6:39 am May. 1, 2012
One day before his campaign treasurer was scheduled to appear in court and face federal fraud and obstruction charges, City Comptroller and presumptive mayoral candidate John Liu told a cheering crowd of more than 200 supporters in Harlem that he is "going all the way. I'm not going to stop until we get there."
He turned an unflattering label into a rallying cry, telling the crowd, which was largely drawn from membership of two supportive unions, "I have a new nickname. 'The embattled comptroller.' Well, let me say this: I am ready, willing and able to go into battle for what I think is right."
When the event ended just before 8 p.m., a swarm of reporters rushed onto the pulpit and tried to get Liu to elaborate on his "going all the way" line.
"All my options are open and I'm going to go all the way, wherever that leads me," he said.
It was a standing-room-only crowd for two hours inside the basement of the Mother A.M.E. Zion Church and Community Center on 136th Street in Harlem, filled with union members, Liu aides, clergymembers and two city councilwomen, Inez Dickens and Melissa Mark-Viverito .
Liu, who was elected comptroller with strong union support, spoke at length about the newly passed "living wage" bill and repeatedly said the biggest issue facing the city, and the nation, is "a widening gap [whereby] the rich continue to do far better."
"We need to level the playing field and that's what our mission is all about," he said.
He also defended his 25-year-old campaign treasurer, Jenny Hou, whom he said he thinks of "every day."
"I think of all the people she represents to me every day," Liu told the audience. "The young people who want to make a difference."
Hou's lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, also spoke at the event, and said she would plead not guilty to the charges.
"There are three full-time federal prosecutors on this case and endless F.B.I. agents trying to work it somehow, some way so that she will be found guilty," Lacort said. "And resources deep. And in case there are any checks in the audience for the Jenny Hou campaign, defense fund, please, we need your help."
Hou is accused of forging donor signatures and, according to prosecutors, is heard on tape describing the act in some detail.
Lacort sketched a sympathetic biography of his client: She came here when she was 10, unable to speak English, and went on to graduate from the Bronx High School of Science and Rutgers University "with a degree in business administration."
"Jenny first came into contact with John Liu around the Bejing Olympics," he said. Liu helped a bunch of students, including Hou, get a permit and host a rally for it.
"And Jenny became very interested in who this man was," he said. "And so she ended up volunteering to work in his campaign. And one thing led to another and she ultimately became treasurer to the John Liu campaign."
Liu sat on the pulpit as a succession of black preachers sang his praise and basically announced his mayoral candidacy. The crowd was prompted into chants of "keep going, John" and "keep John going."
"Since he's been comptroller, there's been a new sheriff in town," said the night's emcee, Rev. Gregory Smith of Mother A.M.E. Zion Church.
He said the "attacks" on Liu in the media, which has written extensively about the investigations into his fund-raising practices and charges against his aide and, separately, his bundler, are a sign of his effectiveness.
"They come at you when you're doing the right thing," Smith said, adding, "We've come here today to be a part [of] the launching of his campaign to be the chief executive of the world."
Mark-Viverito said, "There are many people that might be afraid to be here tonight. Right. Let's be real. We know that there are accusations. And as elected [officials], we have accusations thrown at us all the time."
She said until the matter is settled in court, "I will stand by John, and I am not afraid to say that."
Turning to Liu, Viverito said, "I'm proud to call you a friend and feel free to call on me whenever you need me."
Speaking next, Dickens pointed to the red-shirted members of a local plumbers union sitting in the audience and said, "Our members know what it is to be under attack. Why? Because you've been under attack from day one, when you were first formed. And now they're talking about union-busting."
Dickens, ambling from side to side of the pulpit, told the crowd, "The people here, I know that you know what it is, to fight. To be under attack, because that is what John Liu is under. Under attack. And we, we know what that's about. And we know how to fight back."
After the speech, I asked Dickens, who is African-American, who she had been referring to.
"We start out as black people," she said. "We've been under attack all of our lives. We still are. So, as black people, we thoroughly understand what it is to be attacked and presumed to be guilty first and then you prove your innocence."
"And the unions have historically been attacked," she added.