Community Impact Awards: John Liu bucks status quo as city’s first Asian official

Photo by Stephen Stirling
By Stephen Stirling

Although he is now known as a sharp−tongued politician who rarely shies away from a tough question, City Councilman John Liu (D−Flushing) paused and took a deep breath before answering a question on how a man with a degree in mathematical physics ended up in politics.

“I don’t know. You get roped in slowly but surely,” he said with a slight chuckle.

Born in Taiwan, Liu was a young boy when his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Flushing. He attended Bronx High School of Science and went on to receive a degree in mathematical physics from SUNY Binghamton. Following graduation he got a job as a manager at consulting firm Price Waterhouse Cooper and he and his wife settled in North Flushing in 1993.

It was not long thereafter that he became involved in his local civic association, which ultimately launched the beginning of his political career.

“I think that overall it was just a general nagging feeling that government was always giving you the runaround. I wanted to try to do something about that,” he said.

Now that he’s deep in his second term as a city councilman for Council District 20, which covers Flushing, Queensboro Hill, Mitchell Gardens, Kissena Park, Harding Heights and Auburndale, politics seems to come naturally to Liu. He is the outspoken chairman of the Council’s Transportation Committee, which tries to hold the MTA accountable to its riders.

Just over a decade ago, Liu, now 41, was a member of the North Flushing Civic Association. Today, the first Asian American elected to public office in New York state is eyeing a run at the public advocate’s seat.

Still, Liu today sounds less like a career politician and more like an everyday citizen flattered by his continued popularity among his fellow community members.

“The opportunity and the ability to get involved in issues that are affecting the community and actually make and see tangible change…the experience has been far more rewarding than I ever imagined,” Liu said. “So when it comes to citywide office, I’ll take a shot at it. If it works great. If I don’t get it, well [my wife], Jenny might not be that disappointed.

To fully understand the day−to−day routine of Liu, you need to start early.

When most of the city is still sleeping, Liu is up and reading the news at 4 a.m. every day.

“That is the time when news becomes available,” Liu said. “You have the Daily News at 4 a.m., the Post between 4:30 and 5. The first thing I do every morning is just get up−to−date on everything that’s happening. Sleep is overrated anyways.”

The rest of his day is loaded with public appearances, City Council hearings, town hall meetings and other activities before he typically makes his rounds at social events and fund−raisers in the evening.

But though he admits he is now deeply embroiled in New York City politics, he said retaining a firm connection with the people he serves is essential.

Liu said while it’s easy to get bogged down in statistics while attending City Council hearings, he never forgets what those statistics mean. He recalled the murder of Maurice Parker, a young man who was gunned down on Sanford Avenue in 2007.

“For Mayor Bloomberg its all about how we can talk about all the stats with crime being down,” he said. “But try telling those statistics to Maurice’s mom and the people in his neighborhood on that block. You can’t lose sight of that.”

As he got up out of a small metal chair in his office to greet former Borough President Claire Shulman, who had come to his office to discuss the future of development in Flushing, the mathematical physicist−turned−consultant−turned public servant said he would not have his life any other way.

“Public service is not only notable but achievable,” Liu said. “If you do it right, it is an incredibly satisfying experience.”

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.

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