The unfiltered campaign of Tim Wu

unfiltered-campaign-tim-wu
Wu. (Photo by Tim Wu)
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Just before 11 p.m. on a Thursday night, after a full day of campaigning and a few drinks, Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia, sat on the couch of several former students in Greenwich Village and tried to concentrate on a press release.

Around him were remnants of a fund-raiser-turned-party, where about 40 former students had celebrated his unlikely campaign for lieutenant governor with small contributions and champagne, popped and toasted, “Wu 2014.”

Wu, who announced his candidacy in June, had just won the belated endorsement of a liberal Democratic club in Manhattan, which had taken the unusual step of reversing an endorsement of his opponent, former congresswoman Kathy Hochul.  

“There's no better way to watch how things are changing than watching an endorsement change in real time,” Wu wrote in the release, which went out to reporters a few minutes later. “That which seemed done is being undone; the winds of change are gathering and beginning to blow.”

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Wu and his running mate, gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout, are trying to spoil Governor Andrew Cuomo’s coronation as the Democratic nominee by offering a protest vehicle for liberals disaffected by the governor’s centrist economic agenda.

For Wu, a first-time candidate at 42, the decision to run for a low-profile, relatively powerless office is at once unlikely and perfectly in keeping with a scattershot resume that has made him an offbeat quasi-celebrity in the buttoned-up world of the legal academy. 

He has clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer, advised the Federal Trade Communication, chaired a media-reform group, written for Slate, the New Republic and the New Yorker (among others), and currently serves as a fellow at the New America Foundation, along with his day job in a named professorship at Columbia.

He carries a particular cachet in the tech community. In 2003, Wu coined the term “net neutrality,” a notion of Internet egalitarianism he’s now trying to parlay into an old-fashioned trust-busting campaign.

“One of the inspirations of my campaign is the 1912 Progressive Party, which I think had a lot of great ideas—Theodore Roosevelt’s party,” he told a crowd of about 30 people on the evening of August 14, at General Assembly, a tech start-up school in Manhattan. 

Wu, the son of a Taiwanese father and British mother, is tall, with short tousled hair and a cropped black goatee. He wore a black tie and a blue button-down shirt that concealed a line of five dots tattooed on his left forearm, which he said means “Wu” in Chinese and called a relic of his “bohemian past.”

He grew up in Toronto, where he became interested in computers when his mother gave him an early Apple computer after his father died. He graduated from McGill University, moved on to Harvard Law School, and then to a series of increasingly impressive clerkships, before leaving Washington to work for an ethernet start-up in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom. He’s no longer a regular at Burning Man—“that was in my youth, I guess,” he said—but Wu still talks about policy in the libertarian terms of a tech entrepreneur. 

In his talk at General Assembly, on “the politics of entrepreneurship,” Wu emphasized the need for “appropriate enforcement of the antitrust laws and oversight of things like mergers.”

At the same time, he also said New York State maintains “a culture of over-regulation, when it comes to high-tech companies.” 

“There is a problem where sometimes, faced with something new and interesting—whether it’s Lyft, whether it’s Bitcoin, whether it’s Airbnb—our approach has been to regulate first and ask questions later,” he said. “I don’t believe in anarchy, but I believe that we should take time and be careful, very careful, about how we regulate new ideas … particularly with the hotel industry, in the case of Airbnb, or the taxi industry, or whatever incumbent industry is threatened, believes these kind of companies should not be doing business in New York.”

That idea doesn’t sit well with the state’s Democratic-labor establishment, which has called for strict regulations to protect its industries. When Wu told an Albany radio host that upstate businesses suffered from too much “red tape,” including the state’s controversial Scaffold Law, the labor-backed Working Families Party—which is backing Cuomo-Hochul, after a serious-looking flirtation with Teachout-Wu—responded by accusing him of starting down “a slippery slope that would set the labor community back decades.”

But Wu’s campaign has been less about pitching himself as a traditional New York Democrat and more as a small-D democrat and ideas guy. His personal-turned-campaign website refers to him as an “independent lieutenant governor” and a “policy entrepreneur.” (It also includes pages of “Musings” and “Photography.”)

“If we want to save this republic, I think that we need regular people to go into politics,” he told the crowd at General Assembly, before sipping a pale ale and taking a handful of questions. “We need people who are not creatures.”

Wu sometimes gets lost in the big ideas, at the expense of political basics. After the event, he realized he hadn’t told the crowd to register to vote before the next day’s deadline.

“You know what, I should have told them about the deadline,” he said, laughing, after being hurried into an Uber car.

WU PULLED ON A SUIT JACKET AS HE ARRIVED at the Village Independent Democrats’ meeting on Christopher Street. The liberal club had called a special session to reconsider its endorsement of Hochul, a few hours after Teachout and Wu had won their biggest victory to date, when the state’s second-largest public employees union had endorsed their ticket.

The campaign claimed momentum, though polls still show nearly 90 percent of Democratic voters still don’t know enough about Teachout to form an opinion, and the pollsters hadn’t even bothered to ask about Wu.

Wu called tails, and introduced himself as being from “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” an old Howard Dean line from 2004, when Teachout was one of his top campaign aides.

He rattled through his resume for the 40 or so members, and spoke without notes, jumping from the Comcast-Time Warner merger—it “must be stopped”—to commiserating about the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and how it makes your day “a little bit worse.”

Wu said there is “a lack of checks and balances in the Albany system” and “too much concentrated power.”

