ALBANY — John Liu, best known for his former role as New York City comptroller, is poised to become New York’s first Asian-American state senator.
It is something of a comeback for the trailblazing ex-city councilman, who ran for New York City mayor in 2013 and came in fourth place in that crowded Democratic primary after his campaign faced a fundraising scandal
Liu is accustomed to being the first, having already made history as the City’s first Asian-American Council member in 2002 and the first in his ethnic group to hold a citywide office, but he shrugs off the distinction.
“Yes, I’m the first Asian American, but as I often say, I wish I were the ninth or 10th,” Liu said. “I mean, for goodness sake, it’s 2018.”
Liu unseated Sen. Tony Avella, of the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference, in the September 13 primary, in a campaign fueled by the anti-IDC movement that took down six of the eight former breakaway Democrats. As the Democratic nominee, he must still take on Republican nominee Vickie Paladino in the overwhelmingly Democratic Queens district in November, but Liu said he is already undertaking his first battle: finding a caucus.
“When you are Asian American in government, even in 2018, you just have to build coalitions to get anything done,” Liu said. “You are in the minority of minorities.”
While caucuses have no formal power, the ability to vote as a block carries weight. Currently, there is a joint legislative Conference Of Black Senators, a Women’s Caucus, the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus, and each chamber has its own Latino caucus/task force.
Liu, always the jokester, said he has already chatted with Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, about possibly joining the Latino Caucus.
“His reaction was a polite ‘hm.'” Liu said, laughing.
Liu’s quirky sense of humor sometimes makes it hard to tell how seriously he takes caucus membership. When “Asian” was added to the City Council minority caucus name to accommodate Liu, he said he petitioned to have the words listed alphabetically.
“It should really be the Asian, Black and Latino Caucus, right?” His idea to put Asians first didn’t pick up any support, he said.
Liu was born in Taiwan and moved to Queens as a child. He had a very successful career in City politics before becoming a municipal finance professor at Baruch College and Columbia University. He had previously challenged Avella for the 11th Senate district seat in 2014, but lost in the primary by 800 votes.
Liu’s move to state government is significant as it may give Asians the critical mass needed in Albany to influence the policy agenda. New York’s 1.8 million Asian-American population, while making up almost 10 percent of the state’s residents, have long been underrepresented in government.
Ron Kim, a Korean American from Flushing, Queens, knows this well, having succeeded former Assemblywoman and now-Rep. Grace Meng in 2013. Meng’s father, Jimmy Meng, was elected to the same seat in 2004, becoming the first Asian-American member ever to serve in the Legislature.
Kim said joining the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian caucus has been the most effective way to have a voice in Albany.
“That’s the largest caucus in Albany and it holds the most influence and clout,” Kim said. “Finally we can have these conversations where minorities and ethnic groups are not pitted against each other, but can work together to make sure we all get a bigger piece of the pie.”
In 2017, the caucus of one grew to two. Kim and Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who was elected to the lower Manhattan Assembly seat previously held my ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in 2016, formed the Asian Pacific American Task Force last year. They were granted an annual budget of $40,00 for staff and research on issues impacting Asian-American communities, though it may take a few years to get off the ground.
“Now that we would have another member on the Senate side, I believe we qualify to have a caucus,” Kim said. “It is still semantics at this point, but it is symbolic to have Asian Americans on both sides of the house.”
Liu’s primary win, he said, “is encouraging not just for Asian Americans, but all immigrants… hopefully it will signal to members of South Asian communities and Muslim communities communities that they too can run for office.”
Caucus or not, Liu says he has a few more ideas for building coalitions with fellow legislators. He received his pilot licence two years ago and plans to avoid the traffic and fly from New York City to Albany for weekly legislative sessions if elected this fall. Several of his likely future colleagues have already asked him for a lift, Liu said.
“Hey, if a plane ride can gain co-sponsorship on an important bill, why not?” he said.