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One On 1: John Liu, New York's First Asian-American City Councilman

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NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of Queens City Councilman John Liu, a public official who is also part of New York's delegation at this week's Democratic National Convention in Boston, MA.

Recognition can come in many different forms in New York - sometimes on the side of a garbage can.

"You never know when you're growing up that one day you might have your name on trash cans,” says City Councilman John Liu. “But as long as it makes the neighborhood cleaner, fine."

Liu is the councilman from northeast Queens, a district that includes his neighborhood of Flushing. He is the first Asian/Pacific-American to be elected to the City Council.

While he can laugh at seeing his name on a trash can in his district, he has gotten involved in more pressing issues too. Liu recently worked to bring to New York the widow of a Chinese construction worker killed on the job. Her visa application has been rejected by the American consulate in Shanghai.

"What I have tried to emphasize to people within the Asian community, as well as outside, is that there is a job to do, and that the achievement was not in winning an election. That begins the opportunity to what I consider real achievements," Liu says.

There is no denying that Liu's election was historic. But why him? Why was John Liu able to get the backing of the Democratic Party in Queens and several newspapers and community groups, and succeed where others had failed?

“What differentiates me from the other Asian-Americans who have run for City Council and similar offices in the last 20 is that I grew up here,” he says. “That helped a great deal in being able to communicate with voters and constituents."

Liu was elected in the fall of 2001. But the feeling that he was the only Asian in the City Council didn't sink in until his first day on the job, when the council broke into its established caucuses and Liu was left all alone.

“I felt it was my responsibility to call a meeting of the Asian Caucus,” he says. “I sent myself an invitation to that meeting, I went there, and I had a good discussion about issues of importance to the Asian-American community with myself. We held an election, and I nominated myself to be chair of that caucus. Astoundingly, I won that election hands-down.”

Liu's colleagues invited him into their caucus, which they renamed the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, and he also was named the head of the transportation committee.

He has a fascination with, as he puts it, "planes, trains and automobiles." But Liu sees the post as a chance to level the economic playing field, to make public transportation equally accessible throughout the five boroughs.

“The result is that people in different neighborhoods of this city don't have the same kind of access to opportunities that other neighborhoods have, and it’s the transportation options that really provide people with that access,” he says.

Liu says he hopes to be known not as, "the Asian elected official,” but rather, “an elected official who is Asian."

Still, the councilman will always be linked to his piece of New York City history.

“People have a great deal in common, and all too often we tend to focus on differences in race and ethnic background and food and different cultures,” he says. “Many times we should be celebrating those differences."

Liu is comfortable in his district, a diverse area of Queens which includes Flushing, where he grew up and went to public school.

“There were 50 kids in my kindergarten class, so when people talk about overcrowding in schools today, I say, ÎWhat do you mean Îtoday?’’" he says.

Liu is 37. He was 5-years-old hen he came here in 1972 from Taiwan. His father was in New York earning his MBA, and decided this was the place where he wanted to raise his family.

“He gave up a lot,” he says. “He gave up a fast-track career in the banking world in Taiwan to settle for a relatively low-level staff position here in New York. My mom had a maid in Taiwan, and here, not only did we not have any help in the house, but she was forced to work in garment factory and she was in the garment factory for over 12 years."

His parents are now retired, still living in Queens - in fact, two of his constituents. Liu says they were practical people, part of a first generation of immigrants more concerned with life's basic necessities than public service.

“The immediate priorities are to make sure that your family and your kids are fed and clothed and sheltered," he says. “They wanted to see the graduation from college, the good job after school, getting married, having kids, getting a house, that kind of stuff. Public service is a great thing, but first get the real important stuff done first."

Liu excelled in school, but not every moment along the way was part of the American dream. He was the only Asian student in his elementary school class.

“On days when they would serve us rice as part of the hot lunch, all of my classmates would pass the rice down to me, because that is what I ate - trying to help me out,” he says.

Liu went to the Bronx High School of Science, and then on to SUNY Binghamton, where he showed an interest in politics and public service by serving as executive vice president of the student body, and chair of the Student Assembly.

But when he came out of school, he took a job as an actuarial consultant, a decision influenced by his parents.

"I completely and unabashedly bowed to their wishes,” he says.

Finally, in 1997, he ran for City Council, unsuccessfully.

”It was a few years after my wife and I had bought our house and had truly settled down, preparing to begin our own family, and also I wasn't happy with some of the services we were getting from the city, although we were paying taxes through the nose,” he says. “I felt that the accountability was not there."

Liu won on his second try for City Council in 2001, while working at Price Waterhouse Coopers. So now he is the one who has to be accountable. That means a different schedule, and a different paycheck, too.

“The other thing that my wife loves to rib me about is when I get home late at night, she looks at me and says - she shakes her head - and says, ÎTwice the work and half the pay,’" he says.

Liu is married to Jenny Lee, an engineer, and they have a 3-year-old boy.

“The tradeoffs are sometimes pretty tough to swallow,” he says. “I certainly would love to have more time watching my 3-year-old son grow up. If I had more time, he might actually have a sibling now."

Liu wants to run again for City Council next year. After that, what of his political future?

“The future is relatively unclear at this point. I'm supposed to get something this afternoon to tell me what I'm doing tomorrow,” he says. “There really isn’t a whole lot of time, nor the need, to even think about that. I don’t believe that I’ve done everything I can as a member of the City Council yet. Until we reach that point, it's my job to do the job that I've been elected to do."

- Budd Mishkin

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