03.19.11

America's Most Troubled Pol

Oregon Rep. David Wu is beset by bizarre behavior, campaign debts and an unfortunate picture in a tiger suit. Winston Ross talks to his top challenger about why Wu could still win.

On one of renowned political columnist David Broder's last trips to Oregon, he went for an interview with then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski, recalls Peter Bragdon, the governor's former chief of staff.

"Broder sits down for the interview, and says 'Before we get started, I just want to ask you one question,' " Bragdon said. "'What is wrong with David Wu?' "

This was years ago, before the Democratic congressman sent pictures of himself to his campaign staffers in a tiger suit; before half his staff quit, after unsuccessfully trying to stage two separate interventions to urge the 55-year-old veteran of the U.S. House to check himself into a psychiatric hospital in the weeks before his November re-election; before he emailed staff members pretending to be one of his children, chastising them for trying to "shut down his campaign"; before he accepted oxycodone from a campaign donor; before he talked his way past security at Portland International Airport so he could greet his arriving children without a boarding pass but then began asking the deplaning passengers for votes (at one point, he high-fived a Transportation Security Officer); before he crashed a rental into a parked car on the opposite side of a Portland street, claiming he fell sleep at the wheel; before revealing he finally did get treatment, after blaming the bad behavior on his second divorce, a stressful campaign, the rigors of single parenting and a bad cocktail of Ambien and prescription painkillers he was taking for a sore neck caused by cradling his phone with it, talking to constituents, working too hard.

Broder, like lots of people familiar with the congressman's career in office, asked the governor that question long before Wu's latest spate of oddball antics, because like many who pay close enough attention to politics, he knew Wu was troubled way back then.

The congressman apologized in 2004 for an incident in 1976 that led to an allegation that he tried to rape his former girlfriend after she broke up with him, while the two were still studying at Stanford. (Wu apologized for "inexcusable behavior," and no charges were ever filed). And there have long been rumblings among political insiders about angry outbursts and strange encounters since he was first elected to Congress in 1999.

"One of the best things for David Wu is the earthquake in Japan," Moore said. "It's taken him off the front pages."

"This is nothing new, and it's not about a tiger suit," Bragdon said. "What does it tell you when the leading political reporter in the country, known for being aggressively neutral, is questioning his effectiveness?"

And yet, Wu keeps getting elected, and at comfortable margins. He beat Republican challenger Rob Cornilles last year with 55 percent of the vote, and he took down Republican Goli Ameri in 2004 by an even bigger margin, with 58 percent of the vote. Assuming he continues to ignore calls from Oregon newspapers for his resignation, the $64,000 question in political circles is this: will Wu's weirdness finally catch up to him next year?

Maybe not, says Jim Moore, a professor of political science at Pacific University, which is in Wu's district. Republicans have been unable to topple Wu in past elections because they keep putting up candidates who are too conservative to win a left-leaning district that encompasses half of Portland to the Oregon Coast, they can't get close enough in opinion polls to convince the Republican National Committee to kick in fundraising help, and Oregon signed up 500,000 new democratic voters in 2008--making a general election victory an even more remote possibility.

The best chance to beat Wu would come from a challenge within his own party, Moore said.

"If Wu is going to lose, he's going to lose to a Democrat in the primary," Moore said.

Bragdon says he's skeptical about that prospect, given that it's a big risk for a Democrat to try to unseat a sitting congressman in a primary. They may be giving up a post they already occupy, or if they lose against a man with so many seeming weaknesses, they could mar their own political futures.

"Raising funds as a challenger is a difficult thing," Bragdon said. "And I think a lot of times people misunderstand what a formidable candidate (Wu) can be, how hard he'll work."

Not that Republicans aren't licking their chops, mind you. Cornillus jumped at the chance to proclaim Wu "ineffective" in an interview with The Daily Beast and said he's "looking hard" at running again in a district that is "the least represented in the country right now. I can't think of any Democrats rushing to him asking him to co-sponsor a bill, and Republicans won't go near him."

Cornillus said Wu's past may be finally catching up to him.

"He has a long history of odd behavior, and for the most part, we've just looked the other way," he said. "Whether it's due to mental illness or just poor judgment, being a U.S. congressman requires exemplary judgment, and I don't think he's demonstrated that."

Still, voters can be quick to forgive politicians who say they're sorry, and Wu is saying he's sorry all over the place these days, if not much to the print media. His spokesman, Erik Dorey, initially agreed to arrange an interview with the congressman, then said he was too "busy" and declined to answer further questions, and Wu has refused recent interview requests from Willamette Week and The Oregonian.

But Wu did say on Portland television station KGW in late February that he was sorry for sending inappropriate emails, offering this gem of advice for viewers: "You should never email photographs of yourself in a Halloween costume, especially not to any co-workers." He also said he was undergoing counseling, on medication, "in a good place now" and not resigning.

"The people of Oregon have selected me to do a job," He said. "And I'm going to do it."

Bragdon adds that Wu could "wind up a sympathetic candidate," connecting with voters who know how hard it is to raise kids and that "congressional life is a pressure cooker."

Still, his behavior isn't his only liability. Wu's campaign report shows his operation to be $60,656 in debt, with only $7,500 in the bank at the start of the year. And a recent SurveyUSA news poll of 605 voters in Wu's district conducted for Portland television station KATU-2  had 46 percent of respondents say Wu should resign immediately. If the 2010 election were held again today, those polled say they would have elected Cornillus by a 4 to 3 margin.

The question is whether this will all wash away in a year, though. Already, Moore notes, he's getting some help from across the ocean.

"One of the best things for David Wu is the earthquake in Japan," Moore said. "It's taken him off the front pages."

Winston Ross is a reporter for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon and a regular contributor to Newsweek.com. He blogs irregularly at winstonross.wordpress.com.