the elections. He highlighted that the success of his campaign had nothing to do with how much funding he had access to, but was based on popular support.

Regarding John Liu’s loss of matching funds, Virginia Kee, a New York Chinese community senior Democrat, gave an in-depth interview where she accused the Financial Committee of racial discrimination: “There are seven candidates, why are they only investigating John Liu?” She even implied Michael Bloomberg was the cause of the Finance Committee’s investigation: “In the past few years, Liu, as City Comptroller, has terminated many of the Mayor’s contracts, and prevented Bloomberg from wasting public funds. Bloomberg got annoyed at him and has been investigating him for years.” Po-ling Ng from the New York Open Senior Center kept a neutral position on the matter. She felt that this matter was “hard to judge, it is difficult to come to a conclusion; if there are indeed problems in John Liu’s campaign funding then he should ‘face them frankly’.”

Since he lost his matching funds, John Liu’s campaign team finances were strained. According to the electoral law, candidates who opt in for public matching funds cannot withdraw at this point. This means that John Liu could not provide funds for his campaign himself, like Bloomberg did. Many voters concerned with the election said that they had seen the other candidates’ advertisements on TV but not John Liu’s – a problem, as television advertisements have often been the best source of publicity for candidates.

Besides, John Liu had been consistently falling in the opinion polls.

(Image source: Quinnipiac University Poll)

John Liu’s support fell from 7% on July 24th to 4% on October 13th. Of course, ethnic Chinese people are not included in the opinion poll so some voters optimistically said that the opinion polls should not be trusted. “John Liu at the bottom of the opinion polls” was the headline of Chinese language newspaper Sing Tao Daily on August 29th. American newspaper The China Press published on October 13th an interview with John Liu after his defeat, stating that one reason for his defeat was that the opinion polls inaccurately represented John Liu’s supporters as very few, giving the Asian community little incentive to vote for him, as they could not see him winning the elections.

The Tragic End, Back against the Wall

The evening of the election, in view of the 4% polls result, a Chinatown supporter of John Liu admitted: “we all know the current situation very well, but he is still young, he will have another chance.” Another voter said: “even if everyone here had voted, John Liu would not have necessarily been elected.” However, John Liu still took part in every campaign rally. In his campaign office, his activities schedule showed that he started his itinerary at 7 am.

On September 9th, the day before the election, in John Liu’s campaign office on Manhattan’s Mott Street, over thirty volunteers were busy preparing for phone canvassing. Among them, Hyeyoon Hur, a Korean-American volunteer said, slightly tired, that she had been volunteering for the past two months. She made many phone calls every day; it is exhausting but the more she came to know what John Liu did, the more she hoped he would become City Mayor.

On September 10th, the day of the election, at 6.30am, Alice Chao from Chinatown went to vote and support John Liu at her local polling station as soon as she got up, afterwards still having to rush to work. When we mentioned the obstacles the Chinese-American candidate faced in this election, Ms Chao got somewhat angry: “Liu has been the one with most disadvantages in this election.” She believed that the Financial Committee had no reason to withdraw his campaign funds and therefore she was supporting him with even greater energy: “I believe he is a person of integrity, so even if he doesn’t have money, he has people’s hearts.”

At the door of one of Chinatown’s polling stations, Jimmy Cheng, the Chairman of the influential United Fujianese American Association told our reporter: “Today, Chinatown’s votes are basically all for John Liu.” When asked about his expectations on the final result, Jimmy Cheng said: “As long as the final votes are more than half of the polls, it is a victory.”

Mr Cheng also said that the New York Chinese community has been opening up to the rest of the city for ten years. In these ten years, there have been many Chinese American politicians candidates for City Councilmen, Comptroller or Mayor for instance. “If you want to integrate the Chinese into American society, you have to participate in politics, come and get votes… There is pride in the Chinese getting involved in politics,” Jimmy Cheng concluded excitingly at the end of the interview. “Even if he is not elected, this is not one man’s loss, we haven’t lost.”

At about 10 pm on September 10th the New York Election Board published the figures on its website: Bill de Blasio’s turnout rate was over 40%, making him the Democratic candidate for the secondary elections in November.

At 10.45pm, John Liu, together with his wife and son, attended his primary election night during which he accepted his defeat, but at the same time announced in a slightly hoarse voice his staunch and unyielding spirit. “Even though I was defeated in this election, we have not lost. Through this election, we have made people realise that New York can grow and change. This is not our last battle; we’ll keep on working hard for this!”

