When I arrive at the headquarters of Brianna Wu For Congress, a modest house near the bottom of a quiet street in Dedham, Massachusetts, the candidate is just back from her morning run. She’s practically electric while telling me and her husband about a group of construction workers she’d run past. She had thought they were catcalling her, only to realize after she took her earbuds out that they were in fact shouting about how they planned to vote for her in Tuesday’s primary.
This, I would learn after spending a day on the campaign trail with the candidate, was pure Brianna Wu. Far from assuming she has a chance in hell of winning, Wu routinely appears surprised but emboldened by the fact that people want to support her candidacy.
Wu, whose studio Giant Spacekat released the action adventure role-playing game Revolution 60 in 2014, is one of the only game developers who has ever run for political office, and the biggest name in the scene to do so since former LucasArts president Jim Ward tried unsuccessfully for a House seat in Arizona in 2009.
She announced her intention to run in December of 2016, shortly after Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. She’d volunteered for the Clinton campaign and watched it fail. “I can’t sit by making pleasant video game distractions for the next four years while the Constitution is under assault,” she told Venturebeat at the time. In January she made it official, saying she would run in Massachusetts’ 8th district, which encompasses an eastern sliver of Boston and large swaths of the suburbs south of the city. By April of this year, she had secured the 2,000 signatures necessary to get on the ballot, and has been fighting hard to get a foothold in the race ever since.
Wu’s main opponent is moderate Democrat Stephen Lynch, an eight-term incumbent who last faced a primary challenger in 2010 and beat them two to one. This time he’s up against Wu and former fighter pilot Christopher Voehl. With no Republicans in the race, the winner of the seat will be all but decided during the Democratic primary on Tuesday, September 4.
Congressional districts are made up of roughly 711,000 people, but most don’t vote, especially in primaries. Wu has national and even international awareness as a proponent of women’s issues in video games and as a vocal opponent of the online outrage movement Gamergate. She’s been on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, been featured in The New York Times and earlier this year publicly propelled a discussion across the gaming industry about whether the founder of Atari was a sexist, something she said was the case, though women who worked with him later refuted. She isn’t shy about sharing her political views or her accounts of ceaseless harassment against her—including briefly being driven from her home following threats after she mocked Gamergate in 2014—to her 80,000 Twitter followers, either. All of that may not amount to much against incumbent Lynch, who may just have 3,500 Twitter followers but has raised $647,958 this campaign cycle to Wu’s $172,941.
Heading into the homestretch, Wu seems exhausted. In fact, she told me a couple times throughout the day how much she misses the gaming industry. She’d rather be working on the next project from Giant Spacekat, the game studio she co-founded, she said. But she described running for office and trying to push the Democratic party left in the age of Trump as a form of public service. “I image people [fighting] in World War II didn’t want to do that, but you did because you loved your country,” she said. “That’s exactly why I’m out here, too.”
In truth, my day covering the Wu campaign began before she came back from that run. It was 9:30 a.m., the temperature already inching into the 90s, when a jet-black Dodge Challenger with a “Brianna Wu For Congress” sign on the passenger-side door pulled up outside my hotel in Dedham. Behind the wheel was Frank Wu, Brianna’s husband and campaign treasurer. He’s also a pharmaceutical patent agent, moonlights as a science fiction fan artist, and helps with the campaign’s YouTube ads. In the most popular of them, Frank wears a Godzilla costume to represent how Wu will take on Trump.
Frank and I stop at a McDonald’s. He gets a breakfast sandwich and hash browns, telling the woman at the window he doesn’t need a coffee because he already has a drink, gesturing at a pair of Dr. Peppers sitting in the center console. All the while, we’re talking about the candidate’s focus on tech policy. Wu has recently been focusing on cybersecurity, an expertise which comes from her time in the tech industry making games and, she says, the need to protect her personal info seriously once trolls from across the internet began trying to hack it. Brianna had been expecting to attract educated, left-leaning millennials and Gen Xers, but Frank tells me about how scams around Social Security Numbers have helped her message around data privacy and cybersecurity resonate with older constituents. Baby Boomers in the suburbs around Boston might not be up on the latest Facebook data scandal, but many, according to Frank, are desperately worried about scammers getting hold of the key to their government retirement program.
