In the muted precincts of Pricewaterhouse Coopers, City Council hopeful John Liu holds his listener with a steady gaze, the rehearsed earnest look politicians get when they are trying to be convincing.
“This is the fourth year of a five-year campaign,” Liu says with a smile. “2001 is when it’s going to happen.”
Liu, a compactly built, articulate and photogenic 33, has positioned himself to be the first Asian-American in New York’s history to be elected to the City Council. The seat he wants is from Flushing, Queens. It’s not just any of the dozens of seats that will open up when term limits hit the council next year. Flushing is currently represented by the famously cantankerous Julia Harrison, a Democrat who has been a political force in the neighborhood for nearly 50 years. Liu has been trying to win it for the past three, tirelessly courting Democratic party support. He is now prepared to spend up to $400,000 to ensure his victory.
Liu has his work cut out for him like a juggling act with flaming torches. Flushing’s strongest voting bloc is white middle-class homeowners, many of them senior citizens who look with suspicion at the profusion of Chinese and Korean signs in downtown Flushing. Born in Taiwan and raised in Flushing since he was five, Liu will have to convince them to look beyond his ethnicity, and at the same time persuade Flushing’s identity-conscious Koreans, Taiwanese, mainland Chinese and South Asians that he is the one and only Asian capable of representing them in the Council.
Liu recognizes his precarious situation. “I am going to have to build bridges over intra-Asian groups,” he says at one point, leaning back in his chair. “People of the older [Asian] generation are more closely identified to their ethnicity.” But moments later, he changes course: “I never say I am Asian or Chinese. I am a kid who grew up in Flushing.”
As Harrison prepares to leave office, she has yet to anoint a successor, someone who could count on her white working-class loyalists to deliver their votes. This is Liu’s opportunity, and one he intends not to waste. He is carefully nuturing an image as an “Asian-American.” It’s a nebulous identity that means little to Flushing’s partisans but usefully points out what Liu is not: not foreign, and not white. In Flushing, where the tensions between Taiwanese and Chinese are nearly as fierce as they are in the Far East, appearing to be neither is his safest bet.
Less visibly, Liu is breaking Flushing’s other political barrier, the rules that require young politicians to pay their dues in the Queens machine. In the past, Flushing’s elected officials rose through the ranks of the Democratic Party. They were foot soldiers first. Liu is something entirely new, and therefore threatening to people like Harrison. He intends to win with money and political savvy–and by tearing through the intricate web of promises, understandings and favors that make up politics as Flushing knows it.
Flushing is a town divided. Rather than a melting pot, it might more accurately be described as an assortment of disparate ingredients, loosely held together by the civilizing effect of tolerance.
The lines of demarcation are clear. The center of town, six long blocks on Main Street, is split down the middle into Taiwanese and mainland Chinese spheres of influence. Here, decades-long geopolitical tensions are as much part of everyday life as the pungent smells of spices, rotting fish and stale cooking oil. Nowhere has it been more apparent than Flushing’s annual Chinese New Year parade, where for years the two groups refused to march alongside each other. This year, for the first time, Taiwanese and mainlanders agreed to come together, and the results were comic: Onlookers watched as delegates from both countries jostled desperately to get ahead of one another during the Main Street parade. North and east of Main Street is the Korean enclave. Relative newcomers to Flushing, Koreans only began arriving in strength in the mid to late 1980s. Their population in 1996 was only about 3,300, about half that of the Chinese.
South of Main Street is a cluster of Indian stores. Apartment buildings nearby house a majority of the some 4,000 South Asians who have come to Flushing in the last decade. Further south are the white middle-class homeowners who are Harrison’s stalwart supporters.
By and large these groups don’t mix, and they don’t support each others’ businesses. To see a white face in one of the Chinese shops on Main Street is unusual. Likewise, the Koreans stick to their own stores along Northern Boulevard.
All this has caused the white population considerable heartburn. Old-time residents feel they’re being excluded from a community that was once all theirs. Shortly after a civic association meeting in Flushing last year, an elderly white woman, upset at another Korean sign going up near her home, exclaimed, “Every time I step outside my house I feel like I am in a foreign country.”
