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Former comptroller hoping to catch a ‘Liu Wave’

John Liu

By Ray O’Hanlon

John Liu had his line ready if his audience was Irish.

“I’m John Liu,” he would say, “from County Taiwan.”

The line invariably drew laughter and applause.

On Tuesday, November 6, the man from County Taiwan will be putting himself before voters in Northeast Queens County as the Democratic candidate for New York State Senate.

Being on the ballot will bring almost to a most dramatic conclusion a political comeback for a politician who flamed out five years ago when the actions of campaign aides brought his mayoral bid to a decisive halt.

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But there are indeed second acts in politics, and John Liu is now engaged in his.

Liu, who is named after President John F. Kennedy, served on the New York City Council between 2002 and 2009.

In 2010 he was elected New York City Comptroller. It was a barrier buster for a Chinese American politician, even in such a polyglot city.

The new job also brought Liu into direct contact with Irish American politicians and voters by virtue of the comptroller being guardian of New York City’s MacBride Principles law.

As candidate for comptroller, Liu told the Echo: “I’m not looking to maintain anything. I’m looking to bolster everything that’s right. The MacBride principles would be part of my philosophy as to how I run the office. I’ll be looking to strengthen those principles.

“Many of those principles could be applied to the way that city government does things right here in New York.”

In 2010 Liu was attempting to succeed fellow Democrat and incumbent comptroller, William Thompson.

He said at the time that Thompson’s $150 million Emerald Fund – aimed at investing in companies doing business in Ireland while complying with the MacBride Principles - was “a good investment” that would produce “superior risk-adjusted rates of returns for pensioners.”

Asked at the time if he would work to ensure that Emerald Fund money would be targeted to the most disadvantaged parts of Northern Ireland, Liu said: “As comptroller, and part of the fiduciary responsibilities, I would never be able to designate a chunk of money without closely monitoring where that money is going. So I’d be looking at it very carefully.

“And I would also seek the guidance of people who are very familiar with the issues. I haven’t been to Ireland but that’s going to change,” he said, adding that he had always wanted to make the trip.

He said that immediately after graduating college he had traveled around Europe, but the rail pass didn’t include Ireland.

Asked if supported the concept of a united Ireland, Liu said that he supported a “unified world.”

The Queens-based politician was born Chun Liu in Taiwan in 1967. He came to New York with his parents when he was a small child. His father, an admirer of the Kennedys, changed his first-born’s name to John and his own to Joseph. John Liu’s younger brothers are named Robert and Edward. The candidate said his mother drew the line at being called Rose.

Liu, whose pre-political career was as a manager at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, said as a candidate for comptroller that he backed comprehensive immigration reform.

“I don’t think piecemeal works,” he said.

“America is the destination all over the world. It’s fueled in large part by our own media, which projects an image of everything being so peachy here in the United States. So, we shouldn’t be so surprised how many people want to come here.

“We have to put systems in place that recognize that we do want people to come here and not treat everybody as criminals. They want to be part of the greatest country in the world. We should value that; we should be flattered by that.”

Later that year Liu would win election to the comptroller’s office. And he would fulfil his pledge to visit Ireland where he explored the potential for New York City pension fund investments, most especially in parts of the North most affected by the Troubles.

“These past few days have been incredible and very rewarding,” Liu told the Irish Echo at the time of his Irish visit.

“Although I have had a non-stop schedule of meetings, it has given me an overview of how to build a fairer and more equal society here,” he said.

“We need investment directly into areas such as West, North Belfast and Derry. We need to build on the existing peace that has been built in the north of Ireland and see economic growth grow from it.

“I spent quite a bit of time with Gerry Adams at Conway Mill on the Falls Road in the heart of west Belfast. I spent some time on the Shankill Road. To an outsider like me it was clear we have a place with people who are want to do the right thing, but just need the opportunities to do so.”

Liu said he was extremely impressed with the resilience of the North’s workforce stating: “We have seen people who are ready, willing and able to work. You have a highly educated work force, a relatively young force here and with the milestone reached with the peace process. This has paved the way for key ingredients for investment for the country.”

He stressed that it was his job to invest profitably on behalf of the taxpayers of New York City.

“It is my personal mission to help bring about change and a level playing field for everybody.”

The playing field would soon get rougher for Liu.

His bid for mayor in 2013 fell foul to a fundraising scandal linked to a previous campaign.

This in a New York Post report: “Prosecutors convicted his campaign treasurer, Jia Hou, and a fundraiser, Xing Wu Pan, on charges they attempted to defraud the city during Liu’s 2009 campaign by using straw donors to obtain greater matching campaign funds. Over the course of the lengthy investigation, Liu was never charged.”

Liu would nevertheless enter the political wilderness but this year he would see a chance for a viable comeback.

And he was prompted by the stunning win by upstart challenger Alexander Ocasio-Cortez over Congressman Joe Crowley in the June primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District.

Democratic voters seemed to be shifting leftward and this signaled the potential vulnerability of State Senator Tony Avella, a member of a group of Democrats in Albany that did not always follow the party line, much to the ire of party leaders.

Liu had challenged Avella in 2014 and but had fallen short in that year’s primary.

2018, a standout year by any measure, offered renewed hope.

The primary, on September 13, ended up offering more than that. It gave John Liu a place on the midterm election ballot as the chosen Democratic candidate for the State Senate.

Voters will decide on November 6 if John Liu is their chosen man.

Politics is an uncertain game, but Liu is certain of one thing: he has the County Taiwan vote sewn up.