Once we arrive at the house and meet up with Brianna, there are no staffers or volunteers. Instead I’m greeted by the barks of three small dogs, various mixes of Havanese and Bichon, named Kablam, Splat, and Rocket. For the rest of the day, these are the only other life forms associated with the campaign, outside of Brianna and Frank, that I will hear from. She says this is because of how the campaign is a target for online stalkers and harassers, and out of a need to protect her staff from the type of daily attacks she’s had to deal with since coming out in defense of women developers during the peak of Gamergate in late 2014. FEC records list about half a dozen workers on the campaign, but with no real detail or consistency to help illuminate how much the operation expands beyond Brianna and Frank.
Alone, the three of us set off to meet a group of about a dozen gas workers up the road who are entering the tenth week of being locked out by National Grid. These members of USW Local 12003 spend many mornings camped out on a high-traffic stretch of University Ave opposite several police officers. Negotiations for a new contract fell through in mid-June, and the union workers were replaced by contract workers. I ride shotgun with Brianna in her Porsche Boxster while Frank carries the campaign swag in the Dodge, the two cars eventually parking on either side, flanking the workers. Frank gets to them first. Brianna and I catch up seconds later.
“How are you guys doing?” she says, jumping right in. “I’m Brianna Wu. I’m running to be your Congresswoman. I’m really in support of what you’re doing.” She asks them how they’re holding up. They do most of the talking, with her occasionally popping in with comments like, “It just gets me so mad, It’s like you guys just want to make a living wage, you know?”
Frank tries several times to mention how Trump’s tax policies are lining companies’ pockets, but the locked-out workers are focused on National Grid’s actions. “Every quarter it’s a record quarter, every year a record year,” one of the union guys, who wishes not to be identified, says. She asks them what help they need that they aren’t getting. Their focus is on how the company refuses to negotiate in good faith.
They want to tell their story and she does a good job of listening, but when it comes to her Bernie Sanders-esque rallying cry of income inequality and stronger bargaining rights for workers, it’s like two ships passing in the night. A few trucks go by and honk in solidarity.
“If I’m elected, reach out to me,” Wu says. “I will have your back. ”
“We appreciate all the help we can get,” replies one of the workers. It’s hot. Everyone is sweating. The conversation progresses awkwardly but heartfelt.
From there we head over to the home of author and science fiction critic Thomas Easton. Frank’s already on the lawn talking with Easton by the time we get out of the car. The author is white-haired with a finely groomed goatee and a twirly, white mustache. We’re at his house so Wu can drop off a yard sign for his wife, who the campaign has been trying to recruit as a volunteer. Easton makes a joke about Wu never inviting them to all of the hip parties they attend. He mentions a recent segment he heard on the Rachel Maddow show about children being kept at the border, flowing straight into a diatribe about how Trump is shredding the Constitution. Wu says she’s melting. He invites us in for the AC. Wu thanks him for his vote, but says we need to get going.
“We need Congressfolk who understand the trials faced by women, POC, and other marginalized groups,” Easton writes to me via Facebook Messenger later. “I’m hoping that Brianna Wu will be able to make a valuable contribution there.”
We head back to the Wu household. Brianna invites me upstairs to the second floor to see the makeshift office that houses her iMac and thus operates as the de facto campaign headquarters. She has to spend the afternoon sorting through a combination of public and private data on Eighth District voters in order to figure out who to target for her last-ditch push against Lynch.
Frank keeps busy setting up a third air conditioner, with the assistance of some duct tape and a dryer hose, to keep the campaign humming along at a cool 63 degrees. He asks several times whether I’m too hot. It’s fine, I say; my partner and I still use box fans, at least until global warming gets worse. “Yeah, we’re fucked,” Frank replies.
While Frank finishes fine-tuning the environmental controls, Brianna works on a fundraiser email. She says she hasn’t sent one in a while. “I’m very sparing, because it feels so fucking gross,” she says. She hopes doing so this time will pay off as she reaches out for the funds needed to buy targeted ads on Facebook and mount a texting-based get-out-the-vote-effort in the crucial days leading up to the election.
The room where Brianna Wu works is barely furnished, aside from her desk where her iMac sits, and a dining room table holding up a pair of monitors and a couple of phone lines. A light reflector stands along the opposite wall, presumably for when the candidate does video interviews. Behind her are a series of faux-canvas panels that together make up an abstract painting of the American flag. On the opposite wall are posters for Star Wars: Rogue One and for Mr. Robot, the television series about a rogue hacker.
