Oregon Congressman David Wu Credit: U.S. Congress
Oregon has had a First Congressional District since 1893 but the current congressman, Democrat David Wu, sets a new record for strange behavior, with the latest incident resulting in a demand for an investigation by the House Ethics Committee and a pledge from Wu that he won’t run again.
The latter pledge doesn’t satisfy many of his constituents, including members of his own party, and it is increasingly unlikely that the 56-year-old lawyer and high-tech advocate can run out the clock of his seventh term. Indeed, he has just announced he will resign shortly, yielding to pressure from the two Oregon senators.
Elected in 1998 to an open seat, Wu survived an accusation of sexual assault in 2004, from a former college girlfriend, and went on to easy elections until 2010. That year, increased rumblings of discontent from Democrats about Wu’s sometimes-strange behavior cut his re-election margin to 54 percent. Their unease came into the open in February this year, when Willamette Week broke a story that most of Wu’s key campaign staff had resigned after unsuccessfully urging Wu to seek psychiatric treatment. Staffers cited a pattern of behavior, including a bizarre e-mail photo of the congressman in a tiger suit.
The final straw came last week, when The Oregonian wrote that a young woman (age 18 at the time) was accusing Wu of unwanted sexual contact earlier this year. The woman is the daughter of longtime campaign donors to Wu. He said the incident was consensual, but demands for his resignation began to resonate across the political spectrum. The incident brought new calls for Wu to resign, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif), the House Democratic leader, called for an Ethics Committee investigation.
Wu’s troubles have already drawn two strong Democratic opponents, State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian and State Rep. Brad Witt. Avakian lives in populous Washington County, the suburban high-tech corridor west of Portland, and Witt in rural Clatskanie. No prominent Republican has announced; the district hasn’t elected a Republican since 1974.
Congressional redistricting this year slightly reduced the Democratic lead in the Northwest Oregon district, but the party still enjoys an edge and Republicans lack a strong bench of elected officials in lower offices. The district had included parts of Northwest Portland and the downtown business district; redistricting placed them in the Third Congressional District represented by Democrat Earl Blumenauer. The population of the district is heavily concentrated in Washington County; other counties are rural or small-town, including beach towns on the Oregon Coast.
For Democrats, the timing of Wu’s latest debacle is fortunate; had the charges come out just before an election, as was the case with the 2004 incident, Wu’s strong party registration might have carried him to election. With Avakian and Witt already running and Republicans now enjoying the benefits of an open seat, the First District could be back in contention for the first time since Republican Wendell Wyatt retired in 1974.
Wyatt followed other Republicans into office; his successor, Democrat Les AuCoin, was the first Democrat ever elected to represent the district. Other occupants of the seat included Rep. Willis Hawley (1907-1933), co-author of the notorious protectionist legislation, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. Wyatt, the last Republican to hold the seat, was also its most centrist legislator, highly regarded across the aisle.
David Wu was born in Taiwan, where his parents fled when China went to the communists in 1949. The family moved to the United States in 1961 and Wu graduated from Yale Law School and practiced law in Portland before his election to the House in 1998. His practice centered on issues relating to the hi-tech community in suburban Washington County, an expertise he carried over to the House as a member of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology and ranking member of the subcommittee on technology and innovation. His campaigns have attracted funds from the technology community as well as from the Chinese-American community nationwide.
I knew Lawyer Wu in the 1980s, when he was a good source on emerging trade issues with China and Asia in general; he was knowledgeable but didn’t seem very political. I would have pegged his future as a lobbyist, not an elected member of Congress. His break came when Rep. Elizabeth Furse, an unabashed liberal Democrat who served two terms, declined to seek re-election in 1998. Wu won a narrow victory, and has never gathered less than 54 percent of the vote in subsequent elections.
Democrats in Oregon have been increasingly disenchanted with Wu, who is generally a reliable party vote in the House but somewhat of a loner and misfit in the freewheeling world of electoral politics. His departure at the end of his term or perhaps earlier could actually strengthen the Democratic hold on major Oregon offices; Wu was not seen as a future candidate for statewide or senatorial office, but his successor may be more palatable statewide. Avakian in particular has won statewide election once and has broad support across the political spectrum.
Oregon came close to a sixth Congressional seat this year, ultimately losing out to Washington, and that reduced Republican chances of picking up another seat. Currently only Rep. Greg Walden, of Eastern Oregon’s wide open spaces, holds a seat in Congress. All statewide offices are held by Democrats, and the state went for Barack Obama in 2008.