New York’s Asian American “band of brothers” all defeated in Tuesday’s Democratic primary

Tim Wu was defeated in Tuesday's Democratic primary for the party's Lt. Governor nomination. (Photo credit: Photograph: Linda Nylind / Guardian).
Tim Wu was defeated in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for the party’s Lt. Governor nomination. (Photo credit: Photograph: Linda Nylind / Guardian).

Over this past week, I’ve been covering the New York Democratic primary, where three Asian American men — Tim Wu, John Liu and SJ Jung — were vying for the party’s nomination for Lt. Governor and various State Senate seats respectively.

Last week, I wrote about Lt. Governor candidate Tim Wu, an unconventional and anti-establishmentarian progressive best known for coining the term “net neutrality” who was campaigning as independent gubernatorial hopeful Zephyr Teachout’s running-mate on a platform of stopping the proposed billion dollar merger between Comcast and Time Warner cable, and other digital rights issues. Disregarded as a longshot candidate for most of the summer, Wu’s campaign gained sudden and significant momentum in the days leading up to yesterday’s primary vote, leading some to suggest that Wu might either win the party’s Democratic nomination outright or replace his mainline Democrat opponent — Kathy Hochul — on the Cuomo ticket; either scenario would have made Timothy Wu a near shoo-in as the first Asian American to hold elected state-wide office in New York.

In the midst of his sudden publicity, Wu publicly endorsed a cadre of Asian American Democratic underdogs — terming the three of them a “band of brothers” — last Tuesday: career politician John Liu and political newcomer SJ Jung, both running to unseat incumbent (White) Democrats in the State Senate.

John Liu during his term as City Comptroller. (Photo credit: Jonathan Fickies / Bloomberg)
John Liu during his term as City Comptroller. (Photo credit: Jonathan Fickies / Bloomberg)

Liu, already in a tight race for State Senate, raised eyebrows when he publicly rejected Wu’s endorsement, a move I argued on Monday was likely related to Liu’s status in this campaign primary season as the face of the Democratic eestablishment. In rejecting Wu’s support, Liu was repudiating a challenger looking to unseat a fellow establishment Democrat in Kathy Hochul; Hochul had earlier campaigned for Liu and come just short of endorsing his State Senate bid. And while there is something to be said about a man breaking through racial barriers to becoming the first  Asian American to hold city-wide office to standing as the public face of the party establishment, it didn’t sit well with me that Liu would so publicly rebuke another Asian American political outsider; Wu is, in many respects, following in Liu’s political footsteps to advance the cause of Asian American political representation.

It seems that in the end, however, that Wu was right to label his “band of brothers” political underdogs based at least in part on race: regardless of their status as political insider (Liu) or outsider (Wu and Jung), none of New York’s Asian American challengers managed to overcome their White opponent.

Within hours of the polls closing, news media outlets called the Governor and Lt. Governor’s races for the Cuomo/Hochul ticket. Teachout was able to win over only 34.3% of the state-wide vote, carrying most of eastern New York including the state capital of Albany but failing to make sufficient inroads in most of New York City or Buffalo. Despite predictions that Wu might overtake Hochul outright, Wu fared only slightly better: 40.1% of voters chose Wu compared to the 59.9% who voted for Kathy Hochul. While the New York Post reported last week that Cuomo’s camp might consider replacing Hochul anyways, should the Teachout/Wu ticket gain more than 30% of Democratic votes — which they achieved — it’s hard to imagine that a 20-point difference is close enough to warrant a last minute roster change for November. With Wu having being a political outsider with limited political experience and an unconventional campaign approach, it’s not actually much of a surprise that Wu was defeated last night.

SJ Jung is a Korean American businessman and activist running as a political outsider and who vows to "shake things up" in Albany.
SJ Jung is a Korean American businessman and activist running as a political outsider and who vows to “shake things up” in Albany.

