He’s an Iraq-war vet, a West Point and Harvard grad, one of the first openly gay black men to run for Congress. And, now, in debt and out of a job. But that’s just the beginning of his story.
It’s just after ten on September 1, the end of another cloudless day in Fairfield, California, and Anthony Woods is sitting alone at the back of his campaign office. It’s a small room, ten by ten, with no window to the outside, only a sliding pane in the wall behind him through which he can hear his campaign manager and general consultant talk in low voices as they hit refresh every thirty seconds on the four different county Web sites posting election returns.
On the other side of the door is a headquarters in disarray: trash bags and pizza boxes piled in the corners, voter call lists and unused door hangers strewn over the tables and floor, and along the walls what few signs remain with his name and tagline emblazoned on them: ANTHONY WOODS, THE COURAGE OF CONVICTION.
He’s holding his slender, six-foot frame rigid in his chair, looking down at the notes for the speech he’s been trying all day to write, when a campaign aide knocks at the door to tell him that his mother, Carolyn, wants to speak to him. She’s across the hall with the crowd. But he doesn’t want to see her right now. He wants this time alone. So he calls her on his BlackBerry — she’s less than thirty yards away — and tells her he needs to gather his thoughts.
She understands, she says in her warm, worried voice. Though she knows it embarrasses him, she can’t help but be amazed at each of her son’s accomplishments given how close he came to death right at the beginning, drowning in her womb, not breathing for the first ten minutes of his life, the priest called in, her infant taken to intensive care, the doctors warning her he might have cerebral palsy or brain damage. Every accomplishment of his feels to her like the beating of some cosmic odds.
Even so, when Woods told her back in March that he planned to return to his Bay Area hometown and enter the primary for this special election to fill a vacant congressional seat, she did not approve. He was twenty-nine. She thought he was too young. The timing wasn’t right. He had just started a well-paying job as a consultant. How could he walk away from that in this economy? What would he do for work if he lost? For over twenty-five years she’d fought to make it on her own as a housecleaner and couldn’t understand her son giving up the security he’d only just achieved.
He told her he couldn’t let fear stop him. The chance to run for an open seat in the district where he grew up might never come along again. What he didn’t say was that his private-sector job bored him. That after the camaraderie of the Army and his excitement about public service in graduate school, he wanted to be back in action, fighting for something more than profit.
At 10:15 P.M., Todd Stenhouse, the rail-thin, speed-talking political consultant Woods hired to guide his campaign, walks into the room with a legal pad and sits down across the folding table.
From the beginning, Stenhouse recognized the potential in Woods’s story: a decorated Iraq-war veteran kicked out of the Army for being gay; a young African-American man raised without health insurance by a single mother, going on to West Point and Harvard. In the age of personality-driven politics, he knew he could get media attention for Woods that other first-time candidates, no matter how good their intentions, would never receive. And if the campaign could use the online organizing tools perfected by Obama to transform that attention into strong grassroots support, Woods might just surprise the establishment and come out on top.
The two exhausted men face each other beneath the pale fluorescent lights. They haven’t agreed about everything. There are times when Woods has chafed under Stenhouse’s direction, but the team they’ve assembled together has come this far: two thousand donors; more than a quarter of a million dollars raised; more Facebook contacts than all the other campaigns combined; a legion of volunteers. Woods has gone from zero percent name recognition to a legitimate contender in just four months.
But tonight the numbers on Stenhouse’s pad tell a different story: The lieutenant governor, John Garamendi, is cleaning up across the four counties; it’s now clear he’s going to win the primary, all but ensuring a victory in the general in November in this heavily Democratic district. In fact, it’s not even close.
When Stenhouse finishes laying out the results, there’s a brief silence.
The campaign manager, Dale Howard, enters the room with the lieutenant governor’s phone number. Woods begins to feel the bottom dropping out beneath him. His whole life he has impressed people: classmates, professors, commanders. He’s never faced public failure. He makes the call conceding the race in a state of numbness. More than anything, he wants to avoid crossing the hall into that room full of disappointment.
