The bullies in Philadelphia were tireless.
"People would laugh at me and say, 'You can't even speak in front of your class,' " recalls Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) How, they taunted, would he ever be able to run for office?
The 12-term incumbent stuttered badly then, and his halting, blocked speech might have made his congressional aspirations, born in the third grade, seem fanciful. The doubters and teenage tyrants were brutal, and, of course, wrong.
"Had I not stuttered, I don't think I would have been in Congress," Wolf said. "It gave me the drive, and the determination, to stay with it. I'd go as far as to say, maybe, it was an uncommon gift. I'm not so sure you could convince me of that at 15."
It's a story line suitable for an after-school special, an inspirational adversity-fuels-success tale that Wolf, 65, shares with kids in similar straits. But Wolf, who as co-chair of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus is an outspoken advocate for the abused worldwide, has taken his story into harsher territory.
To step into Wolf's office is to experience a grown-up version of show and tell, with potent images of starving boys and brutalized women in Sudan alongside suburban traffic maps and other staples of local government.
Relentlessly, at times frenetically, Wolf tears through letters, speeches, reports and video footage, offering a view into a broad range of projects both within -- and far from -- his 10th district. The flood of props, and the impassioned presentation, reflect the aggressive style of Virginia's longest-serving member of the House of Representatives. They also hint at a measure of defensiveness as he faces what could be his toughest challenger in nearly two decades.
Although Wolf's district is solidly Republican, his opponent, one-time investment banker James Socas, 38, has led a spirited, at times mocking, campaign that seeks to make a vulnerability of Wolf's extended tenure and his attention to the world's downtrodden. The multimillionaire also promises that, unlike earlier bids to unseat Wolf, his campaign will not hurt for cash.
"He's worked on some noble causes but not the things that matter," things such as traffic and education, said Socas, who answered chants of "Wolf must go!" at a recent rally of a few dozen volunteers and supporters in Leesburg with a dismissive dig. "Frank is scared enough of me as it is. The poor guy's been in so long, he doesn't know how to campaign anymore," Socas said.
Wolf's response is simple.
"Nothing has been neglected," he said. "I work hard."
He backs that contention with a barrage that's a blend of passion and political necessity.
He begins talking about a Chinese labor camp he investigated, then steers the conversation to how he helped find the money to rebuild Wolf Trap after a devastating blaze.
He reaches into a closet and pulls out a Romanian flag with a ragged hole where the Communist emblem symbolizing executed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu used to be. But he also sends a staff member hunting for a letter to Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans asking for an accounting of how many U.S. jobs are being moved overseas, an issue raised by his opponent.
He plays a video from his summer trip to Darfur, showing him and an aide as they lure a mounted member of the Janjaweed Arab militia -- responsible for brutal attacks in Sudan's long-running civil war -- into the frame by pretending to ask for directions. Later, they take in the stories of refugees in orange and pink dresses who had just been raped.
Then he adds: "We've widened I-66. We're getting all this money for gangs. We have created a new health care system" for low-income residents in the Shenandoah Valley.
It's a relentless stream, and it's just beginning. Wolf floods his constituents, too. He's one of a tiny number of members who mail their records home to residents. The newsprint inventory of his 674 roll call votes from last year is at the ready. On the list: support for a redesigned Louisiana Purchase nickel, 13 votes for naming post offices after patriotic Americans, a vote to ban human cloning for research and one for extending estate tax cuts.
Wolf, a lawyer, heads the subcommittee that oversees funding for the departments of Commerce, Justice and State, and he points to a clear line between the world's trouble spots and security at home, between terrorism in Africa and attacks here. Even Democrats in the district credit Wolf, who lives in Vienna, for netting federal funds for everything from fighting gangs to improving roads.
Wolf's eyes were on Africa long before Sudan served as a temporary hideout for Osama bin Laden. Indeed, it was the images of Ethiopia's famine -- and prompting from a would-be voter as he campaigned for his third term in 1984 -- that first drew Wolf's attention to the continent and broader issues of human rights.
"I was campaigning at a DMV in Baileys Crossroads," Wolf said, when a woman struck by the same television footage of emaciated children, with limbs the size of carrots, asked: "Would you ever go there?"
A short time later, Wolf, who is deeply religious, arranged to fly to an Ethiopian refugee camp on a charter run by the Christian relief group World Vision. He remembers insisting on staying overnight and bunking on a mat in a corrugated metal shack when a massive rain storm hit.
"I said, 'This is great. They needed water,' " Wolf recalled. It wasn't.
The weather proved to be just an added torment to the wailing women, and the dying. Wolf watched corpses being covered with rocks for the two days before a plane could take him home. "It was a life-changing experience," he said.
Wolf said his struggle with his speech might have helped open him to the anguish and repression he's witnessed since.
"I see people suffering or having a problem, I just want to help," he said.
Wolf still blocks on some words -- "Dar . . . Darfur," for instance -- but his stutter is virtually imperceptible, and few would guess he had such difficulty when he was younger. "When you're a stutterer, you have to think carefully what you are going to say," he said.
On a recent afternoon, friend and exiled Sudanese Bishop Macram Gassis waited in the foyer outside Wolf's office under an oversized depiction of Virginia's state motto: Sic Semper Tyrannis -- Thus always to tyrants.
"I feel at home when I come to talk to Frank," Gassis said. "He is our voice. He never got tired. He took the trouble to visit us, not once, not twice, but many times."
Wolf, who has made five trips to Sudan, emerged and hugged Gassis and a friend. "These are good guys," he said.
Before following them into his office, Wolf lingered to offer a final commuter-oriented campaign message. Don't forget: He's a friend of the two-person "carpool."
"We also dropped the . . . carpool numbers," he said.
Coming tomorrow: A profile of Democratic candidate for Congress, James Socas.