En Español Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Immigration
Type: Media Coverage

A Reputation for His Outspokenness

 

John
C. Liu bristles at an oft-repeated criticism that he has the tendency to
grandstand, that he seems most at home in front of a phalanx of microphones. If
it seems that way, he said, it is because he recalls with regret one time when
he remained quiet

In
2002, when Mr. Liu was in his first term as a city councilman from Queens, a
56-year-old Bronx liquor store owner named Li
Qiang Shu was killed when a man hit him in the head before robbing Mr. Li’s
store. Because of a technicality in the law, the assailant was charged with
misdemeanor assault.

Mr.
Liu, who was the first Asian-American elected to the Council, read about it in
the newspaper. “I didn’t speak up until a few days later, and by then the
wheels of justice had begun to grind,” he said. “Ever since, I resolved that
there are certain times when you need to speak out and speak out loudly.”

And
so he has: about hate crimes, about one of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s
periodic outbursts at reporters, and even about a proposal to segregate the
contestants on the television show “Survivor” by race.

And
he has spoken out on topics that he pursued as a lawmaker, including an
initiative to give New Yorkers better access to translation services, and
recognition for holidays practiced by immigrant and minority communities.

He
has won a diverse following of allies that helped propel him to within a breath
of winning the city comptroller’s race outright on Sept. 15. Instead he faces
Councilman David Yassky of Brooklyn in
Tuesday’s runoff.

But
Mr. Liu’s propensity to speak freely has also sometimes spelled trouble. He has
been criticized for being confrontational during Council meetings. Mr. Yassky
released a television ad this week that used a series of Daily News articles
critical of Mr. Liu, including one saying he embellished a story about working
in a sweatshop as a child.

Gene
Russianoff, a staff lawyer at the Straphangers Campaign, said some of the
attacks on Mr. Liu were overblown, particularly claims that he falsely took
credit for exposing waste in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“He
has run a bunch of good hearings,” Mr. Russianoff said. “Many council members
do not know how to put a question mark at the end of sentences — they tirade,
fulminate and run out of steam.” But Mr. Liu strives, he said, “to get
information out.”

Though
it sounds like an election-year cliché, Mr. Liu, who lives in Flushing, Queens,
with his wife, Jenny, and their 8-year-old son, said he was “proudest of
opening up City Hall,” referring to city observances for Diwali, the Hindu
festival of lights; the Asian Lunar New Year; and other international holidays.

Despite
their sharp exchanges, Mr. Liu, 42, and Mr. Yassky have much in common. Both
are considered workaholics and particularly adept at attracting smart staff
members. They have also shown a talent for distilling the thousands of requests
for help that council members receive and turning them into winning political
issues.

In
2002, Mr. Liu was approached by an immigrant advocacy group, Make the Road New
York
, which asked him to fight to make city agencies provide better translation
services. Mr. Liu later pursued other translation initiatives, and he says his
efforts prompted the city to add many languages to the 311 service.

“He
was able to bring together a lot of people and keep up the momentum,”
said
Javier Valdes, deputy director of Make the Road. Though Mr. Liu has been
criticized for stepping on his colleagues’ toes, Councilwoman Gale A. Brewer,
who worked with Mr. Liu on the original bill, said he was good at sharing
credit.

Another
colleague, Councilman Tony Avella, who has often clashed with Mr. Liu, told a
less complimentary story. He said he soured on him years ago, after deciding
that Mr. Liu misled a group of constituents at a community meeting. The meeting
was held to discuss the Department of Transportation’s proposal to widen a road
straddling Mr. Liu’s and Mr. Avella’s districts.

In
Mr. Avella’s version, Mr. Liu, who was being booed by homeowners, “got up and
said the D.O.T. is not going to do the project.” But that was not true, Mr.
Avella said on Wednesday.

In
reply, Mr. Liu said it was. The Transportation Department, he said, “assured me
they were not going ahead, and in fact the budget was not in place,” he said.
“I thought Tony was riling up the crowd unnecessarily.” Both men said a
scaled-back version of the project was eventually completed.

The
feuding with Mr. Avella was hardly Mr. Liu’s biggest fight as a councilman.
During the debate over term limits, Mr. Liu emerged as a leader, and found
himself in a familiar place, speaking out forcefully against the mayor’s plan.

“John
has been an independent voice,” said Councilman David I. Weprin, who endorsed
Mr. Liu after running against him in the comptroller’s race. “He’s spoken up
for what he believes in.