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Liu breaks racial barrier, takes oath as comptroller

History was made on the steps of City Hall Friday morning as John Liu, the outgoing two-term Flushing Councilman, was sworn in as city comptroller, making him the first Asian American to take citywide office.

Liu, who broke a racial barrier by becoming the first Asian American elected to the Council eight years ago, took control of the city’s purse strings from outgoing comptroller William Thompson.

A Democrat, Liu spoke about the historic context of the moment in a rousing outdoor speech attended by the city’s political elite, Liu’s wife and son and his parents, immigrants who moved from Taiwan to find a new life for their three children and whom Liu thanked for their support and sacrifice.

“I’m humbled to be part of this wave of change,” he said, referring to other momentous events of last year, including the inauguration of President Barack Obama and the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. “The legacy of New York must endure always as a place where it doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters where you go.”

The inauguration ceremony was followed by a packed-house celebration in the State Supreme Court rotunda, during which a procession of politicians praised Liu for his service and expounded on his virtues.

“Thank you for your amazing service for Queens and the city,” Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) said. “Thank you for showing through your life’s work what I believe to be true, and that’s that New York’s greatest strength is its diversity.”

Liu laid out aspects of his agenda as comptroller in his speeches Friday, pledging to work to minimize no-bid contracts and ensure that city tax dollars are spent wisely and transparently.

He also emphasized the role he will play in promoting equality for all New Yorkers.

“Equal opportunity — not just talking about it but doing it. I will use every power of the comptroller’s office to ensure that everyone gets that economic fair shake,” he said at his fete. Liu’s speech at City Hall was free of obvious jabs at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration despite a recent public spat with the mayor. Liu was perceived as having snubbed Bloomberg, an independent, when he turned down an initial offer to meet after the Nov. 3 election.

“A long time ago, the people of New York decided there would be no king nor a monarch in New York City,” Liu told a New York Times reporter a day or two after the election, referring to Bloomberg’s election to a third term as mayor, but he sat down with the mayor two weeks later.

Liu said Friday he plans to work “independently” as comptroller, but that he and Bloomberg have had a productive discussion and he has no intentions of intentionally butting heads with the mayor.

He also announced last week his selection of Eric Eve, a senior vice president at CitiGroup who is stepping down from the position, as first deputy comptroller, along with the rest of his leadership team on Tuesday.

Councilman Peter Koo (R-Flushing), Liu’s replacement as the District 20 councilman, was in attendance at the party Friday afternoon. He was sworn in last week and said Liu’s election has great meaning for him as an immigrant from Hong Kong.

“It’s a milestone for Asian Americans. It’s the first time in New York City an Asian American holds citywide office,” he said while waiting for the festivities to begin. “He will be a trailblazer and people will see him as a role model for minorities. He proves that in New York City anything is possible.”

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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