John Liu Wins, Making History Again

John Liu at his primary victory party Sept. 13. (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

John Liu, the first Asian-American Council member and the first Asian-American comptroller in the city, made history again on Sept. 13. Beating incumbent state Sen. Tony Avella in the 11th District 52.9 percent to 47.1 percent, Liu became the first Asian American to win a Democratic primary for state senator, and most likely, will become the first Asian-American state senator after the general election in November.

Supporters who knew that Liu had fought a tough battle as a candidate after joining the race only two months before, cheered with tears in their eyes for him at the victory party in Bayside. Liu said the reason he defeated Avella, to whom he lost a few years ago, was that voters now realized how unethical the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference, of which Avella was a member, was. Liu also said he won’t turn his back on the Chinese voters who loudly supported Avella during the election, and would like to work with them in the future.

The atmosphere at the Bourbon Street restaurant, where Liu’s supporters gathered, became intense after 9 pm. When 73 percent of the ballots were counted and Liu was ahead of Avella by three percentage points, everybody became excited. Even Assemblyman Ron Kim, one of Liu’s endorsers, started staring at the TV screen with full attention. At around 10 pm, many current and former elected officials and old staffers who worked with Liu during his time as a council member and as comptroller arrived. By 10:20, when the result was clear and Liu strode into the venue accompanied by his wife Jenny, they were greeted with thunderous cheers and applause.

Liu, who launched his campaign on July 13, said he “took back this seat for the Democrats” in two months because Avella had joined the IDC and sold voters’ interests to the Republicans for his own political gain, and the voters now realized this. And the fact many other IDC members lost their primary race proved that voters were fed up with politicians who have no principles. “We need bipartisanship, and we need to work with people across the aisle. But the IDC is not bipartisan. The senators who joined the IDC have lost their honesty and integrity,” Liu said.

Liu called for his supporters to keep their sleeves rolled up for the final victory in the general election, which is less than two months away. A group of Chinese residents in School District 26 in Queens who didn’t like Liu’s views on specialized high school reform campaigned for Avella, making this election the first one in which the political rockstar of the Chinese community didn’t get full support from Chinese voters. But Liu said he won’t hold a grudge. “This is a democratic country, and everyone has the right to express their views,” he said. “I’d like to work with them in the future. I will reach out soon.”

Many supporters were ecstatic by the hard-won victory. Lisa DellAquila, Liu’s campaign manager, couldn’t stop her tears. Longtime campaign consultants Chung Seto and Mei-Hua Ru looked thrilled like little girls. Weiping Chen from the Gee How Oak Tin Association said he was too nervous for Liu to fall asleep the previous night. And on the day of the primaries, he and 20 members from the organization kept campaigning for Liu until the last minute.

Jimmy Cheng, former president of the United Fujianese of America Association, said: “Liu’s victory is a victory for all Chinese.” Hugh Mo, a lawyer and former deputy commissioner of the New York Police Department, reminded people that Republicans make up a higher percentage in this district than the city average, and Liu still needs strong support to win in November. “Chinese should not focus only on one single issue. We need to consider our interests from broad perspectives,” said Mo, specifically to voters who made decisions solely based on the specialized high school reform issue.

A few students from Francis Lewis and Syosset high schools sat at a table staring at the TV and holding their breath, and then bursted into cheers and hugged one another. They said as volunteers they learned many things from the campaign that they couldn’t have in class, such as leadership and how the government runs. Some of them have decided to study political science in the future. As for the result of the night, “of course it’s important. We worked so hard. We do want to win,” they said.

Liu, with a hoarse voice and exuberant spirit, lingered for a long time at the venue, shaking hands, hugging and taking selfies with supporters, a scene reminiscent of his victory night when he ran for city comptroller almost a decade ago. Or, maybe, after his political ambitions were thwarted by a few failed campaigns, this night felt even better.

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