“People need to go to work in the morning,” Stenhouse tells him.
Woods stands up, passes through the chaos of his campaign headquarters, and enters the party. In the crowd are the middle-aged African-American women who have come to make calls on behalf of a young man they can’t help but be proud of; the veterans who want to see one of their own reach high office; the gay men who thought the still almost unthinkable — that an openly gay man could be judged on his own merits and win; and, most numerous of all, the young people, the college kids and twenty-somethings who don’t care much that Anthony Woods is black or gay but hear in the sincerity of his words the sound of their own millennial generation and believe that people like him should be the future of American politics.
In his dark-blue suit and tie, Woods stands before these people, beaten. He smiles a weary smile, nodding sheepishly. In the same measured words he’s used throughout the campaign, he talks about those who don’t have a voice in Congress: the uninsured, the kids trying to get a good education in the public schools, the soldiers at war.
“I’ve been all of those people,” he says.
One of his most loyal volunteers, a hefty white guy in his twenties, is crying. Woods feels like joining him. He’s sad and he’s tired and he has no idea what he’s going to do now that he’s lost this fight.
Dressed in jeans and a Red Sox T-shirt back at his apartment in Arlington, Virginia, Woods carries himself with the same restraint and precision he displayed on the campaign trail, no energy wasted in nervous motion as he unloads the cart full of his boyfriend Zack’s possessions in the hallway. They’ve been dating only seven months, most of which Woods has spent campaigning, but Zack’s lease is up and he’s coming to live in Woods’s small one-bedroom unit in this anonymous luxury complex populated by young D. C. professionals.
Though he’s already committed to living here, this is Zack’s first time seeing the apartment, which was sublet for the summer. The tightly wound counterpart to the seemingly imperturbable Woods, Zack makes no effort to hide his disdain for the lameness of northern Virginia in general and his boyfriend’s lack of taste in deciding to live here. He prefers architecturally significant buildings.
In the two weeks since the election, Woods has thrown himself into the search for a job even as he and Zack have driven across the country, meeting each other’s families for the first time. Purposefully focused on the tasks at hand, he seems to still be in campaign mode, yet to fully digest what’s happened and what it means for him.
Eighteen months ago, he couldn’t even imagine where he is today. He was a captain in the U. S. Army, an evangelical Christian, and a graduate student at Harvard, preparing for an assignment he’d long dreamed of — a teaching post at West Point. As an officer, he’d led a total of eighty-one men over the course of two tours in Iraq, brought them all home alive, and earned a Bronze Star with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which fought at the battle at Tal Afar. But when he’d shown a more private courage, finally acknowledging he was gay and dating someone seriously for the first time, his promising career became untenable. He’d have to either break up with his boyfriend at the time or start lying. He decided he would do neither. When he informed his command he was gay, the Army commenced discharge proceedings and told him he would have to repay $35,000 in tuition. Which is one of the reasons he needs a job sooner rather than later.
“I don’t like this couch, Tony,” Zack says, perched on the overstuffed gray sofa. Woods glances up from his iPhone, makes no reply, and continues with the unpacking.
“Let’s just say I shed no tears when he lost,” Zack confides. He works as a weapons-system analyst at a D. C. think tank and has dealt with plenty of congressmen. “I just think Tony’s too nice a guy. And I didn’t want that pressure or attention.” He glances at the forty-inch flat-screen, tuned to the Pats — Bills game. “This TV is way too big.”
What they are in need of at present is an industrial-strength steam cleaner. The young couple is concerned that cockroaches might travel from some crevice of Zack’s older apartment across the Potomac to Arlington. It’s already 9:15 and Zack doesn’t want to be rushed in his selection of the proper device. If they’re going to get it tonight, they need to hurry. But Woods appears incapable of being rushed. He’s standing in the middle of the room perusing his smartphone while Zack waits at the door.
“You see,” his boyfriend says. “He’s not even paying attention.”