Now the politics are as inescapable as the signs; next year, the field of Council candidates will be packed with Asian candidates. As it stands now, Liu’s Asian competition is less than intimidating. Only two candidates have declared so far: Ethel Chen, 54, a retired librarian born in China and raised in Taiwan, and 41-year-old Terence Park, a Korean-born New York City Housing Authority employee. In two previous sallies, Chen has been unable to get the minimum number of nominating signatures to appear on the Democratic primary ballot. Park is a political neophyte whose last race was an unsuccessful run for the local school board in 1996.
Even so, Liu must navigate an ethnic minefield, currying favor without offending rival groups. To shore up his credentials with the mainland Chinese, Liu has joined forces with Pauline Chu, who ran for City Council on both the Democratic and Conservative lines in 1997 and won the majority of the Asian vote. Chu, like Chen, was born on mainland China and moved to Taiwan in the late 1940s. In theory, Chu will be able to deliver her Asian votes to Liu, and his crossover white votes will put him over the top in a crowded field.
“First you have to get your group to support you,” Chu says. “If your own group does not support you, you are finished.”
Liu would also be wise to win the support of Flushing’s most influential Chinese activist. Known reverentially in Flushing as “Auntie Wu,” the 80-year-old Susan Wu Rathbone may look sweet and frail, but her eyes are sharp and often calculating. There is power behind the gaze: as a figure who can reliably help both Taiwanese and mainland Chinese navigate New York’s immigration, social services and other bureacracies, she is equally capable of delivering their votes.
Rathbone, who married an American soldier and settled in Queens shortly after World War II, is the founder of the Chinese American Women’s Association and a vocal supporter of battered women. She wields particularly strong influence among Chinese senior citizens, who constitute a large bloc of registered voters. And she’s something of a local celebrity: When she walks into the restaurant across from her Main Street office, waiters stand up to pay their respects.
Rathbone’s group of voters would be a great help to Liu. “Johnny has called me,” Rathbone acknowledges. She is playing her cards close. “For now, I don’t know what I’ll do,” she says. But according to Flushing’s gossips, it’s all but certain that Rathbone will not back Chen, Liu’s most obvious Taiwanese rival.
Simply getting an Asian in office is not necessarily Rathbone’s first priority anyway. Councilwoman Harrison always made sure that Rathbone’s programs, which benefit battered women and elderly Chinese immigrants, were well-funded. Will Liu, or Chen, look out for her work the way Harrison did? And if a Chinese candidate does win the seat, will the politics of Taiwan and mainland China influence how the district’s money is portioned out?
In fact, the Harrison era may have been better for her. At lunch recently, Auntie Wu is filled with a sense of foreboding. “I fear I am at the end of my rainbow,” Rathbone says, her chopsticks nervously picking at spicy chicken with tofu. Regardless of who wins, she feels her programs will never be as well funded as they have been during Harrison’s reign.
Flushing has never been an easy place to build a power base. In recent years, this increasingly divided neighborhood has been held together politically through sheer force of will–Julia Harrison’s will.
City Councilwoman Harrison, who at 80 has a handshake that would give a Marine some pause, came up the ranks of the Democratic Party as a trade unionist, housing co-op leader and member of community organizations. After being elected to the State Assembly in 1983, she took over as Flushing’s councilwoman in 1986, a seat she has kept ever since.
Her style has little to do with coalition-building or alliances. Mostly, she wins elections because she is ornery, powerful and smart. Harrison’s uncensored manner of speech has endeared her to the conservative, tell-it-like-it-is white majority, and it has made her more than a few enemies. But she is a wily politician who knows how to consolidate power, and she does not forget what her supporters want from her. Her vigilance has helped her survive several frontal attacks on her seat, and outwit powerful Democrats in the process.
In 1985, the Flushing City Council seat was up for grabs. The late Democratic State Senator Leonard Stavisky was Flushing’s senior representative in Albany, and his wife, Toby, was angling for the empty Council seat. When the senator marshaled his forces to help his wife, Harrison smelled trouble: She and the Staviskys have been political enemies for decades. “I realized that with Leonard in the Senate and Toby in the Council, I would be squeezed from both sides, the state and the city,” Harrison now says. As a preemptive strike, she informed Donald Manes, the late Queens Democratic boss, that she wanted to come back to New York to care for her sick husband, who was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s.
