Going the Distance: How Tim Wu’s Campaign Engaged Law Students and Alumni

wu1Nelson Hua / Morningside Muckraker

Uber cars and tech startup schools aren’t always places where New Yorkers look for progressive insurgent support, but Tim Wu and his campaign staff meant to challenge the traditional categories. As former campaign manager and CLS ‘12 alumna Nona Farahnik described it, Professor Wu brought an “entrepreneurial free spirit” to his candidacy for lieutenant governor, even as he stuck to his position as a “modern-day trustbuster,” taking aim at the concentration of economic power in our society. Along the way, he’s tried to set an example for students.

“I hope we’re coming to an age where more ordinary people, less in the vein of a professional politician, run for office, and it opens up to more people who haven’t spent their whole life there,” Wu said. “This includes people who are independently talented, and I hope that includes some Columbia law students.”

In that vein, Professor Wu hired a small group of former and current law students for his personal campaign staff . Three of his five staff staffers were CLS alumni, and one was a current student. Though they may have lacked political experience, Wu knew they would make up for it in talent and engagement with important policy issues.

Third-year student Kate Farley said she joined the campaign staff in part because she agreed with Wu’s antitrust platform and his proposal to transform the office of lieutenant governor into a type of public advocate. But perhaps just as importantly, Kate said she was impressed with both his intellectual thoroughness and his political honesty.

“When students asked him a question in Criminal Law exam review, he would go do research on his own, just to make sure the answers were correct and addressed the full subtlety of his students’ questions,” Kate said. “He has a unique ability to synthesize and see trends … and I thought this was important for someone in government, especially someone with influence over state-level enforcement.”

Student and alumni engagement was not limited to the campaign staff. Nona, who was previously a teaching assistant for Professor Wu, said that a fundraiser held on August 14, before the start of most classes, brought together 50 of Wu’s current and former students.

“I think it was an example of how, if you watch carefully, you can get excited about big things,” Wu said.

That excitement hinted at larger successes. On primary day, Wu did particularly well with Manhattan voters, thanks in part to a New York Times endorsement, but also because the campaign may have struck more of a chord in the borough.

“People in Manhattan read the Times,” Nona said, “but a Columbia law professor may resonate more with people there.”

Even so, there were surprises, including some very conservative upstate counties that voted for Wu, and, of course, the disappointing showing in many Brooklyn and Queens precincts, including some strongholds of progressive Mayor Bill De Blasio .

Whatever the odds and alliances, excitement was palpable throughout the campaign, as staffers jumped onto Citi Bikes and into Uber cars to travel to campaign events, Nona said. And it’s not even clear whether Professor Wu’s handful of libertarian tendencies—namely , this startup-like culture and his support for Uber and Airbnb—was what cost him in some progressive precincts.

“His positions were thought out, not based on a political calculus of what would get him the most votes, and I think people responded well to that,” Kate said.

With his primary loss, Professor Wu won’t be transforming the office of lieutenant governor into the role he envisioned next year. Still, he hopes that the campaign will expand students’ ideas of how they fit into the political system, wherever they are in their careers.

“I feel like there are Columbia students who probably are interested but have held back because they feel that they need to be in D.C., but I say to you there are other ways to get involved,” Wu said. “Look and you will find them.”


Disclosure: The author of this piece is a current student in Professor Wu’s anonymously graded Copyright class.


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