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February 23rd, 2011 BETH SLOVIC | Cover Story
 

Strange Wu

Why did Congressman David Wu think staffers “threatened to shut down his campaign”?

David WuU.S. Rep. David Wu - IMAGE: WW Staff
     
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Rep. David Wu says spasms of severe neck pain caused him to seek painkillers from a donor in a pre-election episode one week before he won re-election Nov. 2. The Oregon Democrat now acknowledges the incident disturbed his own staff. 

“I recognize that my action showed poor judgment at the time,” Wu said in a written statement to WW on Feb. 22. “I sincerely regret having put my staff in a difficult position.”

That troubling moment marked just one example of Wu’s unpredictable behavior in the frantic last days of his seventh successful election campaign, close observers of the congressman say.

As first reported by WW on wweek.com the afternoon of Feb. 18, a series of events caused political advisers to worry about Wu’s mental health and prompted staffers to stage two “interventions” to urge Wu to seek psychiatric help.

April 2010 Democratic Primary Endorsement Interview

First Congressional District Democrats from wweek.vimeo on Vimeo.

During that period four months ago, Wu played down his political team’s concerns about his condition and the possible root cause of his problems. He went on to win re-election against Republican challenger Rob Cornilles, with 55 percent of the vote. But seven staffers, three political consultants and his campaign treasurer severed ties with the congressman after the election in the wake of the confrontations.

Last week, Wu denied a request from WW for a face-to-face interview in Washington, D.C., choosing instead to respond in writing to questions through his D.C. spokesman. 

“I freely admit that it was an intense campaign, and I was not always at my best with staff or constituents,” he said in a prepared statement Feb. 14. “For all those moments, I wish I’d been better and I apologize.”

Wu has since acknowledged seeking medical care for his problems.

In an interview Feb. 22 with ABC’s Good Morning America, Wu said last fall “was a very difficult time” for him and that he accepted both counseling and medication then. Wu said, “I sought appropriate help at the time and I continue to do that.”

He denied WW’s further requests for comment about emails and photographs obtained by WW that were sent from his federally issued BlackBerry in the early-morning hours of Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010. But Wu told Good Morning America they were “very, very unprofessional.” The emails and photos, including one of him in a tiger costume, reveal a bizarre portrait of Wu right before the Nov. 2 general election.

Wu’s district, a Democratic stronghold, encompasses some of Oregon’s biggest economic engines, like Nike and Intel. The 1st Congressional District begins on the west side of Portland and stretches through Washington County to Astoria on the north coast, serving 700,000 residents with diverse interests, from microchip manufacturing to fishing, that cross Oregon’s rural-urban divide.

Wu, a 55-year-old former lawyer and graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, has represented the district since 1999. The Taiwan-born politician may be best known for his public stance against China’s human-rights abuses. But Wu’s record also includes funding for new high-tech training programs and efforts to hold down the costs of college textbooks, as well as traditional Democratic causes like protecting abortion rights. He’s long been known as a geeky, low-key and, at times, awkward politician. 

“That’s part of his charm,” says Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University in Wu’s district. “He’s basically a nerd. He admits fully that his social skills are not very well developed. He admits that he’s not that great at glad-handing, but he’s a hard worker.”

October 2010 General Election Endorsement Interview

First Congressional District from wweek.vimeo on Vimeo.

Staffers who have worked for Wu would recognize this side of Wu’s personality. But sources say the final weeks before the November election marked a dramatic difference in Wu’s conduct; no single event appears to have prompted staff to conduct the two interventions.

In the aftermath, political observers are wondering whether Wu—who had zero experience in electoral politics when he rose to federal office through a combination of luck and traditional hardball politics—can survive. The congressman said in the TV interview Feb. 22 he “emphatically can do” the work of a congressman and will stay on. Wu’s 2010 GOP challenger says the question should matter to voters regardless of party affiliation.

“District 1 is really the epicenter of Oregon economically,” Cornilles says. “If we’re struggling or we’re being neglected, the whole state suffers. Do we have to wait two more years? Or can he right himself before then?”

I GOT STRIPES: This photo of U.S. Rep. David Wu landed in staffers’ inboxes after 1 am on a Saturday morning as concerns about the Democratic congressman’s behavior grew. A spokesman for Wu called the photo “a moment with his kids.”

Wu’s increasingly odd behavior and communication typified by the set of emails WW has obtained so troubled staff that sources say the employees deliberately hid Wu from public view during the last three days of his campaign. That unusual step came even as Wu’s Republican opponent furiously fought for votes.

