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John Liu Shakes Off 'Embattled' Moniker as Mayor's Race Heats Up

By Jill Colvin | December 19, 2012 6:54am

CITY HALL — For nearly a year, City Comptroller and mayoral contender John Liu was saddled with an unflattering new title.

It seemed not a news story was published following the November 2011 and February 2012 arrests of his top fundraiser and his former treasurer on federal campaign finance fraud charges without a prefix attached to his name: "Embattled Comptroller John Liu."

The moniker became so widespread that Liu himself made light of it at a May campaign rally.

“I have a new nickname: ‘The embattled comptroller,'” he said.

“Well let me say this: I am ready, willing and able to go into battle for what I think is right for the City of New York."

But a study of recent coverage shows his campaign has managed to shake the moniker. Media outlets have returned to calling Liu plain oldCity Comptroller."

In article after article about a series of recent mayoral policy forums, not a single major outlet even mentioned the allegations, which many had predicted would be a death sentence for Liu's mayoral hopes —  and even grounds for resignation.

In one recent New York Times story, Liu was described as “a strong ally of labor who has had an uneasy relationship with the city’s business elite,” with no reference to the scandal.

While subtle, the change reflects the extent to which Liu has managed — at least temporarily — to step out from the shadow of the arrests of Oliver Pan, a top fundraiser, and Jenny Hou, his campaign treasurer, on allegations that they helped use straw donors to channel illegal contributions far above the legal limit into Liu's campaign.

“What might have seemed impossible a little while ago is seeming more and more of a reality, which is John Liu proceeding forward as a mayoral candidate,” said Azi Paybarah, a reporter for Capital New York who has been closely watching the evolving media coverage.

“The scandal that people thought would have taken him out hasn't."

Part of the success, observers say, has stemmed from Liu's refusal to acknowledge the impact of the scandal on his day-to-day job.

He has continued to operate as though nothing is wrong, with a break-neck schedule of appearances, ceremonial events and visits.

“What's interesting about Liu is how successfully he is able to run as if nothing were going on," observed Kenneth Sherrill, a professor of political science at Hunter College.

"He’s able to compartmentalize things, I presume in his mind, certainly in his behavior," said Sherrill. “It really is extraordinary."

Liu has also embraced what appears to be a winning strategy — making news at policy forums.

He drew headlines last month when he appeared alongside his competitors for the mayoral seat in front of a room packed with prominent business leaders and called for the complete elimination of all subsidies to businesses.

At a subsequent panel on education, Liu slammed Mayor Michael Bloomberg's record on school closures and called for an end to the practice of allowing charter schools to take over space in traditional public schools.

The strategy not only turned attention to his policy plans, but helped Liu stand out from the crowded pack of presumptive Democratic contenders, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former Comptroller Bill Thompson.

Sherrill noted that, over the years, Liu has often positioned himself to the left and in opposition to Bloomberg. But he said the headline-grabbing strategy is one frequently used by candidates who are otherwise struggling.

“If you're not going to raise funds and if you’re not going to get a lot of respect, you've got to run for office by making this big name recognition, and that generally involves running to the extreme,” he said.

Liu has also, so far, managed to hang onto the support of key union leaders, including members of the teachers’ union, DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts, Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and Transport Workers Union Local 100 President John Samuelsen.

Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who is not affiliated with any of the presumptive candidates' campaigns, said that Liu should not be counted out of the mayoral contest yet, despite his legal woes.

"He’s running for mayor and it would be a mistake for people not to pay attention," he said, noting that many of Liu's supporters have shown no signs of wavering.

"The Asian community will stand by him," he said. "They're not going away.”

Sheinkopf said that Liu has also benefited from the fact that there has been little news on the investigation-front, giving reporters little reason to mention the scandal.

“So long as there's nothing new happening, then it becomes old news," he said. “No news is good news."

But that could be about to change.

Pan and Hou's cases are set to go to trial in February, refocusing attention on the allegations just as what is expected to be a cut-throat campaign starts to heat up.

Liu acknowledged the timing could complicate his plans.

"Earlier would have been nicer," he said. "But I don't have any control over the timing of it."

In an interview with DNAinfo.com New York, Liu continued to distance himself from the investigation, describing the extent of prosecutors' probing as a shock.

"This whole episode has been rather bizarre to me," he said.

"It started just over a year ago and in the intervening months, there's been a lot of news to me — news that they've been looking at my fundraising more than three years now, which is a shock to me. They were diligent enough to listen in on my phone conversations for 18 months — another shock to me."

"It's hard for me to know what to make of it," he said.

And he said the embattled title had become such a part of his campaign coverage, he actually misses it.

"I didn't mind the title," he said.

"It had a certain cachet to it."