The GPS system on Woods’s Xterra seems to lead them astray into a darkened, residential neighborhood of more-substantial homes, the looks of which they both admire.
For a few moments, cruising along these empty suburban streets feeling slightly lost, one has the sense of just how tentative this endeavor of Woods’s is, returning to a city he’s barely lived in, to a man he’s spent precious little time with, trying to find a way to serve outside the military while still wondering how his improbable run for Congress might have gone differently.
Back in the middle of August, he was sitting in his SUV at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, laughing with pleasure at the scene playing out before him. On the grassy slope leading to the auditorium where the League of Women Voters’ debate was about to get under way, twenty or more of his volunteers were holding up dozens of signs, some of them eight feet long and four feet high, requiring two people to keep upright, the group forming what looked like a Roman phalanx set to confront the approaching locals.
His supporters had come to “do visibility.” And they had succeeded. Not a single sign was held up for any of his opponents. If you had happened upon the scene, you’d have thought it was an Anthony Woods rally. As he climbed the steps, they chanted, “Tone-ee! Tone-ee!”
At the debate that night, Woods looked like the kid who won the science contest and got to share the stage with the professionals, his head poking out of his suit, his jaw firmly shut, his eyes darting from side to side, looking out with polite apprehension at the sea of elderly white faces. The California Tenth is a safe Democratic seat, and all the candidates described themselves as progressives, voicing support for single-payer health care, a reassessment of the mission in Afghanistan, a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.
But in his closing statement, Woods took a different tack. He told the audience it was time to send a younger generation to Washington. He’d grown up knowing that if he got sick, he and his mother might lose their apartment. He’d been sent into a war with no coherent strategy. If the country was going to fix itself, it needed leaders who understood what it was like to live inside a failed policy. When the debate ended, the lieutenant governor was gone within minutes, but Woods remained standing in the aisle, where voters had lined up to speak with him.
Yet despite all his efforts and the energy of his supporters, the physics of politics hadn’t changed. Most of his donations might have come from smaller donors, more people may have heard about him on Facebook, but social networking was proving no match against the local establishment — the union endorsements and networks of political relationships that stretched back decades for most of his opponents. Electoral politics wasn’t evolving at anything like the pace of the technology he was using to communicate with younger voters. Woods hadn’t been naive about this. He’d hired consultants and field staff and by the end was running a recognizably professional campaign. But in a business that is famously local, his candidacy was garnering more attention on the national stage than within the district. By the time the first public polling in the race was released in the final weeks of the campaign, he recognized he’d need a different plan for the future.
The satellite guiding Woods’s SUV through the northern-Virginia suburbs seems to be functioning after all. He’s directed onto a broad commercial strip out in Falls Church. It’s getting late, and he and Zack still have another round-trip into D. C. ahead of them; despite being short on sleep, they’re moving as quickly as they can to get all Zack’s stuff moved in. They arrive in the nearly empty parking lot of a Target just minutes before it closes. Down the aisles of the vast emporium they wander, only to discover the machine they are looking for is nowhere to be found.
The Congresswoman from Las Vegas, a large-coiffed lady in her late fifties, is sharing an anecdote with her luncheon audience at a Washington center for national security about a recent trip to Taiwan during which she was taken to a windswept island and told by local officials that it was the planned site for a new casino.
“I would put it right in the middle of Taipei, myself,” she deadpans.
In an adjacent conference room here at the think tank where his boyfriend works, Woods, Zack, and a female staffer watch the event on U. S.-Taiwan relations via video feed, joking in quiet voices about the botched camera angle. Farther down the conference table, a few lobbyist types perk up when the cochair of the Taiwan Caucus gets back on message, voicing her support for releasing F-16′s requested by the island nation.
For Woods, coming to this quintessentially D. C. event is only partly a chance to meet some of his boyfriend’s colleagues. He’s also eager for information on areas of policy he’s unfamiliar with, and though he’s been back in town less than a week, he’s keen to start making contacts.