But it wasn’t just staff who noticed Wu’s bewildering behavior. Members of the public also noticed that Wu appeared to be under stress in the final days before the Nov. 2 election.

On Tuesday, Oct. 26, Wu had dinner at Aquariva on the South Waterfront with a donor named Paul O’Brien, an author and speaker on spiritual topics who contributed the federal maximum of $4,800 to Wu in 2010. 

“He was in fundraising mode, and the guy was dying of pain in his neck from being on the phone so much,” O’Brien says. “He was on edge because the election was a week away.”

O’Brien says he gave Wu tablets of ibuprofen to ease Wu’s pain, but that apparently upset a female aide accompanying the congressman. O’Brien recalls the exchange between Wu and the staffer was a “conflict.” 

“I gave him a couple of ibuprofen and she was so weird,” O’Brien says. “She was trying to control him in a very strange way. I didn’t understand that.... But no, no, nothing untoward happened.”

Wu’s full statement on the topic goes further, although he declined to answer follow-up questions. “Last fall, I had occasional spasms of severe neck pain for which I took medication that was prescribed by my doctor. At a meeting last October with a campaign contributor, I experienced a severe episode, but my prescription medicine was in Washington, D.C., at the time. The donor offered me an alternative painkiller, and I took two tablets. This was the only time that this has ever happened.”

The next day, Wednesday, Oct. 27, Wu appeared before Washington County Democrats. A Beaverton woman complained in a fax to Wu’s office about Wu’s “loud, fearsome tones,” calling parts of his speech “in poor taste.” She added: “If you are defeated, I believe you have no one to blame but yourself.”

Then, around midday on Thursday, Oct. 28, Wu was inside Central Drugs, a pharmacy on Southwest 4th Avenue, running routine errands, sources say. Other Wu staffers wanted to speak with him about his behavior, which struck them as bizarre. They confronted him at the store, but he refused to return to the office.

According to multiple sources, Wu went instead to Ping, a nearby restaurant, for lunch. Only after he left Ping did those staffers stage the first “intervention,” an emotional meeting that spanned several hours during which staffers told the congressman they were worried about his health. Wu insisted he was fine.

The next day, Wu attended a small luncheon at Davis Street Tavern hosted by the Democratic Party of Oregon. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was the main guest.

Michele Stranger-Hunter, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, attended the lunch with about two dozen people. When asked to describe Wu’s behavior at the lunch, Stranger-Hunter’s first words were “Oh, lord.” 

“He had a lot of energy he brought to that election,” she recalls. “He was feeling very stressed.”

In particular, Wu was upset about an internal dispute in Congress involving some Democrats’ objections to language in the federal healthcare reform bill related to abortion. Wu’s agitation struck some onlookers as surprising.

“He was projecting his voice,” Stranger-Hunter says. “He was definitely not yelling.”

That night at Portland International Airport, according to a four-page incident report from the Port of Portland, Wu sought special access to get through the security checkpoint in order to greet his children at the gate. The report said he then began asking deplaning passengers for their votes. At one point, the report said Wu gave a “high-five” to a transportation security officer.

TIGER’S TALE: A second photo, sent from Wu’s Blackberry, went to staffers in the early hours of Oct. 30. WW has blacked out the face of the child, believed to be Wu’s son. It’s unclear what exactly this photo depicts.

Separate from these events, staffers discussed with Wu his plans to attend a Halloween party with family and friends, an event right before the Tuesday election. Sources tell WW that campaign aides had advised Wu not to dress in any costume that could potentially embarrass him. They worried that a goofy getup could provide fodder for last-minute campaign attacks from Cornilles, Wu’s well-financed Republican opponent, in what had been expected to be a close contest. 

What follows here is a series of email messages sent to multiple staffers in the early-morning hours of Saturday, Oct. 30, from Wu’s BlackBerry.

The emails do not offer a definitive account why Wu aides fled the congressman’s office in significant numbers. They do reveal that Wu’s staffers apparently had confronted the congressman about his drinking. They also suggest Wu faced accusations of harassment from his employees—and that Wu wasn’t eager to listen to any of their advice. At 1:03 am PST on Saturday, Oct. 30, an email from Wu’s congressional BlackBerry landed in the inbox of a female staffer. The congressman, who splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Oregon, was then in Portland. 

There was no message attached to the email, only a single image. That photo showed Wu in a plush tiger suit with orange- and black-striped mittens over his hands, a hood with tiger ears pulled over his head and a white fur chest split by a zipper stretched over his stomach. A seemingly red-faced Wu is sitting on a bench in what appears to be a bedroom, with his hands held in the air.

