Someone got through to Rep. David Wu during the past 24 hours. Perhaps it was Nancy Pelosi and her call for an ethics investigation into the seven-term congressman’s latest scandal. Or it could have been Oregon’s senators calling for his resignation. Or maybe Wu himself wised up and realized he’d get creamed in another election, even if it is 17 months away.
Whatever the reason, Wu’s sudden departure from Congress, which will take effect “upon the resolution of the debt-ceiling crisis,” according to a statement the Portland Democrat released Tuesday morning, leaves open a couple of key questions, among them: What now happens to David Wu? And what happens to his seat?
No hacking into the soon-to-be-former congressman’s voicemail is necessary to know he is suffering from some serious issues, from the prescription painkillers he accepted from a campaign donor to his staff urging him to check into a psychiatric hospital last fall. And this weekend news broke of the latest—a mysterious Thanksgiving weekend episode in Orange County that resulted in an 18-year-old girl accusing Wu via voicemail of an “aggressive, unwanted” sexual encounter of some kind.
Through Monday, Wu remained defiant, telling fellow Rep. John Larson (D-CT) that he “did nothing illegal” and that he’d eventually be “vindicated,” according to The Oregonian.
“He has a lot he still wants to do for the First Congressional District,” a source close to the congressman told The Daily Beast. “It’s going to be a shame to lose the only voice in the room that understands how technical standards impact the business community, how health-information technology affects our health-care system. Those are the wonky issues that have defined his career.”
But then came Pelosi’s call for an ethics investigation, and many more sought an immediate resignation, including Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.
“While he, like every American, deserves an opportunity to address those accusations and defend himself,” the two said in a joint statement released Tuesday morning, “our constituents in the first district of Oregon deserve a member in the House of Representatives whose main focus is fighting for their interests.”
Wu’s constituents will get exactly that, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber announced Tuesday afternoon, as soon as a special primary election can be held to narrow the burgeoning field of Republican and Democrats to two, for a special general election.
Wu was already facing opposition within his party after last fall’s bizarre revelations, and the further embarrassment of a picture he’d sent to staffers of himself in a tiger suit going viral. But one of his early challengers, Oregon State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, had been working to keep the field of competition small, warning that too many candidates threatened to split the anti-Wu vote and ensure his re-election.
With the incumbent out of the way, that argument no longer holds, and the Democratic race may turn into a “free-for-all,” Oregon State University political analyst Bill Lunch told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
“It looks like it’s going to be wild,” Lunch said. “It makes it possible for a candidate who’s less than obvious to emerge.”
Republicans may find themselves in a better position to snatch the seat, too, though that may depend more on the national mood when election time rolls around. If the U.S. defaults on its debt, for example, and Americans decide the Democrats are to blame, Wu’s spot in what’s only narrowly a liberal district now could quickly turn red. If Republicans wind up scapegoats, the seat will likely remain blue.
“I don’t think [Republicans] have a shot,” said state Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-OR).
But the other possibility is that Democrats take blame for “allowing” Wu to keep his job, despite years of weird behavior, said Allen Alley, chairman of the Oregon GOP.
“The Democratic Party knew this was going on and they let the guy get elected,” Alley said. “They’re going to have to tell the electorate why they’re not responsible for it in any way, shape, or form, and I think that’s going to be hard.”
And whither Wu? The teenager who accused him of an unwanted sexual encounter is declining to press charges. Wu has still got a law degree, though his membership with the Oregon State Bar is listed as “inactive” at the moment. He could try to reopen a law practice or become a lobbyist, though he’s likely to try to avoid the limelight, said Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University.
“He doesn’t have any huge supporters who would say, ‘Come be the rainmaker in our law firm,’” Moore said. “And he never had the power, seniority, or expertise in specific areas to really be a major lobbyist.”
The source close to Wu said at the end of a “long day” Tuesday that he’s “doing well,” that “he’s incredibly composed and mature,” and that he’s now considering all of the options in front of a congressman who decides to step down.
“The issues he’s focused on in Congress are not going to be any less important to him when he no longer serves in his official capacity,” the source said, though he noted that Wu has told him “No one wants to be a lobbyist” on multiple occasions. “There are lots of open doors.”
What needs to happen first and foremost is treatment, said state Rep. Jeff Barker, an Aloha Democrat who lives in Wu’s district and called for his resignation Monday.
“I hope he takes care of whatever his issues are,” Barker said. “When somebody’s having a problem, they’re often to last person to realize they need to take care of it.”
At least David Wu realized it was time he stepped out of the way.