After the luncheon has wound down and most of the guests have departed, Zack introduces Woods to the think tank’s VP, an amiable fellow in his forties who telecommutes from Stonington, Connecticut.
“Congratulations on your run,” he says. “From what I hear around here, everyone expects great things from you.”
He asks if Woods has considered political consulting; not a bad job between cycles, he suggests, recounting his own experience in the business. Woods hedges, telling him he’s looking into a few different possibilities. The fact is he’s been offered a job he wants. The same acquaintance who first pointed out to him that the congresswoman from his home district was leaving and that he should consider running has recommended him for a position with Be the Change, an organization promoting volunteerism started by the cofounder of City Year.
After a minute or two, though, Woods seems more at ease with the VP and, finessing a change in his answer, allows that he’s decided on his next step. He’ll be managing Cities of Service, a Be the Change program that places public-service coordinators in mayors’ offices all over the country. Based in D. C., he’ll travel extensively, making contacts and building relationships with politicians and city officials across the nation.
“Sounds great,” the VP says. “Do some good. Make a lot of friends. If I can ever do anything to help, let me know,” he adds, heading off to fetch a business card.
On the drive back through the Capitol District to Arlington, Woods confesses he fell in love with D. C. when he interned for former Nebraska Republican senator Chuck Hagel the summer after graduating from West Point. Indeed, he still appears a bit awed by all the white marble gleaming in the crystalline light of a September afternoon here in the city where he’d still like to one day hold office.
“I’ve always been aware of wanting to make a good impression on people,” he says, reflecting on the campaign. “Wanting to give the right answer. Sometimes I got caught up in it, thinking, What would Todd want me to say? But that made things worse. I just had to be honest.”
He’s already begun thinking of what he’d do differently next time: settle in a district well before starting a campaign, raise more seed money, hire staff earlier than he did in California.
“Once you’re in a race, you get lots of advice. But you can make mistakes before you even start. And there’s no one there to say, ‘This is how you go from being a man on the street to being a real candidate.’ I’ve learned a ton.”
Back at his apartment, there are still cartons to be unpacked and pictures to be hung. But today is one of the only days in six months that Woods hasn’t been either campaigning or traveling. Glancing about the living room, he seems uncertain where to let his attention rest. Eventually, he wanders out onto the small, unfurnished deck. Below is an enclosed courtyard with a pool and rows of chaise longues. Leaning on the railing, he gazes into the rectangle of blue water. On his right hand he wears his West Point class ring and a black bracelet in memory of a soldier killed in an IED attack.
Much has changed for him. Though his faith is still strong, he no longer considers himself a strict evangelical. He’s about to start classes at Zack’s church to be confirmed as an Episcopalian. Unlike some of his closest friends, he won’t be heading back to Iraq or Afghanistan. And for once, he’s got time on his hands, something he’s never liked.
Since the election ended, he’s had several requests to come and speak at colleges and law schools. They want him to talk about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He’s not sure whether to accept. He understands that the attention he’s drawn owes a lot to his identity and his story. After all, he hinged his bid for Congress on his biography. Yet in the end, the compelling story wasn’t enough. Obama’s victory may have been a win for youth and energy over age and résumé, but it didn’t change the mechanics of American politics that Woods confronted. And as eager as he is to argue again one day that his personal experience as the object rather than the author of policy qualifies him to represent a generation brought up amidst such enormous political failure, he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed along the way. He doesn’t want to be reduced to his demographics. Because like all ambitious young men, he wants more than anything to be taken seriously.
Above the courtyard of his generically comfortable condo development, the sky has clouded. Woods stands upright from the railing and leans against the vinyl clapboard siding, crossing his arms over his chest. Down below, the rows of deck chairs are empty. Summer’s over now, it’s the middle of the week, and no one’s around.
Anthony Woods Lost An Election And Became Candidate of the Year
He’s an Iraq-war vet, a West Point and Harvard grad, one of the first openly gay black men to run for Congress. And, now, in debt and out of a job. But that’s just the beginning of his story.