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Small donors flock to Liu campaign

Undeterred by a campaign scandal, modest contributors have a big impact on the comptroller's prospects for mayor

John Liu’s mayoral candidacy took a hit with the recent trial of two former associates of the City Comptroller for illegal fundraising practices, which culminated with convictions in federal court on Friday. Yet his image among small campaign donors appears unscathed.

That’s the picture that emerges from an analysis of campaign finance data disclosing contributions to candidates vying to be New York City’s next mayor.

The mayoral campaign of Comptroller John C. Liu has stirred wide enthusiasm among supporters, including many who give modest donations. AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

With the campaign in full swing, a lead on the small-donor front could be a key advantage for Liu, who is trailing far behind frontrunner Christine Quinn in the polls and campaign funding.

In New York City, the first $175 of donations from any city resident is eligible for generous public matching funds: $6 for ever dollar contributed.

Records from the New York City Campaign Finance Board show 2,114 New York City residents have contributed amounts of $175 or less to the Liu campaign. (We’ve eliminated from the count repeat customers who in total gave more than $175, as well as amounts refunded by the Liu campaign.) That puts Liu ahead of Christine Quinn as a darling of small donors. Quinn received contributions of $175 or less from 2,017 individuals, making her a close second. And Bill de Blasio trails in third place with 1,469 small donations — two thirds as much as Liu.

Liu is also ahead in the total value of those modest contributions: $199,309, compared to $179,236 for Quinn, and $155,826 for de Blasio. Those donations count for 6 percent of his contribution total, in contrast to less than 3 percent for Quinn.

“We’ve raised millions of dollars from a broad based of support from throughout the City, for which we are grateful,” wrote a Liu campaign spokesperson in an emailed statement.

More than 99 percent of small donors made their contributions to Liu after the arrests of Liu’s campaign treasurer and a fundraiser on fraud charges. Jia Hou and Xing Wu Pan were convicted Friday in Manhattan federal court for conspiring to run an illegal campaign finance scheme. They are scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 20.

Pan was arrested in November 2011. And Hou, the treasurer, was charged about three months later. The prosecution described a scheme to gather funds using “straw donors” — individuals who subsequently got reimbursed for making small contributions. Such a maneuver would allow a candidate to receive public matching funds on donations that otherwise would not qualify, as well as circumvent limits on the size of individual donations.

In the mayor’s race as a whole, small donations by individuals are drops in an ocean of millions of dollars. The 10 leading mayoral candidates have collectively raised $17 million in campaign funds, an amount that includes in-kind contributions.

But small contributions matter because they are turned into high-impact gifts by the City’s matching fund program.

When matched, a humble $175 contribution turns into a generous $1,225. For Liu, matching-eligible funds are equivalent to more than 17 percent of his total funds raised — much higher than the rivals leading him in the polls.

Kenneth Sherrill, emeritus politics professor at Hunter College, said Liu’s lead among small donors could naturally arouse public suspicion under the current circumstances. “This can look smellier than it really is and it can look more innocent than it really is,” he said. “I think that one of the fundamental rules of politics, not just in New York City, is that they write the rules and we figure out how to go around them. That goes for every skilled campaign.”

Still, Sherrill said he did not think small-donor money would be any more significant in this year’s races than in past elections. In 2009, victorious candidate Michael Bloomberg opted out of the matching fund program in order to circumvent the spending cap associated with it.

“I fear that in the light of Citizens United, the mayoral race is going to get swamped with Super PAC money,” said Sherrill, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate contributions to independent political committees. “Even though New York City has potentially the best campaign finance rules, they may well be totally subverted.”

The influence of the trove of matching funds has yet to play out on the campaign of Liu and other candidates, since the New York City Campaign Finance Board is scheduled to make its first matching funds payments this summer.

For now, Liu’s supremacy is limited to the small-donor arena. When last required to disclose the state of their finances in March, both Quinn and de Blasio had, overall, raised more funds than Liu. Liu had scooped $3,226,889 as of March 15, trailing Quinn and de Blasio, who had amassed $6,581,070 and $3,711,635 respectively. Bill Thomspon came in fourth with $2,709,970.

And as a recent NBC New York/Marist College poll made clear, Liu’s success with small donors has not yet translated into popularity among voters overall. Liu registered a mere 11 percent of votes in the mid-April poll, in fourth place behind Quinn (30 percent), de Blasio (15 percent) and Bill Thompson (14 percent).

But he has developed strong pockets of support among immigrants and small entrepreneurs. Abu Taher, the editor of the Bangla Patrika newspaper, has bundled $500 for Liu from 10 donors in the Bronx and Queens. “Liu is like a household name in the Bangladeshi community,” said Taher, who noted that Liu had made an effort to build recognition. “He’s at any event in the Bangladeshi community and he calls people by their first name.”

Another contributor is Jatinder Boparai, the 50-year-old owner of New Classic, an industrial building contractor in South Richmond Hill, Queens. Boparai donated $25 to Liu’s campaign during a fundraiser at the Royal Palace hotel in December last year. That his donation would actually be worth $150 did not cross his mind at the time, he said.

Rather, Boparai said, he was simply drawn by the candidate’s personal history as a Taiwanese-American. Liu, he added, is the only candidate to have visited the temple he and his Indian Sikh community frequent.

When John Liu announced his run for mayor at City Hall in March, Boparai was among the several hundred New Yorkers — many of immigrant origin — who stood behind the candidate.

“He understands the immigrant people, the problems they have,” said Bopari. Other candidates, he said, “probably don’t know too much about the problems immigrants face.”

Additional reporting by Luke Kerr-Dineen.