FEATURE

Rewired: Tim Wu’s Fantastic Foray

What happens when a leading tech theorist absorbs the rays of electoral politics?

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2014
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Wu, chatting with Farahnik and Andrew Reich ’13LAW, had just blown in from Christopher Street, two blocks away. There, he had stood in a meeting room of the Village Independent Democrats, an old and raucous neighborhood political club, some of whose members could recall when a young Ed Koch tried to become club president back in ’60. The VID had endorsed Kathy Hochul for LG, but that was before Wu entered the race. Tonight they were taking a re-vote, and Wu had showed up to personally make his case. “We’re in a situation where there are a lack of checks and balances in the Albany system,” he’d told the club. “I believe America, and the state, works best when we have critical voices, when we have people in office whose job is not absolute loyalty, but to question when questions need to be asked. I ask tough questions, I seek the truth, and I’m not easily cowed.” Wu was asked to leave before the club took its vote.

“We’re underdogs,” Wu told the "Washington Post," “but we think we have a chance.”

More people arrived at the duplex. Everyone who knew Wu was eager to talk about him. Reich, an associate at the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, had known about Wu’s work on net neutrality, and as a law student had sought out Wu’s telecom class. “He teaches from the seats and not from the lectern,” Reich said. “He doesn’t want to just lecture to you. He wants to teach you interesting things, and then he wants to have a discussion about it. That was so beneficial when I was learning this area of the law. He made me passionate about it.” Reich was Wu’s research assistant for a paper that asked if computer communications could claim First Amendment protection. “I got to see how he thinks,” said Reich. “If I thought he was smart before, I really thought he was smart after.”

“Not only is he brilliant,” said Kathleen Farley, a Columbia law student and Wu volunteer, “he’s good at bringing out the brilliance of other people.”

Farahnik, standing behind the sofa, got a phone call. It was a Wu staffer on Christopher Street. Farahnik repeated the message to the room: the Village Independent Democrats had voted to withdraw their Hochul endorsement and back Wu.

Cheers went up. In the political winds of a primary, when it was the obsessives who turned out at the polls, the VID’s stamp was another gust to the good.

Minutes later, Farahnik took the floor and introduced the man whom, before she took a leave of absence from her job at Latham & Watkins to run his campaign, she had called Professor Wu. “Tim has no message discipline and is not interested in learning any,” Farahnik said. “He answers questions with an honesty you don’t typically see in political life.” This was perhaps a nice way of calling someone a loose cannon, but if Wu at the microphones had ever made his staffers hold their breath, it was because, as Wu often said, “If you say something stupid, you can destroy your career in one sentence” — and “stupid” in this sense did not preclude honesty or intelligence. “It’s really interesting and exciting,” Farahnik said, “that Tim is running for a position that has not meant anything to the state. Basically, the lieutenant governor serves as a ribbon cutter. For the first time, we have somebody who’s brilliant and who wants to put some policy into action. He’s not scared of much, except scorpions.”

“I’ve said to a lot of people: my brain is becoming rewired by doing politics.”

Wu, known for showman’s flair in the lecture hall, stepped up onto a folding chair, a Magic Hat pale ale effervescing in his fist. “It’s not a speech unless you’re standing, right?” The guests laughed and gathered round. “I’ve said to a lot of people: my brain is becoming rewired by doing politics,” said Wu. “One thing that’s happened is that I’ve become nicer and friendlier and more extroverted. When you spend a lot of time writing, you kind of start to hate people. Ever notice that writers are really cranky, difficult people? It’s because they spend all their time in isolation. Politics is the opposite: you spend all your time with people, and it’s started to change my personality. One of the ways that politicians’ personalities change is that they start thinking about donors a lot. As someone once said, money is the mother’s milk of politics. So people think about their positions, and one part of their brain asks, ‘What’s the right answer?’ and the other part asks, ‘How will this work with donors?’ When you start thinking like that, that is the dark path. Where does the path of darkness start? It starts when you think, ‘Which policy issues should I adopt because they make it easier to fundraise?’ You can see it’s tempting. But that is the path. And I already feel it. I feel like I’m resisting it, but I feel it. This is where it all starts inside the minds of candidates: when they decide, ‘I’m not going to take that position, because it might make my donors angry.’”

Wu had been riding this theme. Earlier that night, in front of a tech crowd in the Flatiron District, he’d said, “Money is just the wrong value. When you’re always thinking, ‘What is this going to mean for my donors, what is this going to mean for my ability to raise money’ — when that is your compass, where the fuck is that going to lead you?”

Now, atop a chair and full of the beer of grassroots endorsement, he said, “Let me tell you how I’m going to win the lieutenant governor race.”

His advantage, he said, was that he would be the first Asian-American in New York history to hold statewide office, and that support for his campaign was “enormous” in the Chinese-American community (he had been in Flushing that afternoon, playing table tennis at a senior center). Then there was the enthusiasm of young Democrats excited about a candidate that “looks more like them,” though Wu admitted he wasn’t that young (he is forty-two). But mostly, he said, his positions were more aligned with the average voter than those of Hochul, who, Wu liked to point out, had received an “A” rating from the NRA and had voted to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “The real challenge for us,” Wu said, “is getting the minimal amount of name recognition so that people know that Wu is the noncorrupt, clean alternative — I sound like a gasoline — the progressive alternative to the usual Albany bullshit.”

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