Her main objective of the afternoon is to pore over some 65,000 names on a spreadsheet, locate the ones most likely to be pro-Wu, and then convert them into actual votes. Federal voter data is publicly available and can include names, street addresses, emails, and phone numbers. This data can be combined with the type mined from internet users across any number of websites and platforms to fill in the blanks and offer a picture of each individual voter in a district. That information can then be used to focus on individuals for text messages, internet ads, donation requests, and door-to-door canvassing. It’s some of the stuff people are talking about when they say “Russia hacked the election” and also the type of stuff every modern campaign does, including one being run by a pro-privacy, pro-internet regulation candidate like Wu.
“I feel really gross,” she says. “It scares me just how much data is out there.” When I ask her what she cares most about, she shows me the government website for the United States House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and discusses why she wants so desperately to serve on its Subcommittee for Research and Technology
“If we get eight votes on this committee, we can absolutely run the table on literally everything to do with the game industry, with Facebook, with tech, all of it,” she says excitedly. “Eight votes. Eight fucking votes and you control every bill that comes out of the House on this.” It’s here she feels her experience and background would be most useful, she says, and where she could turn her ideas for better laws governing how data is shared on the internet into legislation. These proposals range from things like personal identity protection that would replace people’s SSNs and birthdates with cryptographic keys to making companies that buy and sell data more liable for its misuse. She also suggests the possibility of all data collected by companies to eventually sunset and be destroyed.
“I’m buying databases,” she says. “I’ve literally, as we’ve been sitting here, bought a database filled with 20,000 phone numbers of people here in Massachusetts. There were no checks on me. It wasn’t sent in any sort of tracking format to figure out who I am. I just called someone up who I just met yesterday, and asked to get those numbers and they sent it over within 24 hours.” Wu wants to get into Congress to try and pass a law that would make the people who purchase that data, like her, liable for how it’s used and for any damage that results from mishandling it.
For now, she’s willing to use the tools currently available, even as she finds the idea of buying a whole voting district’s worth of personal information for a few thousand dollars ghastly on its face. “We have to work with the system we have to win,” she says. As she bounces between fine-tuning the copy for her fundraiser email and discussing the details of new voter databases she plans to buy, she seems to relax. Twitter and email are a click away, and her logical problem-solving skills honed as a software designer can take center stage. “I enjoy quiet days at home in front of the computer,” she says.
As she sorts, copies, and deletes cells in her spreadsheet, Wu holds forth on a number of wide-ranging topics. “He just seems to not give a shit,” she says of her incumbent opponent. She reiterates that she thinks the Hillary Clinton/Nancy Pelosi playbook is obsolete. She wants to abolish ICE, the U.S. agency of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and take on racial injustice, but also laments that police have a difficult job and are underpaid. At some point she lets out a howl, and when I ask what’s wrong, she says she’s just seen Elon Musk’s latest tweet doubling down on his claim that one of the divers involved in the effort to rescue a soccer team from a cave in Thailand was in fact a pedophile. “I think he’s done more good than bad,” she says of Musk.
We eventually make our way to moon rocks, one of the more bizarre subjects Wu has gotten wrapped up in during her new political career. In February 2017, shortly after announcing her candidacy, Wu tweeted “The moon is probably the most tactically valuable military ground for earth. Rocks dropped from there have power of 100s of nuclear bombs.” She was mocked for it online and deleted the Tweet. The context was around it was an announcement that SpaceX, owned by Musk, was planning a mission to the moon. “A private corporation having access to [the] moon should give you pause,” she tweeted at the time.
“I thought the moon rocks thing was very unfair,” she says. “I’m sitting there late at night talking about how Elon Musk is talking about going to the moon and how the Moon has a lot of strategic importance as a military asset.” She cites is The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. In it, revolutionaries on a lunar colony launch rocks to terrorize residents on earth. “I used the phrase ‘drop moon rocks,’ as in, ‘drop into a gravity well,’ on Twitter and the fucking Washington Times goes into this ‘Brianna Wu believes if you drop rocks on the moon that they’re gonna fall here’ and it’s just like, you can’t say anything to defend yourself from it.”