A spokesman, Erik Dorey, last week called the photo a private moment among family members. He further described the photo as “David Wu joshing around with his kids the day before Halloween.”

Nineteen minutes later, at 1:22 am PST, a second email from Wu’s official email address went out to multiple Wu staffers under the subject line “not funny.”

The email read as if it had come from one of Wu’s two children; the name of his middle-school-aged daughter appeared at the end as a signature. After three days of refusing to answer WW’s questions about who sent the emails in the wee hours of the morning, Wu took responsibility during the Good Morning America interview on Feb. 22. The prospect that Wu was pretending to be his child had disturbed staffers. The email—“You’re the best, but my Dad made me say that, even though you threatened to shut down his campaign”—suggests Wu had been sparring with his staff.

Ten minutes later a third email went to two female staffers. This time, it contained another photo and a similar “you’re the best” message. The name of Wu’s son appeared at the bottom of that email.

Whether the photo depicts a staged or real event is uncertain. Someone, apparently Wu, is wearing the full-body tiger costume, this time face-down on a made bed with his arms at his side, as if asleep or passed out.

A wallet and headphones are strewn next to him on the bed. Behind him, a child who appears to be Wu’s 13-year-old son stands beside the bed dressed in a T-shirt and khaki pants with his hands on Wu’s shoulders. It is not clear whether the boy is trying to wake his father, give him a back rub or play along with a joke. 

Six minutes later, at 1:38 am, a fourth email arrived in staffers’ inboxes. The content related to Wu’s drinking. The subject line contained one word: “wasted.”

The email, with Wu’s son’s name at the end, said: “My Dad said you said he was wasted Wednesday night after just three sips of wine. It’s just that he hasn’t had a drink since July 1. Cut him some slack, man. What he does when he’s wasted is send emails, not harass people he works with. He works SO hard for you.… Cut the dude some slack, man. Just kidding.”

(If it’s true that Wu had wine that week, that would contradict a Feb. 14 statement the congressman made in response to a written question from WW. “I, as part of a weight loss push, stopped drinking last year for five months,” Wu said through a spokesman, referring to a period beginning July 1 and lasting until Dec. 1. “I have had a drink on occasion since then.”)

At 1:40 am, a fifth email from Wu’s BlackBerry arrived with both children’s names at the end of the message. It appears directed at one of Wu’s many longtime staffers, some of whom had worked for the congressman for about 12 years. 

“My Dad says you’re the best because not even my Mom put up with him,” the email said. “[Y]ou have. We think you’re cool.”

Until announcing their separation in 2009, Wu and his second wife, Michelle, 48, had been married for about 13 years. Wu maintained custody of their two children, which meant he was juggling a hectic congressional schedule as well as a busy life as a single parent.

Almost immediately following the flurry of late-night emails, Wu’s staffers staged a second intervention to urge Wu to seek psychiatric help and voluntarily enter a hospital. A smaller group of aides attended the second meeting, which also spanned several hours. At the end of it, Wu’s staffers withdrew him from public view. They took him to a private home in Portland to wait out the election.

On Feb. 18, after WW published its account at wweek.com of the final days of Wu’s re-election campaign, the congressman told reporters through a spokesman that his stress before the election was, in part, the result of his father’s death. However, his father passed away more than three weeks after the election from natural causes at the age of 87, according to published reports.

 

The inevitable question is, what’s next for Wu? If he does survive politically, it would not be the first time Wu has overcome difficult public scrutiny. 

On Oct. 12, 2004—three days before ballots started arriving in mailboxes—The Oregonian revealed sexual-assault allegations against Wu from 1976, when he was a Stanford undergraduate. Wu wasn’t prosecuted; no charges were ever filed. But the woman (whom the daily newspaper described as Wu’s ex-girlfriend) told counselors and professors that Wu had attempted to rape her, according to the newspaper’s secondhand sources.

After declining to address the allegations with the daily, Wu finally issued a public statement.

“Twenty-eight years ago, I had a two-year romantic relationship with a fellow college student that ended with inexcusable behavior on my part.… As a 21-year-old, I hurt someone I cared very much about. I take full responsibility for my actions and I am very sorry.”

Wu, however, proved resilient. Weeks later, he declared victory over Republican Goli Ameri, winning 58 percent of the vote.

Today, Wu stands out from his four Oregon colleagues in the House because his financial support in Oregon is not so deep as that of other Oregon members of the House; Wu gets the most out-of-state campaign funding by far—almost 60 percent compared with the next biggest recipient, Democrat Earl Blumenauer, who gets 47 percent of his cash from non-Oregonians, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The recent case of Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) offers a provocative counterpoint to Wu’s current situation. On Feb. 9, Gawker published a shirtless photo of Lee that the married congressman had sent to a woman via Craigslist personal ads. The Republican lawmaker represented himself in emails to the woman as a divorced lobbyist who was also a “fit fun classy guy.”

