With Liu, Asians Mark Political Milestone

The question in this and future elections is: how do you define "balanced?"

By GABE PRESSMAN
|  Wednesday, Sep 30, 2009  |  Updated 6:56 PM EDT
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With Liu, Asians Mark Political Milestone

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The victory of Councilman John Liu in the Democratic primary for Comptroller reaffirms New York City’s ability to integrate new groups into its power structure.  It’s an amazing quality. Are Chinese-Americans the newest citizens to gain power? It would seem so, as Liu is on track to be the first Asian elected to city-wide office in New York history.

The Dutch came first. The city was called New Amsterdam when the dour Peter Stuyvesant was inaugurated as the director general of the West India Company nearly four centuries ago.  He told the town elders: “I shall govern you as a father his children.”

The Dutch were driven out by the English in 1664 and for many decades afterward, the English ruled the city.   In the 1800s, politicians of English and German background became prominent. By the second half of the 19th century, Irish immigrants had taken over the political reins of New York.

I remember, when an Irish-American, Bill O’Dwyer, was elected Mayor after World War II. The prevailing wisdom among political bosses then was that the way to retain power was to have a "balanced ticket" in citywide elections.  That meant the three top offices would go to an Irishman, an Italian and a Jew.

They followed that plan in most elections. O’Dwyer’s team included Lazarus Joseph, a Jew, for Comptroller, and Vincent Impellitteri, an Italian-American, for Council President. I remember how reporters and the public accepted `the “balanced ticket’’ as a fact of life in New York politics.

The question in this and future elections is: how do you define "balanced?"  For the first time it appears that an Asian-American, John Liu, will win the citywide election for Comptroller. An Italian-American, Bill de Blasio, should easily win the office of Public Advocate.

The Mayor is Jewish. His Democratic challenger, Comptroller Bill Thompson, is black.

Census figures show that the city now is about 45% white, 27% black;  27 percent Latino and about 10% Asian. About 12% of New Yorkers are Jewish or of Jewish descent.  There is no Latino in the current mix, although Fernando Ferrer ran for Mayor four years ago and lost. From an ethnic standpoint, the general election will produce some kind of “balance” in the three citywide offices -- whatever value that may have.

What’s historically significant is that, for the first time, an Asian apparently will have one of the most powerful positions in government.  The comptroller is considered the watchdog over city finances.

Lee Miringoff, Marist Poll director and analyst, told me: “Ethnic politics continues to be important. It’s what New York has always been about: Groups gaining in numbers in the population and gaining high offices as they assert their power."

Walt Whitman said it well: “An appreciative and perceptive study of the current humanity of New York gives the directest proof yet of successful democracy….”

On Mott Street in lower Manhattan on Wednesday afternoon, crowds of Asian-Americans and others surged around him. They knew they were witnessing New York history. And he acknowledged their handshakes and hugs with a big smile and words of thanks. 

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