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Sunday, February 20, 2011
Hanabusa’s new Chief of Staff helped hide “kooky” Congressman’s mental illness
By Andrew Walden @ 5:48 PM :: 13630 Views :: Ethics, Politicians

by Andrew Walden

It is always good to have just the right skill set to suit one’s new employer.

After years as Chief of Staff for “kooky” Oregon Progressive Democrat Congressman David Wu, Julie Tippens threw in the towel and settled for what the Associated Press describes as “a similar position with a lawmaker with far less seniority.”  Her new employer since January? Hawaii’s very own Colleen Hanabusa.

Wu, a true and accurate representative of his West Portland progressive base, won reelection by a 13% margin last November.  And now, after Tippens and several other Wu staffers’ resigned, Wu is finally receiving the psychiatric care he has long needed.  

Tippens, the Congressman’s Chief of Staff for over a decade, covered and spun what a Wu campaign pollster describes as “the charade” while Wu’s mental stability was again and again called into question. As The Oregonian explained January 18:

Wu, who has represented Oregon's 1st Congressional District since 1999, has been less known for his legislative achievements than his strident opposition to China and bursts of puzzling public behavior. In one instance, he warned of faux Klingons in the White House during a floor speech in 2007. In 2003, as the House was convulsing to pass the Medicare prescription bill, Wu fell into a state that one colleague described as "almost catatonic," according to The Washington Post, as Democratic leaders frantically tried to get him to vote for the bill.  

In the end, staffers could “enable” no more.  The psychiatric intervention came after a series of bizarre early morning emails apparently sent by Wu, but signed with his children's names, which were given to Willamette Week:

…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 to have been 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.

Tippens had been working for Wu since the fall of 2000.

The emails were accompanied by photos of Congressman Wu in a tiger suit:

David Wu

Lisa Grove, a Wu campaign pollster had enough.  In an October 30 email to campaign staff she explained: 

"This is way beyond acceptable levels and the charade needs to end NOW.  No enabling by any potential enablers, he needs help and you need to be protected. Nothing else matters right now. Nothing else."

Willamette Week sets the scene:

Around midday on Thursday Oct. 28, Wu was inside Central Drugs, a pharmacy on Southwest 4th Avenue, running errands, sources say. Other Wu staffers wanted to speak with him about his behavior. 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.

The Oregonian describes the fateful meeting as the campaign came to a climax last October:

Three days before the Nov. 2 election, U.S. Rep. David Wu’s most loyal and senior staffers were so alarmed by his erratic behavior that they demanded he enter a hospital for psychiatric treatment.

Their concern had been spiking for weeks in tandem with the Oregon Democrat's increasingly unpredictable performance on the campaign trail and in private. He was loud and sometimes angry, some of them told The Oregonian. He said kooky things to staff and -- more worrisome with a tough election fast approaching -- around potential voters and donors….

Earlier and gentler efforts had failed, so the tight-knit group of high-level staff took other steps, including quiet inquiries about the availability of beds in hospitals in Portland and Washington, D.C., multiple sources familiar with the effort told The Oregonian.

Several staff members confronted Wu for the final time on Oct. 30. Wu’s psychiatrist was brought into that meeting as well, joining the group at the Portland campaign headquarters by speaker phone. The meeting was held after four consecutive days of troubling behavior that led the staff to agree that Wu needed a higher level of medical care, according to people intimately familiar with the events of that period.

Wu didn’t completely stay out of sight at the end.  The Oregonian explains:

In a speech before Washington County Democrats, he blasted his opponent as a telemarketer, The Oregonian as unfair and the Republican candidate for governor as stingy with tips. Wu also disclosed that he stopped drinking July 1. 

Phyllis Kirkwood, a Democratic precinct leader in Washington County, was alarmed enough to send Wu a letter after the Oct. 27 event. In it, she said she wanted to hear of his accomplishments, gratitude for their hard work and reasons why they should continue working on his behalf. 

"But you gave us no reason in that speech to support you at all," she wrote in the letter, which she confirmed for The Oregonian. "... You sounded bitter and angry, blaming in loud, fearsome tones your possible defeat on your opponent and the media." 

In an interview, Kirkwood said Wu "yelled a lot, which I didn't think was necessary. In fact, I almost got up and said, 'Hold on now, Mr. Wu, we are all your friends.'" 

Two days later, Wu planted himself at a United Airlines gate and introduced himself to passengers fresh off a flight from D.C. 

According to an incident report filed with Port of Portland police, Wu identified himself to TSA officials as a congressman and requested access to a secured gate. Wu said he was at the airport to meet his young children, who were arriving from Washington, D.C., accompanied by an adult staffer. A security officer initially refused to let Wu pass, citing security rules. According to the report, Wu told the officer "You know me ... do me a favor, bend the rules." 

Wu eventually gained access, with the help of a TSA duty manager -- the one who later would be retrained -- in violation of security rules. Once at the gate, Wu started greeting passengers. The children he had come to meet ran ahead and out of the concourse, nearly two minutes before their father. 

"As I'm getting off, he's greeting people saying, 'Vote for me.' I said to him, 'I will never vote for you,'" said Todd Newton, a Sherwood resident who filed the complaint with airport police. 

Of course, none of these incidents would warrant so much as a second thought coming from a Hawaii Democrat with a record like Hanabusa’s. 

Tippens may just be desperate.  Or maybe she has no idea what she has gotten herself into.  But now she will have much more to explain away than catatonic Klingons shouting, airport election shenanigans, and a few weird emails from a drunk Congressman in a tiger suit.

On the other hand it may be Hanabusa who was desperate—but now lucky.  Usually only high-seniority Democrats are able to land Congressional staffers with the experience needed to spin a record which includes Broken Trust, Larry Mehau, the termination of Margery Bronster, Ko Olina, Honolulu Raceway, the Pali shooter’s cohort, and the acquitted Waianae Toilet Bomber. 


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