Within three hours of the disclosure of his infidelity, Lee resigned from Congress. Some reports suggest Republican Speaker John Boehner pressured Lee to resign.

If House Democratic leaders have exerted pressure on Wu to resign, it’s happened behind closed doors. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not acknowledge WW’s repeated requests for comment on Wu’s status in the House. Wu serves on the House education and science committees.

In important ways, however, Wu’s situation is unlike Lee’s and more like that of former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.). Kennedy learned in 1994 he suffered from bipolar disorder, and he remained in office for another eight terms. Significantly, however, Kennedy showed a willingness to discuss his challenges openly, even when mental illness gave way to alcohol and prescription drug addiction.

When news of Wu’s difficulties broke last week, it was unclear whether Wu had a mental illness, and he hardly enjoys the empathy Kennedy automatically engendered in the Northeast. But if Wu’s erratic behavior is the result of illness or other health concerns, Oregon voters are likely to respond to those circumstances differently as well.

Through the weekend, potential Democratic rivals in the 2012 primary kept a low profile. State Sen. Mark Hass (D-Raleigh Hills), Sen. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Beaverton) and Rep. Tobias Read (D-Beaverton), three possible candidates to replace Wu, all demurred when asked whether they would consider a run.

“I’m really focused on my work in the Senate,” Bonamici told WW. “And there’s no opening.”

Yet Wu himself has acknowledged there are times when one’s personal decisions interfere with public life. In 1998, Wu won election in part because of questions that arose from his opponent’s choice to take a personal loan from a developer who had business before Washington County. The opponent in the Democratic primary, Linda Peters, was then county chairwoman.

“Some things in life are strictly personal, and they should stay that way,’” Wu is quoted as saying in The Oregonian in 1998 in reference to Peters. “But there are other times when a person does things that cross over into their official capacity, into their official role, and there’s a whole different set of responsibilities there.”

Jim Moore, the professor of political science at Pacific University in Wu’s district, says Wu’s career could survive this latest round of examination. But Moore also acknowledges that Wu’s private problems have crossed into an area where they may interfere with his official role.

“Because of the staff leaving, he’s clearly getting into that area,” Moore says. “To get out of this he cannot simply hire new staff and be quiet. He has to be pretty public about dealing with this.” 


Wu’s Political History

When David Wu first won his congressional seat in 1998, he had zero elected experience.

A onetime lawyer specializing in high tech and international trade, Wu served from 1986 to 1989 on Portland’s planning commission, an appointed position.

In 1998, then-Rep. Elizabeth Furse declined to seek a fourth term, opening up a seat in the 1st Congressional District.

Linda Peters, then Washington County chairwoman, appeared to be Democrats’ best chance of retaining the seat held by the party since 1975.

But Peters bungled her frontrunner status in the Democratic primary when she failed to file a Voters’ Pamphlet statement, got caught paying her property taxes late and failed to realize the impropriety of taking a $3,500 loan from a developer who had business before Peters in Washington County.

Wu, in the meantime, mailed flyers that some fellow Democrats denounced as sexist; they showed credit cards spilling out of a woman’s purse following mild revelations of questionable spending on Washington County taxpayers’ dime.

“It was hard-fought, on the edges of impropriety,” says Marc Abrams, then chairman of Oregon’s Democratic Party. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say what David did was utterly unacceptable, but it was disappointing.”

He won the primary by a healthy margin and caught a good break in the general election when he faced Republican Molly Bordonaro, a 29-year-old conservative with a thin résumé. Then, on Oct. 21, 1998, WW dealt Bordonaro a devastating blow by posting on its Web site the transcript of Bordonaro’s appearance on a Christian radio show two years prior. In that “K-Praise” radio appearance, Bordonaro struck a far more conservative note on, among other things, abortion rights. “She changed her positions more times than Mark Wahlberg and his porn partners in Boogie Nights,” WW wrote of her.

Excerpts of the transcript appeared in Wu ads. Days later, Wu edged out Bordonaro, with just over 50 percent of the vote. The power of incumbency and name recognition have held off serious challengers to his seat ever since.-

—Beth Slovic

Correction: The original version of this story referred imprecisely to a 1998 campaign tactic by then-rookie candidate David Wu. It was a direct-mail piece, not an ad, that showed a woman's purse filled with credit cards. WW regrets the error.

 
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