Similarly, I’m not entirely surprised that Korean American businessman and activist SJ Jung, running on a platform of anti-establishment political reform, was also defeated in his race to represent District 16. District 16 is heavily Asian American, but Jung is a pro-immigrant progressive who has dedicated his life to community activism and Asian American voter registration, but who never held political office. On Tuesday, Jung earned 42.7% of the vote, a 15-point loss to incumbent Toby Stavisky.

What comes as more of a surprise is John Liu’s loss in District 11. The district is evenly split between White and Asian voters, with Black and Hispanic voters making up an additional 20% of the district’s residents. Liu has phenomenal name recognition among Asian American voters, but as I reported earlier in the week, his popularity even among his core constituents has suffered in the wake of a series of campaign finance scandals that culminated in the arrest and sentencing of two aides related to his mayoral campaign last year; consequently, Liu’s support among Asian American voters dropped a precipitous 30 points, and he finished with a dismal 7% of the general vote in the Democratic primary for the city’s mayorship.

Liu’s campaign for State Senate in District 11 was supposed to be a comeback for the career politician, and in the days leading up to the race, many news outlets predicted a neck-and-neck race. Yet, even before voting began, Liu was finding himself plagued with the same rumours of shady campaign practices: four days ago, the New York Post reported that Liu’s campaign had accepted thousands of dollars from at least three tax-exempt non-profit groups federally prohibited from making political contributions; meanwhile, the Queens Chronicle published a story alleging that the Liu campaign misused a local Queens resident’s name in a distributed open letter in support of Liu’s candidacy, raising questions about whether or not much of the letter’s attributions had been fabricated.

Nevertheless, I expected Liu’s outraising of incumbent Democrat Tony Avella by a factor of 3-to-1 to make the difference on Tuesday night, along with his winning of several coveted media and union endorsements. And, indeed, when the polls closed on Tuesday, early returns supported all those who predicted a race far too close to call.

Yet, as the night wore on, it got worse and worse for John Liu. By the end of the night a less than 2-point gap had widened to a deficit of nearly 600 votes: a difference of nearly 5%. By the time that news outlets called the race just before midnight with over 90% of precincts reporting in, it was already pretty clear to me that Liu had lost his second major political race in as many years, and this time with all the support that the Democratic party had to muster behind him. Instead of waiting for the final results at the end of the night, Liu made an early speech at his election night party thanking his supporters at his election night party; Liu never returned to the podium for a concession speech.

Is John Liu’s political career over?

It’s hard to imagine how Liu will recover from this second public defeat; my gut tells me that supporters who are waiting for a John Liu comeback will be waiting a long time before Liu re-enters the political arena. If and when he does, two things are clear: John Liu needs to pay particular attention to attracting broad support outside of his Asian American base, and he needs to hire a team of experienced managers and advisors to help him run a clean race without even the whiff of campaign finance malpractice.

In fact, I would be interested in Liu buckling down to do this. My coverage over the last week makes it seem as if I oppose John Liu’s candidacy: I actually don’t. Liu’s progressive politics echo my own, and I strongly back the project of electing qualified Asian American candidates to public office. However, I’ve been repeatedly disappointed by how Liu’s campaign makes easily avoidable procedural mistakes that draw suspicion of shady bookkeeping; these kinds of problems speak to resolvable structural issues in Liu’s campaign office that require attention.

Allan Fung, Rhode Island's first Asian American mayor, announces his gubernatorial campaign in 2013. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith)
Allan Fung, Rhode Island’s first Asian American mayor, announces his gubernatorial campaign in 2013. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith)

Meanwhile, Tuesday night did see the election of one Asian American to the nomination for a major political race in November: in Rhode Island, the state’s first Asian American mayor — Allan Fung — won the state’s Republican nomination for the governor’s office. If elected in November, Fung would be the state’s first Asian American governor. Fung’s opponent in November is Gina Raimondo, who is running to be the state’s first female governor.

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