During the three and a half hours we spend in her office, Brianna asks Siri several times how hot it is outside. Every time, the AI’s response is the same: 93 degrees. She has an app on her phone that feeds off one of the data sets she’s purchased and suggests where she should canvas. It looks a little like Uber, but for likely voters. It shows a map of the area with pinpoints for individual addresses called out instead of cars, the thinking being that if you’re a small campaign with limited time and resources, you only want to hit the potential voters you have the highest likelihood of winning over.
We head out around 5 p.m., a two-car campaign caravan. After a 10-minute ride, we’ve arrived. “Do I look okay?” Brianna asks Frank as we get out of the car to begin the handshakes. “You look great,” he says.
The first house is large, with a two-car garage. A child answers and says their parents aren’t home. The next house across the way is more dingy, and nobody stirs inside. Finally, on number three, we hear rustling inside but still no answer. Brianna points approvingly at a red 80s GT Mustang with a black stripe down the center in a driveway as we pass. She’s a car lover. Every time someone doesn’t answer the door immediately, Frank suggests we move onto the next house, but while his instinct seems to arise from a desire to avoid people, it’s also often accurate.
Several houses in, someone finally answers. “Hi, I’m Brianna Wu, I’m running to be your Congresswoman!” Brianna says. “Sorry, I’m on a conference call,” a stressed looking middle-aged woman responds in a thick Boston accent. Brianna gives her a flyer and wishes her well. Another woman is taking her trash out across the way. Brianna asks her what her top issue is. “Nothing I can say off the top of my head,” she replies.
Across the street, we approach a man taking out his trash and watering his tiny but immaculate lawn. He says he’s just back from the beach and has the leather-worn tan to prove it, but he doesn’t seem to understand what Brianna is up to beyond the fact that she’s a Democrat running for office. He says he’ll support her because he’s also a Democrat. Frank’s superlatives about Brianna being tough on cyber security appear to go right over his head.
“You gotta get in before you go to the finals,” says the man, suggesting he understands she’s running against another Democrat. His enthusiasm, wherever it’s aimed, is a welcome distraction from the rest of the encounters, although when we come back past him on the return trip and Frank asks if they can put a sign on his beautiful lawn, he declines.
The canvassing trek lasts about an hour, leaving all of us soaked in sweat. Frank whispers about getting some ice cream. The two complement each other well. Frank is the cheery, happy-go-lucky supporter pouring endless amounts of positive energy into an uncertain venture, and Brianna is the unflinching fighter willing to introduce herself to an endless sea of strangers at dinner time on a late, soggy August evening. She’s spent the last hour introducing herself as “part of the army of women running for Congress” trying to save our democracy and pull the Democratic party to the left, only for them to respond with variations on “Sorry, ya caught me really off guard” as they close the door and head back into their clapboard-sided New England houses. The grind has led her to take up Pokemon Go, and on the way back from canvassing as we whip around another corner in her Boxster she points out a local American Legion meeting hall, the location of a Pokemon Go gym she says she’s taken over dozens of times.
Brianna Wu, currently 41 years old, assumes she’s going to lose on September 4, and for much of the day, she and Frank talk about what’s next. She’s committed to running again in 2020, the same year Trump will be up for reelection. Earlier in the day, Frank had spoken about how they’re “learning the mechanics of how to run a campaign,” suggesting the Wus already consider 2018 to be more of a practice run.
For next time, Brianna says she plans to “get more killer Democratic operatives.” She’d also like to rent an actual campaign office, so everyone working on the campaign can easily meet and plan events like phone banking and canvassing. She says she also plans to do more delegating, rather than managing everything from data analytics to public relations herself. For example, she intends to pay third-parties to collect the 2,000 signatures she needs to get on the ballot next time, rather than trying to do that all by herself, and also build up a more sizable warchest of fundraising from cybersecurity and net neutrality advocates much earlier in the process.
Whatever strategic and tactical changes does end up making, Brianna Wu is not ready to throw in the towel yet on politics, no matter how much part of her would like to.
“I never felt like I found my purpose in life until I was a game developer running a game studio,” she says. But there will be time for that later. “I really see what I’m doing now as public service. The truth is, America needs a leader to do the right thing right now more than they need another video game.”