Gene Wu was 4 years old when he moved from China’s second largest metropolis, Guangzhou in the Pearl River Delta, to the small West Texas town of Odessa, population 100,000. It was 1983, and his father had enrolled in a nursing program at University of Texas of the Permian Basin. Wu saw snow for the first time. Ice, too. But his most visceral memory? Standing on a playground, trying to speak one type of Chinese, and then another, to a few kids who had no idea what he was saying. Finally, he thought screw it, tagged a boy it, and took off running. The boy chased him. Turns out, tag is universal.
“As an immigrant, it’s a weird experience because as a child, you want to belong, but at the same time you’re obviously not from here,” he says over a cold beer at his favorite haunt, Jake’s Sports Bar on Chimney Rock and Richmond near his home. Today Wu is a three-term Democratic State Representative, serving District 137 since 2012.
The area includes much of southwest Houston, where his family settled in 1988, living in a Bellaire apartment for a couple of years before moving into the $40,000 Sharpstown home where his parents still reside today. While his father left nursing in 1994 to become an immigration lawyer, Wu’s mother remained in the medical industry, and both parents wanted him to become a doctor. He became an attorney instead, the fourth generation on his father’s side to do so.
District 137 is wildly diverse, encompassing the neighborhoods of Westchase, Briarmeadow, and Braeburn. More than 67 percent of households speak a language other than English at home. It’s quintessentially Houston, and Wu loves it, talking up the area Ruchi’s where he eats menudo with his wife, ABC 13 news anchor Miya Shay, and their young sons.
So it’s not surprising that Wu isn’t a fan of SB4, which bans sanctuary cities in Texas, and which the State Legislature passed last year. Minutes before it went to a vote in the House, he made a passionate speech in the capital, defending his constituents. In a YouTube video, you can watch him choke back tears as he says, “I am an immigrant. My parents are immigrants. I represent a district filled with immigrants. Some are here as refugees. Some are here as citizens. Some are here without papers. But they are all my people.” The bill passed along party lines 94-53, but the speech went viral. Wu seems to have a knack for that.
On May 18, hours after the school shooting in Santa Fe that left 10 people dead, Wu couldn’t contain his rage. “Y’all been sending thoughts and prayers for two freaking decades now,” he wrote in a tweet that made headlines. “Time to try something new.” “Yes,” he later explained to his Facebook followers in a follow-up post. “I sent out that tweet, along with a few others. How many more children and teachers will lose their lives before my colleagues in the legislature will enact meaningful laws?”
“Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe are a wakeup call,” Wu says. “The argument of ‘well, if you have more guns, then it will be safer’ is flatly not true. Texas has more guns than any other state, and we’re no more immune. It’s time we started dealing with it.” For Texas, Governor Greg Abbott simply hosting a roundtable discussion on school safety in the capital, as he did the week after the Santa Fe shooting, is something of a breakthrough. “I’m happy some discussion is going on,” Wu says. “We’ve had fights before about even having a discussion.”
But Wu is concerned that all these shootings will be blamed on mental illness. Previously a prosecutor for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, he’s now a private attorney who represents children in the juvenile justice and CPS systems, many with behavioral and mental health problems. “We don’t want to further stigmatize mental health,” he says. “It’s hard enough for people to get treatment.” Research shows that during their lifetimes, it’s far more likely that those with mental illnesses will be victims of gun violence than perpetrators.
“Now as a parent, it’s even more clear to me,” he says. “I don’t think any kid is born bad.” With that in mind, he’s been working to help them. Last session, the Texas Legislature passed Wu’s bipartisan House Bill 7 with flying colors. The bill aims to reform CPS and better protect children in its care.
This session, Wu’s working on legislation to reform the juvenile justice system. Texas is one of only four states that consider 17-year-olds adults, and juveniles—those 16 years old and younger—can be tried as adults, too. Between 1995 and 2015, 5,244 juveniles stood trial as adults here, resulting in what Wu calls the school-to-prison pipeline.
Wu says he’s seen his share of cases that should have been tried as misdemeanors, or that should have carried more reasonable penalties: a kid charged with a felony terroristic threat for making gun signs with his hands, another who made a joke about a school shooting after watching a See Something Say Something video, one who robbed somebody using a BB gun.
“If you’re 17 and get busted for a little bit of pot, your life is over,” Wu says. “Your record says ‘Drug Conviction.’ You’re now barred from receiving federal loans or getting a license of any kind, even to cut hair. Half of the apartments in Houston won’t rent to you. Jobs won’t hire you. Just for a little weed.”
Wu hopes that some of the doors that have slammed shut on kids from bad neighborhoods and abusive families can be pried back open. “What I like about being a state rep is advocating for people who are in the worst places, who have the smallest voices,” Wu says. “Let’s work on treating the causes, instead of just punishing people.”