Asian American Political Aspirations Shaken By Liu Scandal

An ongoing FBI investigation into campaign donations to New York City Comptroller John Liu has caused a reassessment of his candidacy for mayor among his strongest supporters. While the Asian-American community has not given up on Liu, many say they are nervous about the probe's impact both on Liu's prospects and on rising political stars in the various Asian communities.

Behind the scenes, Liu’s damaged reputation has led to lengthy discussions in New York’s Chinese and Korean communities about the next generation of political leaders.

Recently, a group of young Korean, Chinese and South Asian professionals gathered recently at a Manhattan restaurant, discussing the scandal that has engulfed the first Asian-American elected to city-wide office.

“Did Liu come under increased scrutiny because of perceptions of foreign money? Will there be heightened suspicion of untoward behavior by other Asian American candidates or of Asian money in American politics? These topics are on the mind of every Asian-American," said Bright Limm, president of Korean Americans for Political Advancement, a group that mobilized a large turnout of Korean voters in State Senate District 11, contributing to the victory of Senator Tony Avella last year.

Liu received around $517,000 in contributions during the second part of 2011, according to campaign filings revealed Wednesday. In the first part of the year, he raised nearly $1 million.

A Record Tarnished

The tarnish on Liu's political shine began in October with a New York Times investigation that found a number of people Liu listed as donors denying they gave him money. Shortly thereafter, Liu’s fundraiser Xing Wu “Oliver” Pan was arrested and charged with conspiring to arrange a $16,000 political contribution to Liu under the cover of straw donors.

Now the FBI and federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether foreign money flowed into Liu’s 2009 campaign. The Foreign Agents Registration Act prohibits campaign contributions by foreign nationals.

Liu has said he is not daunted by the investigations, and will continue to be an aggressive comptroller while he raises money for a mayoral run in 2013. (He has not formally announced his candidacy for mayor yet.) 

At a recent fundraising dinner with prospective Asian-American donors, Liu was asked if the FBI investigation had changed his relationship with Asian voters and campaign contributors.

"At the end of the day, nothing is going to stop or slow us down,” he said.

Liu supporters held a press conference last month, and a Korean group of supporters recently held a fundraising event in Flushing, Queens. It was the first Korean fundraising event since the FBI started going after Korean donors to the comptroller, according to Danny Shin, senior reporter of 000.

Recent Support

Liu’s recent birthday celebration was well attended by the mainstream political establishment. It was the first fundraiser since he decided to accept donations of the maximum amount allowed, $4,950, in the wake of his fundraising scandal. Previously, Liu had refused to accept more than $800 from donors, which he said reflected the lucky number eight in Chinese culture, and also gave him bragging rights about his vast number of supporters.

But a Liu campaign event on December 19 was called off due to concerns about the criminal probe. 

The event's sponsor was the Lin Sing Association, a 111-year-old Chinatown advocacy group. Its senior adviser Eddie Chiu said the scandal had a chilling effect on donors. After the FBI visited the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, Chiu received calls from many Liu's supporters. They were nervous about dealing with the FBI and said they wouldn’t attend the fundraiser.

“The FBI investigation shocked the Chinese community, the Chinese are very sensitive to it," Chiu said.

The past decade saw a dramatic increase New York's Asian population, and with it a rise in political clout. Asians now make up about 13 percent of the city’s population, with more than one million Asians counted in the 2010 Census.  The community's fundraising ability has also grown. 

Some young Asian-American professionals suspect that the new immigrant political force is threatening to the political establishment, and this is partly why Liu was targeted. John Park, a member of KAPA’s Steering Committee, suggested that if Liu was not a person of color, his legal difficulties might not have aroused the same attention.

“Obama is still being questioned on his identity — if he is foreign born or is a Muslim. However, not one question about Mitt Romney. Does a foreign face equal foreign money?” Park asked.

There’s also concern that if Asian Americans become nervous about making political contributions, it could affect other Asians seeking higher office such as Assemblywoman Grace Meng, and City Council members Peter Koo and Margaret Chin.

Asian-Americans traditionally have lagged behind other immigrant groups in voter registration. But 2009 was a watershed year with large numbers motivated to support Liu's run for city comptroller. Whatever the future of Liu’s political career,  his political rise has invigorated a new generation of Asian-American political activists and civic leaders.

So despite worries about Liu's future, Bright Limm, the Korean-American activist, said there was reason for optimism.

“We should conserve our energy for political advancement,” he said.

To that end, a new group called the Asian American Civic Alliance, was formed this month to promote Asian-American political participation during the election season. The group will focus on voter registration and voter education. It also is planning to run a legal referral hotline for Asian Americans who have been contacted by the FBI regarding their donations to Liu.

Stella Chan is a reporter for Sing Tao Daily and a Feet in Two Worlds reporting fellow.

Feet in Two Worlds, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.