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 and Teachout campaigning, Union Square. / Demotix / Andy KatzAt Harvard Law, the apostate had no plan. One day, he wandered into the classroom of a young professor named Lawrence Lessig. The class was called The Law of Cyberspace. Wu took the class, and it changed his life. “This intersection of the law and the Internet — now this was interesting,” he said. “I knew computers as well as anyone, but nobody knew the law stuff. It was 1996, ’97, right at the beginning. I thought, ‘This is red-hot.’” He became Lessig’s research assistant. Lessig helped Wu get a clerkship with Seventh Circuit judge and scholar Richard Posner. Wu graduated from law school in 1998, and a year later he clerked for Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer. Then, in 2000, he went to Silicon Valley to make money — just in time for the pop! of the dot-com bubble. Wu returned east after two years. From 2002 to 2004 he was an associate professor of law at the University of Virginia, where he wrote his landmark 2003 paper “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination.” He held visiting professorships at Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Chicago before coming to Columbia in 2006 for a tenure-track position at the age of thirty-four. That year, he published his first book, written with Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith, called Who Controls the Internet?

After an hour, Wu had to take off for Albany, where he was scheduled to release a dossier on Hochul’s environmental record the next day at the capitol. That night, as Wu ate a late dinner at a Thai restaurant in Albany after his five-hundred-mile day, the New York Times, in its online edition, ran a short headline on its opinion page, which hard-copy readers would see in the morning: Timothy Wu for Lieutenant Governor.

In this political game, the Times endorsement shook up the board. Later, Wu would recall that the momentum had “exploded” — what Teachout called “Wu-mentum.” The Times had criticized Hochul on her votes against Obamacare and her record on immigration and the environment, and praised Wu’s public-advocacy notion of the office. “Although he lacks time in politics,” wrote the editors, “Mr. Wu has an impressive record in the legal field, particularly in Internet law and policy.”

It was a huge boon for Wu, but the Cuomo campaign continued to not mention the candidates by name or agree to a debate. (The local cable news network NY1 had invited the candidates to a televised debate on September 2. Teachout–Wu accepted; Cuomo– Hochul did not.) This was frustrating. Wu had been acquiring skills and was eager to deploy them. He’d learned to talk on television — not the easy way he’d talked as a net-neutrality expert on The Colbert Report or on Charlie Rose, but in a rapid-response style that called for drastic nimbleness. He’d learned how to debate through reporters, making statements that the press would then bring up to the other side. He’d gotten better at distilling complex messages, and was always refining his stump work, the variations of cadence, body language, and eye contact that came less naturally to him than it did to Teachout. He loved to talk, working out ideas on the fly into proffered voice recorders, while cultivating, on the stump, a near-firebrand style whose textures he evaluated even as he spoke (during one speech, he heard an off note in a verbal gambit, and chuckled discreetly to himself). Sometimes, mid-rumination, his eyes would close lightly, the eyelids fluttering as if waves of thought were passing just behind them. He’d clasp his hands together, interlock his fingers, pace pedagogically, bow his head during pauses, rock on the balls of his feet, step backward and forward, jam his hands into his pockets.

On the morning of September 3, Mark Ruffalo, the movie actor, Sullivan County resident, and anti-fracking activist, stood on the steps of the Tweed Courthouse in Lower Manhattan, around the corner from City Hall. Wu and Teachout were beside him. It was among the campaign’s sexier events — Ruffalo had pop-cultural appeal, and tourists were stopping to aim their iPhones — but the Times-powered Wu-mentum was about to meet another force, one that Wu had not foreseen.

First, some background. The Working Families Party (WFP) is a small but influential New York political party formed in 1998 by progressive activists and labor unions. The party had no great love for Cuomo, and many members supported the newcomer Teachout, a scholar of political corruption, for governor. But in late May, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio ’87SIPA met with the party’s leadership and brokered a deal: the WFP would endorse Cuomo, and in exchange, as reported in the Daily News, Cuomo would fight for a Democratic-majority state senate, a minimum-wage hike, the DREAM Act, and public campaign funding. Many in the WFP were angered. Among them was Mike Boland, the party’s field director, who quit to become Teachout’s campaign manager.

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