NEW YORK — City Comptroller John Liu embarked Sunday on a mayoral bid that illuminates the political rise of New York City's Asian-American population but has been shadowed by a fundraising-conspiracy case against two former aides.
Already the first person of Asian descent to be elected citywide in New York, Liu, a Democrat, hopes to become its first Asian-American mayor.
Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, "the rich keep getting filthy rich" while other New Yorkers are struggling just to survive, Liu said.
"I'll be a mayor not of the 1 percent but of the 100 percent," Liu promised supporters standing behind him on the City Hall steps as he announced his long-anticipated candidacy amid a daylong slate of appearances around the city.
He said he'll fight to bring back "the sacred promise of New York City."
"Come here, work hard, dream big, and work even harder, and if you do all that, you have a chance to make good," he said.
With that, Liu formally joined the roster of Democrats, Republicans and others aiming to take over from Bloomberg when his third and final term ends this year. The election is in November.
Born in Taiwan, Liu came to New York City at age 5. He grew up and still lives in the Flushing section of Queens, a vibrant hub of immigrants from China, Korea and other Asian and Latin American countries.
Many Asian-Americans here have looked to him as a standard-bearer for increasing their community's political visibility and influence. While New York counts 1.5 million Asian residents and the largest Chinese population outside Asia, they hadn't enjoyed the success in electoral politics of some Asian communities on the West Coast.
He said he's achieved political success because his parents believed "that an immigrant family named Liu could work their way up to become like a family named Kennedy."
And that's why, Liu said, they named him John, and his brothers Robert and Edward – after three Kennedy brothers who attained political fame.
Hundreds of supporters responded with chants of "Mayor Liu! Mayor Liu!"
And he shouted back, "Are you with me? Because we have an election to win, and we've got a city to change."
An actuary with a bachelor's degree in mathematical physics, Liu, 46, won the comptroller's spot in 2009 after seven years on the City Council, where he built his profile as chairman of the transportation committee.
As the city's chief financial officer, Liu runs a 700-person office that manages city pension funds, reviews and signs city contracts and audits city agencies. He says his office has saved the city more than $5 billion by refinancing high-interest-rate bonds and examining spending on consultants and contracts.
He has established himself as a vigorous critic – if not a thorn in the side – of Bloomberg's administration, particularly regarding an overhaul of the city 911 call-handling system, which Liu says ran years behind schedule and as much as $1 billion over budget because of poor oversight, and a scandal-plagued payroll technology project that led to a $500 million settlement and multiple fraud prosecutions.
Bloomberg and his deputies have disputed Liu's findings about the 911 system; indeed, the mayor once accused him of "intellectual dishonesty." They've said the city has heightened its checks on contracts in the wake of the payroll technology problem, while also noting that it did ultimately automate timekeeping for about 165,000 city employees.
Meanwhile, Liu has come under scrutiny himself over his campaign's practices.
Its former treasurer and a former fundraiser are facing federal charges of conspiring to break campaign finance laws to boost his campaign coffers. They could go to trial as soon as next month, creating an unwelcome subplot to his campaign's narrative as it gets into high gear.
Prosecutors say the ex-staffers used straw donors – essentially, channeled money from one backer through another – to skirt contribution limits. They have pleaded not guilty.
Liu has not been charged with any wrongdoing, and his lawyer has said the case will show Liu has always sought to run an honorable campaign.
Still, the case has been costly for Liu's campaign, which has spent more than $433,000 on legal fees in the past two years. And he has acknowledged, if joshingly, its toll on his image.
"I have a new nickname: `the embattled comptroller,'" he said at a rally last spring. "Well, let me say this: I am ready, willing and able to go into battle for what I think is right for the city of New York."
His Democratic rivals in the mayor's race include former City Councilman Sal Albanese, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former Comptroller Bill Thompson.
Republican contenders include Tom Allon, a publisher; billionaire businessman John Catsimatidis; former Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota; and George McDonald, the head of a nonprofit that helps the homeless.
Former Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrion, a former Democrat who is now unaffiliated, is running as the Independence Party's candidate and also seeking the Republican nomination.
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