“That was ostensibly my reason to come back to New York; that’s what I told everyone,” Harrison says. “But I knew if I did not come back I would be finished politically.” After weeks of political maneuvering, Harrison won Manes’ nod. At the polls, she then trounced Toby Stavisky with some 80 percent of the votes.
These are the kinds of strategies that Harrison has effectively used to keep Flushing united. With a deeply loyal core consituency, she hasn’t needed to worry much about the changing demographics of her district–until March 31, 1996.
On the front page of the New York Times that day, Harrison was quoted referring to the Asians in Flushing as “invaders” and “colonizers.” Queens exploded in controversy. The powerful Queens Democratic Party machine, backed by former Congressman Thomas Manton, State Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin and Sen. Stavisky, derided her and called for her resignation. From the sidelines it seemed certain that Harrison’s political life had just come to an end.
But just as quickly, Harrison’s white constitutents rallied behind her; after all, she had only echoed their sentiments. Ultimately, other Queens politicians fell back in line. McLaughlin, facing reelection in 1996 and realizing that Harrison’s supporters were hanging up on his campaign callers, made his peace with the councilwoman. In the 1997 race for council, Harrison routed the field.
While the racial controversy raged, Harrison never lost Susan Wu Rathbone’s support. The chair of the council’s Committee on Aging, Harrison has long been a supporter of Rathbone’s social programs and has sent “Susie Wu,” as she calls Rathbone, more than a few thousand dollars of the district’s discretionary funds.
John Liu’s perfect diction is not something the press or even his own campaign staff likes to directly address. The euphemistic phrase used is that “Liu is a better communicator.” What is left unsaid is that Liu’s English is perfectly American, as opposed to his Asian opponents who speak fractured or accented English. Unlike the competition, Liu can stand in front of the voters he needs most–white English-speakers–and not sound like a foreigner.
Liu has been careful to cultivate this crossover appeal, especially since he’s still something of a newcomer in Flushing politics. Unlike most of his current competition, white or Asian, he has spent the last few years forging closer ties with the Queens Democratic machine, whose support, or at least noninterference, he will need to win. He was recently appointed an officer of the New Century Democratic Association, the club founded by Flushing Assemblymember McLaughlin, who heads the city’s 1.5 million-member Central Labor Council. Perhaps coincidentally, Liu has also contributed $2,000 to the Committee to Elect Brian McLaughlin. Liu is also a vice-president of the Queens Civic Congress, an association of some 100 Queens civic associations.
But the real power Liu is counting on is the Park Side Group, the political consultants he has hired to manage his campaign. Consisting of Evan Stavisky, the state senator’s thirtysomething son; Bill Driscoll, the former chief of staff to the Queens Democratic Party leader; and Harry Giannoulis, a former Cuomo aide, the trio is poised to help Liu with the white vote.
They want it known that their man is out to cultivate Flushing’s grassroots. “John has the opportunity to make history by being the first Asian-American candidate in New York City to win office,” says Stavisky. “But he won’t win because he is Asian American–it’s not as if people will wake up and say it’s time to elect an Asian American. John will have to build coalitions.”
But not everyone’s buying Liu’s line. Liu already faces opposition from within the Asian population; at least one prominent Asian with deep pockets has declared Liu to be unfit for City Council. In a community that prizes wisdom and maturity, it appears that his youth is a liability. And some of Liu’s local connections may hurt him when the Council race heats up. His father, bank president Joseph Liu, was indicted on fraud charges last November, along with four other officers at Flushing’s Great Eastern Bank. John Liu says the scandal has already been played up in the Chinese press.
One person who certainly won’t be helping him is Harrison. She’s not interested in someone who intends to vault his way into office with the help of consultants and cash. Of course, she puts it more colorfully. Harrison calls Liu a “candidate for the Asian banking interests in Flushing” and makes no secret of her disdain for his lack of experience.
She says she will not tell her voter base who to choose, but Harrison has other ways of sending messages. When asked whether 2001 may see Flushing represented by an Asian in the City Council, she levels her gaze and shakes her head. “I don’t think it’s time.”