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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It was Boland who told Teachout to think different in her search for a running mate. He told her: “Think Internet.” The answer, Teachout later told Columbia Magazine, was “obvious.” She had met Tim Wu at an Internet conference in Hungary in 2006. They hit it off, wrote a paper together, and stayed in touch periodically. When Teachout called Wu in June and asked him to be her running mate, Wu jumped at it. “The secret about Tim — and there are a lot of non-secrets, like his brilliance, his affability — is that he has extraordinary drive,” Teachout said. “He has a relaxed demeanor, but he is deeply driven. It was one of the reasons I picked him. There’s all the external bio stuff, but if you’re going to do something like this, you need someone who is completely motivated, and Tim always has been.”

“The secret about Tim — and there are a lot of non-secrets, like his brilliance, his affability — is that he has extraordinary drive,” Teachout said.

Ruffalo, on the courthouse steps, praised Wu and Teachout for their stance on fracking. Behind Ruffalo, members of the Sierra Club raised their banner. To his right, Ray Kemble held a jug of fluid that on this day was a bright Gatorade yellow. Ruffalo said, “It’s an honor to be here with Zephyr and Tim and to support the vision that they have for our beloved state, whether we’re talking about public education, open democracy, ethics, or of course the environment.”

But while Ruffalo was calling the candidates “the most exciting thing happening in state politics,” a counter-narrative was unfolding around the corner in City Hall Park. There, the press, in heavier numbers, was assembling, waiting for the mayor to make an announcement. At the Ruffalo event, a reporter asked Wu what he thought of the mayor’s move. “I support Mayor de Blasio in many areas of policy,” Wu said, “but I think he has made a serious mistake.” Ruffalo offered his own view. “It’s pretty amazing and really shocking,” he said, “that two blocks from here, one of the great liberal politicians in the United States is actually going to be endorsing Hochul. But he made a commitment to support that ticket a while ago, and I think he’s probably a man of his word.”

Democrats were divided. Was de Blasio’s decision to support Cuomo–Hochul a selling-out of progressive principles? Or was he in fact doing the smart and responsible thing in extracting a promise from an all-but-certain-to-be-reelected governor to support major progressive initiatives?

Would a Mayor Wu or an LG Wu, faced with political reality, act any differently?

The only way to find out was for Wu to win, but perhaps there were clues to be gained along the way. Walking from the Tweed Courthouse to City Hall Park, Skelding, the Capital New York reporter, was asked if he’d noticed whether Wu, exposed to the gamma rays of a political campaign, had become, how shall we say, more of a —

“A creature?” said Skelding, with journalistic alertness. “Uhhh. Well, no, I don’t think so. He didn’t tie his shoes today before he met with the press corps. Not just one shoe, but two shoes. I don’t think he’s becoming a creature. I don’t think insiders would have him if he wanted to join them.”

The day before the election, Hochul and Wu appeared back-to-back on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC radio. It was the closest thing there’d been to a debate. Lehrer ’96PH challenged Hochul on her congressional record and the Moreland Commission. On Moreland, Hochul said that as much as the media was talking about the issue, “the voters are talking to me downstate about affordable housing, passing the DREAM Act, getting a minimum-wage increase, and women’s issues.” Wu, in his segment, attacked. “Voters think there’s already overrepresentation of moneyed interests and banks in Albany,” he said, noting Hochul’s work as a bank lobbyist. “I have a completely different vision for what the lieutenant-governor position can be. I’ll be an advocate for the public. I will be a critic of the governor’s policies when I think they go wrong, I’ll be a supporter of the governor when I think he or she is doing the right thing. All Kathy Hochul will do is be a lackey who repeats what the governor has said. We have too much concentrated power in Albany already. We don’t need another lackey.”

