Candidate Brianna Wu is learning the rules of a whole new game
DEDHAM — Brianna Wu, video game developer and candidate for Congress, was facing a reality check.
Her voter app was seizing up, refusing to give her the names and addresses of voters to visit. Her weather app was telling her there was no rain in the forecast, even as raindrops began pelting her convertible Porsche.
So before she unfolded her 6-foot-2-inch frame from the low-slung Boxster for an afternoon of campaigning, she reflected on a frustrating lesson she has already learned: Politics can’t just be disrupted like the tech industry. Campaigns are won IRL (that’s “in real life,” for those whose lives are focused there).
“You think, I’ll just disrupt it and we’ll figure it out using new technology,” said Wu, who launched her first tech startup at 19, hiring three equally inexperienced newcomers. That formula, she realized, “utterly does not work in politics at all.”
Wu, 41, best known for speaking out against misogyny in the gaming industry, is trying to channel her online renown into a campaign in the Eighth Congressional District against the most conservative member of the state’s congressional delegation, US Representative Stephen Lynch.
The cofounder of a Boston-based game studio called Giant Spacekat tells voters on the campaign trail that Lynch doesn’t understand the modern economy like she does. In an upcoming digital ad, she reduces him to a cardboard cutout, while she presents herself on her motorcycle in full leather.
The eye-popping asymmetry of it all — @Spacekatgal takes on old-school Southie pol — has brought her national media attention.
But drawing eyeballs is one thing. Getting elected to Congress is another. And this unconventional newcomer has quickly learned there’s a reason for some traditional campaign strategies, such as hiring seasoned political operatives.
“When I started this campaign, I rejected hiring people with campaign experience,” Wu tweeted in July. “I wanted a fresh perspective.”
Then, she lost a campaign manager within a few weeks and came to appreciate the value of experience after most veterans were committed to other campaigns.
Likewise, she knew how to raise money in Silicon Valley but had to develop a comfort level seeking donations in Southeastern Massachusetts. In a year and a half, she has raised just $115,834. Lynch has $1.3 million on hand.
She has even learned that she needs a digital communications director. Though she’s a clever social media persona who champions the First Amendment to her 82,000 Twitter followers, she needs someone who can anticipate the online harassment she says her supporters receive.
Wu is wearily accustomed to such harassment.
The creator of story-driven video games with female characters, Wu was among the women targeted with rape and death threats during the 2014 episode known as Gamergate. The online animus initially focused on one female game developer whose ex-boyfriend alleged that her game found success because she cheated on him with men in the industry. When Wu spoke up against the conspiracy theory, she, too, was forced out of her home due to threats. She still has stalkers, she said.
But after her dismay with the 2016 presidential election, she decided to put herself out there publicly by running for office. Now, she’s one of several Democrats taking on well-established incumbents from their own party in the primary election Sept. 4. While her unusual profile has attracted attention, she has not gained as much traction as other insurgents, such as City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who is challenging US Representative Michael Capuano; or City Councilor Josh Zakim, who is taking on Massachusetts Secretary of State William F. Galvin. Like them, Wu is being asked to demonstrate that the change she’ll deliver is not merely symbolic.
“What is your plan?” Dedham voter Tulin Johansson gently asked Wu after inviting her to step into her home. “Everybody comes and says, ‘Oh, I’m against the Trump administration,’ ” Johansson added. “But that’s not enough.”
Wu pledged that she would “think more about you than the corporations.”
Still, Johansson wanted something more tangible. “What’s the No. 1 change you would make?” she pressed Wu.
Her answer: income inequality.
That day, Wu spent an hour knocking on Dedham doors, trailed by her campaign videographer and two Globe journalists documenting her steps. With no volunteers to help her, she went at it alone with her campaign literature and her cellphone.
Her weather app kept telling her it wasn’t raining.
Her voter app kept telling her to go to houses she’d already visited.
Dashing across a busy road in her cat-eye glasses, she repeatedly zigzagged to the homes of voters who were gracious and curious, but very familiar with Lynch, a nine-term congressman who has been in public office since he was elected to the state Legislature 24 years ago.
“I know Stevie,” Johnny Ivester, 72, told Wu when she stopped by his house. “I play golf with him. You play golf?”
“I do not play golf,” Wu responded.
“You gonna learn?” Ivester asked.
“If I have to,” she said.
“If you have to?” guffawed Ivester, a retired truck driver. “What is this?! You have to!”
“I’m an engineer,” she explained. “I’m running for office.”
Wu would be the first to acknowledge that her life skills — engineering, fixing cars, hyper-focusing on tiny problems — are not typical prized political attributes.
“If there’s a zombie apocalypse, Brianna Wu is the one you want on your team,” she joked.
Her offbeat campaign features a digital ad, “Brianna Wu vs. Trumpzilla,” in which her husband, science fiction artist and filmmaker Frank Wu, wears a Godzilla costume and protects a tiny cardboard city from a sneering, stomping, inflatable Donald Trump by whacking the president on the head with a shield emblazoned with the words “First Amendment.”
Still, Wu is running not against Trump, but against Lynch — a Democrat, who was sent to Congress 17 years ago. Also vying for the Democratic nomination is Christopher Voehl, 49, a pilot who served 20 years and six deployments in the Air Force and who wants to stop overseas wars.
Lynch has largely ignored his challengers, declining to debate them.
Scott Ferson, a Lynch spokesman, said the congressman has always felt the best way to run is to concentrate on the job at hand. Ferson also pushed back at Wu’s assertion that Lynch is not good for women and people of color.
“He’s got a 90 percent rating from the NAACP and is one of the go-to people to fight for full funding for Planned Parenthood on the floor,” Ferson said.
Regardless, Wu makes no bones about her intentions: “I’m looking to push the party left,” she told voters last week.
And whatever the outcome on Sept. 4, she intends to put this campaign experience to use.
“As soon as this election cycle is over,” she said, “I’m going to hire veterans — people with specific Massachusetts experience in this election system,” she said.
“Win or lose,” she said, “I’m running again in 2020.”