At this point, Hyeyoon Hur suddenly walked out of the stage and started crying, sitting on the floor on her own. In addition to this Korean-American young woman, there were many volunteers and supporters who, just like her, could not help but cry when they saw the final results.

Another group of African-American and Hispanic volunteers were grieving, singing over and over again the rap song they wrote and sang during the campaign: “Hey, Liu, you know the world, tell the world this is his show.”

(John Liu’s team of volunteers included people from all races and skin colours, who were nervously waiting for the final result. Source: Miley Kim)

Senior Democrat Virginia Kee explained that it is very difficult for Chinese-American politicians to get into the highest political levels, as a glass-ceiling effect subsists in politics. Congresswoman Judy Chu provided a more detailed analysis, and she told American newspaper The China Press that there has always been a glass ceiling above the Asian community, especially in the high-technology industry. After an Asian-American white-collar worker has reached a certain level, he will be blocked at that level by an invisible glass ceiling, unable to accede to the highest management positions. This means that even if an Asian-American has the same qualifications and experience as someone from a different background, it does not mean that he can get the same treatment or find a job in the same position.

There are many reasons for this glass-ceiling effect. Virginia Kee thinks that these reasons may include the fact that many new immigrants do not know how to vote, and they are not familiar with local regulations, which prevents them from voting. At the same time, many immigrants are not interested in voting and the rest of the population does not identify much with Chinese-American people. Moreover, many mainstream American media, led by the Daily News, often published unfavourable stories about John Liu.

On September 11th, after the results of the primaries came out, World News pointed out in an editorial that previous elections had demonstrated that, compared with other communities, the New York Chinese community lacked enthusiasm for the elections. Published figures show that in the 2012 elections, the turnout rate among New York Chinese-Americans was 39.4%, lower than the 46.1% in the Korean community. It the lowest figure among the major ethnic groups, and very far from the 60% turnout rate among the Jewish and Irish communities.

Po-Ling Ng, director of the Open Senior Center who once ran for Chairman of the School Board, said that New York Chinese-Americans have always felt like they had nothing to do with politics. Due to the low turnout rate, Chinatown’s voice is often ignored: “Because we don’t take part in politics, we don’t have a voice. The Chinese must take part in politics.” Speaking about Chinatown’s enthusiasm for politics, Po-ling Ng asks: “Why can Chinese people have financial and educational elites, but we are not able to have a political elite?”

Alice Chao has been voting for thirty years, and she admits that there are a lot of Chinese people in the area who do not know who the City Mayor or Congressmen are. “They only care about their work and their children’s education. Many immigrants come here so that their children can receive a better education,” she said, “therefore a lot of Chinese are not aware of the importance of voting.” This has caused mainstream media as well as the general public to ignore the Chinese community’s political aspirations.

Many interview respondents mentioned the Prison Incident in New York’s Chinatown in the 1980s. According to The China Press records, in 1981 Ed Koch, then New York City’s Mayor, insisted on building a prison at the corner of Walker Street and Baxter Street in Chinatown, because “Chinatown does not vote, so it can be ignored.” The news spread over Chinatown and caused a great shock. After the lobbying efforts failed, the Chinese community decided to organise protests led by the Chinese Association. After this incident, many Chinese came to realise the importance of voting.

“If you don’t vote, you have no power.” Former Mayor Ed Koch mocking the Chinese for not voting hurt Chinese people’s hearts. Therefore, many newcomers, new immigrants who have yet to understand how to vote, have slowly started to adapt to the American electoral system and the Chinese American Voters Alliance came into being. Driven by this association, thousands of Chinese-Americans have registered to vote, and the Chinese voter turnout rate has been rising steadily. In 2009, the New York Chinese community finally produced its first citywide elected official, John Liu.

“Today, no matter what association within the Chinese community, they are all gradually integrating into mainstream society. We must keep letting the rest of the population hear our voice, only then will we be victorious,” said Jimmy Cheng, a middle-aged man from Fujian, smiling. This New York City mayoral election was not only a one-time game to choose the City Mayor. For New York Chinese-Americans, John Liu has managed to break the ice in the history of Chinese political awakening with 47,286 cracks, even though this only represents 6.84% of the total voting population.

This report is originally written in Chinese characters. 

Miley Kim, Hong Kong and Macao reporter for China Current (from New York)

Translator: Laure Zultak

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