City Comptroller John Liu likes to portray himself as a populist -- a modern Fiorello LaGuardia, always standing on the barricades, always fighting for the little guy, always sticking up for immigrants against smug one-percenters who want him to just disappear.

Even as the city's Campaign Finance Board was voting to withhold up to $3.53 million in public funds from his mayoral campaign this week, Liu's people were out on the ramparts in front of the board's headquarters, talking about "institutional racism."

It's a compelling script, but it's pure fiction -- and now Liu, who would be the city's first Asian-American mayor, has suffered a major blow to his campaign. His penalty is the largest handed down in the history of the board.

Without this money to broadcast his ads and trumpet his message, it's not clear how well he can compete in a crowded field of Democratic candidates.

But the problem isn't that Big Money wants to beat back the power of the people. The problem is that three months ago, a federal jury decided that Liu's campaign raised money using "straw donors" -- that is, people whose names appeared on campaign records although they had not contributed one cent to Liu.

So who are the real donors? The answer to that would be fascinating to know. But here's who we'll bet they're not -- the hardworking waiters, nurses, shopkeepers and teachers in Liu's strongholds of Flushing and Manhattan's Chinatown.

What the Liu campaign has done is an outrage. The Campaign Finance Board was established 24 years ago as a gutsy attempt to encourage local politicians to refocus their campaigns on ordinary New Yorkers. The idea was that they'd raise money in relatively small sums from lots of regular citizens in search of a champion. That money would then be matched with public funds.

The Liu campaign turned this ideal on its head. It raised cash from secret donors disguised as local backers. So it gets no match. As for those big-guy enemies he likes to cite, they're likely straw men, just like much of his donor list.