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Jonathan J. Cooper, Associated Press
In this July 7, 2011 photo, State Rep. Brad Witt, right, talks with spectators at a campaign event on Sauvie Island near Portland, Ore. Witt is the second Democrat to announce he is challenging embattled incumbent U.S. Rep. David Wu in the Democratic primary.

ST. HELENS, Ore. — In his first official day as a candidate for Congress, Brad Witt is already addressing the criticism he knows he'll be getting.

The state legislator from Clatskanie is the second Democrat to launch a challenge against U.S. Rep. David Wu in next year's primary. He knows there will be some who will say he should've been the first Democrat to challenge Wu, if he hopes to win the party's nomination. He also knows there will be others who will say nobody should be challenging the party's incumbent.

But Witt has an answer for all of them.

"This election is too important to be about incumbency or who gets into the race first," Witt told a handful of spectators this week from the steps of the Columbia County Courthouse here, launching his campaign with a swing through the five counties that comprise Oregon's 1st Congressional District.

He's taking on an incumbent who has been battered by reports about his mental health and his erratic campaign-season behavior leading up to the last two elections.

Witt also faces another opponent, state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who launched his campaign in April and has had months to begin raising the considerable money that will be needed to take on an incumbent, even a battered one like Wu.

Witt doesn't shy away from criticizing Wu, but he avoids talking directly about Wu's behavior and mental health. He says does not intend to make Wu's mental health an issue in the campaign and calls it a private matter.

Instead, he says Wu isn't much of a leader — a message very similar to the one Avakian used in announcing his own bid for the office.

"In terms of his votes, I have no quibbles with his votes. I think he has been a very good vote for this district," Witt said of Wu in an interview with the AP. "I think that there is a qualitative difference between strictly a good vote and someone who is a leader and tries to move an agenda, and tries to take the district down a path that can make the kind of improvements that make a difference in people's everyday lives."

Wu spokeswoman Rachel Jagoda Brunette disagreed, saying Wu works quietly on issues that don't get much exposure.

"He targets his work for things that the First Congressional District needs and not what will put him on the national stage," she said, citing work promoting technological innovation, transportation projects and funding for the renovation of a downtown Portland federal building.

And despite the complications Wu faces, he's proven himself a survivor, repeatedly overcoming negative publicity to easily win re-election. Still, the recent barrage of criticism has been brutal. He's acknowledged that his behavior, including angry speeches and late-night emails that he signed with his children's names, led several key staffers to quit. He has blamed his behavior on stress and says he is doing better after seeking treatment.

Avakian's campaign argues that Wu is the biggest beneficiary of Witt's decision to run.

"Each new challenger in this race helps David Wu by slitting up the voters who are looking for new leadership for Northwest Oregon," said Avakian spokesman Jake Weigler.

Witt, 59, is a former secretary-treasurer of the Oregon AFL-CIO and a former economist for the union's national organization. He has represented northwestern Oregon in the state House since 2005, serving a district stretching along the Columbia River from Sauvie Island to Astoria.

Witt has a unique challenge in his bid for Congress, an endeavor he says he has been awaiting for quite some time. He is not as well-known as Wu, an incumbent who has represented this district in Washington County and northwest Oregon since 1998. He doesn't have the head start the Avakian has. And he hails from the rural portion of the district, not the heavily populated areas in Portland's western suburbs.

What he does have is strong connections to labor unions, which are vital sources of money, energy and volunteers for Democratic candidates. Witt could benefit if unions decide not to sit out a politically sensitive primary.

But the district is overwhelmingly white collar, and Witt is careful not to cast himself as a union candidate in a district anchored by one of Oregon's economic engines — Washington County, home to headquarters or major operations for Nike Inc., Columbia Sportswear Company and Intel Corp.

"I suspect that I'm going to have a broad cross-section of Oregon supporting my campaign," he said, promising to go after support from both union and business leaders.

He described himself as a "progressive Democrat who's very favorably supposed to sustainable business and economic development, and workforce development."

Witt said his biggest challenge will be convincing an electorate disillusioned with politics, with politicians and with government that elected officials aren't all sinister, self-interested liars.

"Quite frankly, it's an issue of character," he said, "and I think character is going to play a big part in this race."

Follow Jonathan J. Cooper at http://twitter.com/jjcooper