At a campaign stop outside the Church Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, an antsy John Liu, struggling to find hands to shake, asked a campaign worker, "This is the heaviest traffic? Not much traffic this way."
Liu is the current city comptroller and one of the Democratic mayoral candidates in this year's crowded race.
If elected, Liu would be New York City's first Asian-American mayor.
The challenge is particularly meaningful to Liu, who says he got into politics late in life after the City Council member representing his neighborhood in Flushing, Julia Harrison, "proclaimed that Asians are always looking to invade, never assimilate, that Asians are nothing more than rude merchants, illegal aliens and criminal smugglers."
"Front page of the New York Times, March 31, 1996," Liu recalled. He said it was a day he will never forget.
He ran for her seat the following year and lost "because there were many opponents" — it turned out Harrison's speech had a similar motivational effect on many. But he won the election four years later, becoming the first Asian-American member of the City Council. When he was elected comptroller in 2009, he became the first Asian-American to hold a citywide office.
Now it remains to be seen if he can garner the same political support from immigrants and the Asian community that got him into both those offices.
Out in Brooklyn trying to curry support with morning commuters, however, things looked bleak. Many people would not stop, and many who did expressed apathy at the very idea of voting. Liu campaign volunteers were at the ready with clipboards to register voters, though the deadline for voting in the Sept. 10 primary had passed a week prior.
Liu was undeterred, however. He and a campaign worker cajoled passers-by into holding campaign flyers and posing for photos with the candidate taken on the staffer's iPhone, and Liu kept up spirited attempts to connect to transient potential voters on whatever issues might be most important to them.
"I need your vote Sept. 10 — for schools!" Liu exclaimed to a puzzled little girl with braids on her way down the subway stairs.
The platforms of the Democratic candidates are at this point largely the same: Everyone wants more hospitals, more cops, more schools and universal pre-K.
Liu also said that his universal pre-K plan is distinctive because he is calling for early education to start at the age of 3 instead of 4.
"Lots of 3-year-olds are sent to preschool. … But it's only families who can afford to send their 3-year-olds to preschool that get there," Liu said. "You're starting kids off with huge disparities by the time they reach kindergarten and first grade."
Liu has set himself apart on one major issue: stop-and-frisk. All of the candidates have been critical of the practice and called for its reform, but Liu is the sole candidate to call for abolishing it completely.
When asked if he believed crime could continue to go down as it has under the Bloomberg administration, Liu questioned the accuracy of the numbers provided by the administration, saying, "Unfortunately there are too many reports of people not being able to file police reports."
He stopped just short of attributing the questionable numbers to corruption within the police department.
"Corruption is a strong word," Liu hedged.
When asked about the corruption charges that have earned the majority of his campaign's notoriety, Liu snapped, "What corruption charges? They're not corruption charges."
Liu's campaign was denied matching funds by the Campaign Finance Board because of a federal investigation into the campaign's fundraising activities. As a result of that investigation, a former campaign staffer and a fundraiser are facing federal charges of conspiring "to corrupt an election" by setting up "straw donors," people who make campaign contributions and are later reimbursed, with the intention of defrauding the city of millions of dollars of public matching funds.
Liu remains adamant the charges are spurious, calling the FBI's investigation "ridiculous and political."
"No campaign can defend [itself] against an FBI sting operation intent on deceiving its way into the campaign and making the campaign believe that contributions are legitimate," he said.
Testimony in the trial has indicated that the people involved were under no false impressions as to the illegality of their fundraising activities. Still, Liu insisted his campaign “doesn't do anything different than other campaigns."
"Except," he added, "I'm the only candidate who doesn't accept contributions from people who do business with the city."
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