In every election cycle, there’s one candidate whose life story stands out among the crowd. In 2004, it was Barack Obama; in 2006, it was Vietnam vet Jim Webb. This year, an underdog candidate for the U.S. Congress in California is the clear winner and it's not even close. Anthony Woods' biography—he’s a gay, black Iraq vet with a Harvard degree—reads like a West Wing script Aaron Sorkin threw into the wastebasket for being too over the top.
Woods, 28 years old, is running in a crowded Democratic field to replace Rep. Ellen Tauscher in California's 10th District, which includes parts of Sacramento and San Francisco's East Bay area. (Tauscher is leaving Congress to serve in Obama’s State Department; there’s no date yet for the special election.) Though he was briefly an aide to Gov. David Paterson in New York, Woods is the political unknown in the field, which includes California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, and Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan.
Of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy he’s fighting, Woods said, “We're a country fighting two wars, having trouble recruiting, yet we want to turn away some of our most talented, most well-trained soldiers?”
All that is likely to change soon, as Woods’ résumé seems perfectly tuned to attract national attention. One of his top issues is repealing the military’s “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy, an issue that seems to be gathering steam as liberals try to hold President Obama to his campaign pledge. Woods has already received an endorsement from Dan Choi, a fellow West Point graduate whose recent discharge for being gay made him a rallying point for activists, and popular blogger Andrew Sullivan recently took note of his campaign as well.
For Woods, the issue is deeply personal. He was forced to leave a promising Army career after he came out in 2008. He received an honorable discharge under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell rules.
“I knew getting into it that if I took a stand, it would be a costly decision and it certainly has become one,” Woods said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “But people have to take a stand for what's right. There's a reason this policy is on the front burner now... We're a country fighting two wars, having trouble recruiting, yet we want to turn away some of our most talented, most well-trained soldiers?”
Woods said that he “agonized” over the decision to come out for several months while he was studying for his master's in public policy at Harvard. In addition to his military career, his choice ended up costing him his military scholarship as well as several friends.
“As I grew more comfortable with who I was, the less comfortable I was with lying about it,” Woods said. “It was a real struggle because I absolutely love the military. I still do today. I would gladly serve, I would love to teach at West Point, I had no problem deploying again.”
Woods disagreed with President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, but took pride in his work there commanding a unit of 17 West Virginia National Guard soldiers outside of Baghdad during his first tour of duty, and a 64-person unit in Tal Afar during his second. Tal Afar ended up being one of the first major success stories in the reconstruction effort in Iraq and, despite major violence in the region, Woods returned with all of the soldiers under his command alive. He earned a Bronze Star for his efforts.
The military was a natural career path—Woods was born at Travis Air Force Base in California’s 10th District and his grandfather and mother were in the Air Force. Woods' mother left the service in order to raise Woods alone, taking work as a housekeeper to support the family.
“She worked her butt off six days a week so I would never really feel the sting or have a full sense of how tough things were economically,” Woods said. He credits her sacrifices with helping him stay focused on his schoolwork en route to attending West Point, one of the most selective academic institutions in the country, and frequently invokes her struggles to afford health care on the campaign trail as he argues for reform.
Woods has never before held elective office; his relative youth and political inexperience makes him an underdog. According to a Todd Stenhouse, a veteran California political consultant working on the campaign, the hope is that Woods' compelling biography will help him reach out to a variety of key demographics in the district, including active and retired military, many of whom live in the area. He is also positioning himself as an outsider compared to the other big three candidates, all of whom are part of California’s wildly unpopular and increasingly dysfunctional state government. “The only person with less popularity than Sacramento legislators is Dick Cheney,” Stenhouse deadpanned.
But regardless of how the final vote turns out, it's clear that the young and charismatic candidate has a bright future. After all, if there's one thing voters love, it's a Hollywood ending, and no one has a better script so far than Anthony Woods.
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.