He could not tell a lie

Anthony Woods’ commitment to truth makes him an unusual candidate for Congress

Anthony Woods has the sort of résumé a television writer might invent, but he lived it: West Point grad, Army officer, two tours in Iraq. Oh, did we mention he’s gay and running for Congress?

Anthony Woods has the sort of résumé a television writer might invent, but he lived it: West Point grad, Army officer, two tours in Iraq. Oh, did we mention he’s gay and running for Congress?

PHOTO Courtesy of anthony woods for congress campaign

Anthony Woods is a lean, not-so-mean fighting machine. He smiles a lot, which is what you’d expect from the politician he wants to become instead of the warrior he was until quite recently.

A native Californian, Woods is the son of a single working mother, a West Point graduate and veteran of two tours in Iraq. He’s got what writer Benjamin Sarlin of The Daily Beast called “the best résumé ever,” so good it might have been written by Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the television show The West Wing. Woods is trying that résumé out in the 10th Congressional District, which includes a small part of Sacramento County. He’s running to succeed Rep. Ellen Tauscher, who has been appointed to a position in the Obama administration.

Woods is also hoping that voters will appreciate his commitment to being honest. See, he was honorably discharged under the current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law, which allows gay and lesbian citizens to serve in the U.S. military only if they’re willing to lie about who they are and pretend to be straight.

Woods sat down over a Midtown lunch in late June for an interview with SN&R. The conversation kicked off with a discussion of the then-recent appearance of his friend and classmate, Daniel Choi, on The Rachel Maddow Show to discuss “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

SN&R: What do you think of Maddow’s decision to keep the attention on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy?

I really do think it’s one of those situations where you’ve got to keep it on the front burner, and it’s got to go up to the president consistently that it’s something that we’ve got to fix now. So it should stay in the press, and I don’t care who the messenger is, as long as the message is consistently put on the front burner. It’s a priority and I think it’s an easy fix.

Now, relative to all the problems that we’re facing as a country? I think it is within the president’s ability to do a stop-loss order and say we’re not going to discharge anyone else [under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”]. I think he does have that power.

But I think it is also a pretty easy fix to correct the law. Fix it right, no half-measures.

So what’s your experience with the current issues—health care, discrimination, war?

One of the most recent things I’ve had to deal with is “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but it’s not the only issue in this race that I’ve experienced firsthand. That’s what’s missing in government, and it’s important. When I have the opportunity to share that with voters, they seem to think it makes sense.

People say, “Oh, he’s pretty young. Does he have enough experience?” But all the experience at using the same old approaches to problem solving in the world isn’t going to solve problems if you can’t find a new approach. Washington and Sacramento have plenty of experienced politicians but they seem to have a lack of personal experience with the issues. They hear it third- or fourth-hand; from a letter from a constituent or from a staffer, and react to it a little differently than someone who’s actually lived it. It’s easy to be wooed by special interests.

But when you’ve lived it yourself, it’s impossible to forget where you came from, and that’s what’s going to guarantee you vote on these issues in a way that reflects the reality of the people who are living with the consequences of your vote.

So the short version of your biography is …

I was born at Travis Air Force Base. My mom and dad met in the service. I grew up with just my mom, though. She left the Air Force when I was born. My grandpa was military—Air Force, also—and he retired from Travis, so they were in the Fairfield area. I went to West Point, studied economics, graduated in 2003.

My first reaction—and I’m sorry—is that you’re so young!

(Laughs.) Now, the Constitution would say otherwise. I’ll be four years older than the constitutionally mandated age. And there will be a younger person in Congress.

OK, so, I went to West Point. After I graduated, I had three deployments in the Army in Iraq. I started as a lieutenant in a tank platoon, but everyone was doing the same mission then: driving around in Humvees and trying to deal with chaos. That was the mission: managing chaos.

I had 17 soldiers, all from the West Virginia [Army] National Guard. I volunteered to take Guard troops, so it was the California boy with the West Virginia troops. We got along really great. We had a really tight unit, and I’m really proud of the work we did.