It was a gray day, threatening rain. Wu and Teachout were scheduled to appear at a final rally that evening in Union Square. It was looking like a washout. But by 6:30 p.m., the sheet-metal clouds had split their seams to the west, exposing long, horizontal strips of crisp blue and Creamsicle orange. Wu, in a dark suit and tie, appeared on the plaza, and about a hundred revelers, some wearing buttons indicating an Occupy past, cheered and made way for the candidate to ascend the three low, wide steps.

Wu thanked the crowd. “Use the people’s mike!” someone shouted, but Wu declined, and Farahnik beckoned people to simply come closer. Wu recounted how, that morning, Lehrer had asked Hochul about the Moreland Commission, and how Hochul said that the voters she’d talked to didn’t seem to care about that. Now Wu asked the crowd: “Do you care?” Yes! “Do you care?” Yes! “If you’re embarrassed that our state politics is the mockery of the entire nation, please say to me: We can make it better.” We can make it better!

Teachout was on her way. In the meantime, Wu shook hands, spoke to supporters, and even held and kissed a baby — the textbook move of the political animal. It turned out, though, that the baby was his.

Children with cartoon-character backpacks streamed into PS 33 on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea, a block from where Wu lives with his wife, Columbia law professor Kate Judge, and their infant daughter, Sierra. A news van shared curb space with gold school buses disgorging more youngsters, and the scrum of reporters in front of the school drew curious looks from the trickle of parents and voters heading inside. “There he is!” someone said, and a cameraman from ABC 7 ran to the middle of the sidewalk and aimed his lens at the two figures walking up from the corner. Wu and Teachout strode together, smiling, stopping to shake people’s hands.

The duo reached the front of the school, talked with reporters. Then Wu said, “Wanna vote? Let’s go vote.”

“Net neutrality stands for a simple principle: that in certain parts of life, we need equality,” Wu said.

Teachout had already voted in Brooklyn, so Wu led the way into the school. The gym was lined with long tables of voter rolls and election clerks. The voting booths were at the back. With TV cameras on him, Wu got his ballot and took it to a booth, where he enjoyed a rare solitary moment. He filled out the form, held it up for all to see, and then fed it to the optical-scanner machine. His small entourage applauded, and so did voters in the gym who realized who it was.

Outside, Wu told reporters, “I was so proud to fill out the oval for Zephyr Teachout. And honestly, I also voted for myself.”

The next couple of hours were spent rushing to Manhattan polling places to greet voters (the weather had turned drizzly; turnout was light, as expected). Wu’s last stop of the day was in Harlem, at PS 153. Just past noon, Wu and Kathleen Farley, who was now Wu’s teaching assistant, walked to Broadway and 145th Street to catch the train.

During the ride down to 116th Street, Wu, at the end of a campaign to which he’d given everything, was still absorbing all that had happened, especially after the Times endorsement, when the party elite had closed ranks around Hochul (even Hillary Clinton had recorded a robocall). Neither Wu nor Farahnik had anticipated that.

Wu and Farley got off the subway at 116th. The polls would be open for another eight hours, but Wu had to switch gears now. He had a copyright class to teach. He strolled across College Walk, to the best job in the world.

The victory party, as it was called, was held at a party space in Hell’s Kitchen. After the long, misty day, the atmosphere inside was joltingly electric, festive, bustling: a youthful crowd, a cluster of hot TV cameras, reporters and bloggers on the couches typing on their laptops, a beaded chandelier above, Blondie’s “Call Me” pulsing, bordello-red curtains, an overpriced bar, a blue sign on the stage that said MONEY OUT, PEOPLE IN. Though the odds of victory were remote, a certain wire of suspense ran through the room. Anything could happen.

Mike Boland, in jeans and untucked shirt, gave updates from the stage that alternately tantalized the crowd (“Zephyr and Tim have won both counties”) and deflated it (“Governor Cuomo is ahead 58–38”). With half the precincts reporting, and Cuomo and Hochul both ahead by double digits, the crowd passed through an imperceptible threshold, into acceptance. Minutes later, as Wu approached the microphones, the room erupted into a joyful chant. Wu! Wu! Wu! Wu!

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