Wu's liberal pitch and ethnic name could present a particular problem for Hochul, a conservative Democrat who isn't very well known outside of Western New York, where she rose to a Buffalo-area House seat in part by opposing drivers licenses for illegal immigrants.

If Wu could somehow defeat Hochul on their separate ballot line, he has already pledged to continue his campaign alongside Cuomo, whose father got stuck under similar circumstances with an opposing lieutenant governor candidate in 1982.

“I’m an academic,” Wu said. “I ask tough questions. I seek the truth. And I am not easily cowed.”

One member asked: “What riles you up enough to go out and demonstrate?”

“How about Ferguson?” he replied. “We’ll start right there. If I wasn’t here I’d be on the street protesting Ferguson right now.” (A Ferguson march had passed the General Assembly headquarters while Wu was speaking there.) 

Wu, late for his next event, left feeling good.

“The beginning, you never know how it’s gonna happen,” Wu said on the sidewalk. “A lot of things are like this in life: you start, and just nothing happens. But shit has happened. The Moreland Commission. I feel like we’ve had a lot of people come out of the woodwork to support. We’ve gotten a lot of endorsements.”

He was already gone when the group voted, 19 to 10, to endorse him.

“NOBODY’S LEFT YET, HAVE THEY?” WU ASKED, as he stepped into a West Village duplex before 10 p.m. 

Forty or so young lawyers, most wearing blazers, were drinking and chatting over jazz. The apartment belonged to four of Wu’s former Columbia Law students, and the organizer, Andrew Reich, an associate at Paul, Weiss, had served as Wu’s research assistant. Reich called Wu “a cool boss.”

Wu inspires a particular devotion among his current and former students—who he called “my base”—and in no one more than Nona Farahnik, his former teaching assistant, who took leave from a six-figure job at Latham & Watkins before she knew if the campaign would have enough money to pay her. 

It does, now, thanks in large part to Wu’s connections in the tech community. David Karp, the founder of Tumblr, gave Wu $20,000, and so did I.A.C., whose president, Barry Diller, has joined Wu’s call for net neutrality. (The I.A.C. contributions were divided into $5,000 increments, including one from OKCupid.)

Former students had paid $60 each to come see him in the Village, and an iPad was set up for those who wanted to give more.

Farahnik told the crowd about their day: events in Flushing—where Wu hopes to do particularly well with Chinese-Americans—including “ping-pong with senior citizens,” followed by “call[ing] a lot of newspapers to seek their endorsement, which I think is something you guys will see in the future.”

(A few days earlier, the New York Times had editorialized in support of Teachout’s campaign in the face of a legal challenge from Cuomo’s campaign.)

“The best part about Tim, which he’s said repeatedly: he has no message discipline, and he’s not interested in learning any,” Farahnik said, to chuckles.

(“He doesn’t need to have message discipline because he knows what he stands for,” Teachout told me later. “He’s not trying to stick to the same set of five words, because he has a pretty clear view of the way the state should be.”)

Wu climbed atop a chair and delivered a slightly undisciplined speech on what he had learned so far.

“I’ve said it to a lot of people here: my brain is becoming rewired by doing politics. One thing that’s happened, I’ve become nicer, and friendlier, and more extroverted,” he explained. “You spend time writing, you kinda start to hate people … because you spend all your time in isolation. Politics is the opposite, you spend all your time with people.”

“And one of the ways that politicians’ personalities change, is that they start thinking about donors—a lot,” he added. “You know Star Wars, where the path of darkness starts? It starts by thinking, ‘Which policy issues should I adopt because it makes it easy to fund-raise?’ … Two months in, I already feel it. I feel like I’m resisting it, but I feel it.”

“Even in my tech world, there’s some conflicts,” he said. “I really believe in privacy. But the tech industry really, really wants to make money off data. And so you feel like, ‘Well, you know, maybe I could keep quiet about privacy.’ I’m not saying I’ve adopted those positions, but it happens. This is where it all starts, in the minds of candidates when they decide not to take that position because it might make my donors angry. That’s my problem with the Democratic Party.”

After he finished talking and took some questions, Wu mingled with attendees. He signed a book for one.

In one group, the conversation came back to "net neutrality," and one student asked about “replacing this boring-sounding, neutral-sounding name with some, like, fast name.”

Wu paused.

“I wasn’t really convinced it was that interesting a phrase, either, but it kind of stuck,” he said. “What’s good about net neutrality is it doesn’t sound Orwellian. It sounds serious. ... All I know is it stuck, and it’s a lot harder than you think to make a term stick.”

A young lawyer broke in to the group with a bottle of champagne and poured it out into red Solo cups, toasting Wu. The music got louder as Wu contemplated the differences among voters.

“One of the things I think Cuomo has been successful in doing is taking advantage of short attention spans,” he told the group. “The people we met at the second event, V.I.D., they have long attention spans. They’re willing to sit and debate things for an hour. It’s kind of a generational difference. They’re willing to get to the bottom of stuff, and they seek the truth.”

Wu hopes that truth can somehow overcome Hochul’s backing from Cuomo.

“My election in particular, where we have two unknowns, is really a test about voter will versus institutional support,” he said, in a subsequent interview in the duplex’s kitchen. “She has much more institutional support that I do. If you could somehow have a magical computer that could get inside people’s hearts, or minds, and figure out exactly what their preference was, and cast the vote for them, without any institutional involvement … I would win for sure.”