Mayoral candidate John Liu: Gutsy or arrogant?

Xing Wu Pan, aka Oliver Pan, a former Xing Wu Pan, aka Oliver Pan, a former fundraiser for NYC Comptroller John Liu, leaves Manhattan Federal Court. (Nov. 12, 2102)

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New ...

If and when the time comes to judge Comptroller John Liu in the voting booth, the decision of the jury that is the New York City electorate may turn on whether they view him as gutsy or arrogant.

Liu's continued presence in the mayoral race marks an unusually bold stroke. Here's the city's elected financial officer still running for the top job after his former campaign treasurer and a campaign supporter were convicted in a scheme to use "straw donors" to evade contribution limits.

Liu, 46, has not been charged with wrongdoing. In public statements, he challenges the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan. The day after verdicts were announced against donor Xing Wu "Oliver" Pan and Liu's ex-treasurer, Jia "Jenny" Hou, Liu urged the federal prosecutors to "put up or shut up" regarding his own status.

The clash plays out against the biggest wave of federal political corruption cases in New York in decades. It involves a City Hall that only two mayors ago came under the control of Rudy Giuliani and several colleagues from the very office Bharara now runs.

During closing arguments last week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Anderson suggested that Liu, though not a defendant, knew the true source of the funds funneled illegally to his campaign. Some wondered if Anderson was driving off the road a bit to clip Liu, or just attempting to help jurors make sense of what they'd heard in testimony. Liu slammed the statement while expressing sadness at the verdict.

"I continue to believe in Jenny being a good person and exceptional individual," he said. "I look forward to this year's mayoral election and will continue to ask the voters for their support."

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U.S. Navy Admiral David Farragut famously said: "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."

This could be Liu's slogan.

Running for comptroller in 2009, the Taiwan-born Liu's claim in televised ads that he had to work in a sweatshop as a child was contradicted by family members quoted in at least one published report. Four years later, when he announced for mayor, Liu came right back with the assertion: "My mom spent years in a sweatshop, where I often had to pitch in to make ends meet."

In debates and forums, Liu strives to stake out blunter positions than his rivals'.

Only he and long shot candidate Randy Credico have made it a point to say they would bar stop-and-frisk outright as a police tactic. Liu has condemned corporate tax deals and vowed to eliminate the location of charter schools in public school buildings.

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Surveys so far show him with only single-digit support after 31/2 years in the comptroller's post.

He picks up a mix of supporters, and it is difficult to identify which of his rivals might pick up votes in the Democratic primary if he bowed out. At one Harlem forum, where he took his first campaign-trail swipe at the federal government's yearslong probe, with its wiretaps and subpoenas, the chant among his fans went: "Liu! Liu! You know what to do!"

For years, one of Liu's standard riffs has involved his status as the first Asian-American citywide elected official and before that, the first Asian in the City Council, where he represented Flushing.

"I've been Asian my whole life. It wasn't anything new to me," goes the familiar laugh line.

Are we looking at enviable grit or regrettable gall? If Liu stays the course, voters could issue the verdict -- possibly the most interesting prospect in the race so far.

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