So I had 17 soldiers in Diyala [Province]—this is just to speak to how outnumbered we were, how difficult the mission was and how misguided [U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld’s policy was—I had 17 soldiers and the sector had a 108-mile perimeter and 66,000 Iraqis. Needless to say, it was impossible to be very effective. We tried to maintain order and achieve some sort of safety, but we were really too small a force to be very effective. We did the best we could and made the best of the situation. It was tough there.

Then, my next deployment, I had 64 soldiers in my unit. That was in 2005 and 2006, in Tal Afar, up north, which was statistically more dangerous than Fallujah. However, I was fortunate in both cases to bring all my guys home.

As a person who disagreed with the war from the get-go, I looked at it as a mission and I was very intent on trying to bring all my guys home. That was my first priority, and the next was to insure that I and my soldiers never did anything we’d be ashamed of or that would damage the reputation of the United States. I’m proud to say that we accomplished both of those goals.

These experiences really inform my perspective that we need to send help to Iraq and Afghanistan, but not solely military help. It is not going to be solely a military solution. We need a lot of different perspectives that include all sorts of assistance. But so far, we haven’t had a clear timeline, a clear mission and a clear set of goals. Those things need to be in place before we talk about sending more troops over there.

This speaks to the need to send people to Washington who have had some experience directly with the situation. What sort of questions should we be asking? It’s one thing to get advice—especially from those in the military—but it’s much easier when you already know the language. You can have a much more intelligent conversation if you’ve had the experience of being on the ground, especially with regard to national security and military issues.

So you were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Did they ask or did you tell?

I told. I reached the point where I had fully accepted who I was, and the more I thought about it, the more I understood that it was not right at all to lie about who I was.

I was on the honor committee at West Point. I was raised with regular American values and taught that it’s not right to lie in any context. As I started to think about it more and more, it baffled me that we had a policy in place that was the law of the land that required every member of the GLBT community who served to lie.

There’s something fundamentally wrong with that, especially in our country. It’s unacceptable.

That compelled me to be honest with my commander. And because of the law, she was required—whether she wanted to or not—to launch an investigation into my background to confirm the truth of the matter. I had to provide her with lists of names of people who knew me and knew I was gay. After a six-month investigation, I was honorably discharged. I was asked to repay the tuition that the Army had paid for at West Point, which was about $35,000.

How many years had you given the military? You’d already done two tours in Iraq, right?

When I was discharged, I’d served just a little over five years. After grad school, I was going to do five more years.

What are you doing now?

(Laughs.) Campaigning. I looked at the race and I said, “This is a race that I think I have real-world perspective on, it’s personal to me, and I want to jump in and make a difference.” I didn’t look at it as an opportunity. I saw it as a responsibility to come home and fight for issues that I’m really passionate about.

My ability to serve my country in the military was taken away from me, and I wanted a new way to serve my country and my community.

I can probably pick what your top issues are going to be. I’m willing to bet that your top issues are the wars, veteran’s services, health care and education. I’m really sure about that last one, because I saw your education program on your Web site.

The service-to-college program. We got the idea from what the GI Bill did for our country. The opportunity for those folks to go to college paid huge, huge dividends for our country for at least a generation and a half, maybe two generations. We took that idea and we looked at the absolutely amazing experiences that people were having with service work. For example, I was down in New Orleans after [Hurricane] Katrina, and I had the chance to see people coming together to help each other in ways that the government couldn’t.

So this idea is to mesh the two things. It allows people to exchange a year of service for a year of paid college. The benefits pay off in two ways. It makes a stronger, smarter, more capable workforce, and it’s also putting people who are deeply committed to serving our country and solving problems on the ground. That service can be in a number of places: the military, the Peace Corps, Teach for America—any nationally recognized service program.

This works either as something you do before school, if the service doesn’t require special skills and education; or it’s something you do after completing school, such as ROTC or Teach for America, which would give participants a chance to use the skills they’d acquired in school.

I also looked at how backwards we’ve got it right now. We hit economically tough times and so we cut education funding? Who’s able to help you out of tough times if you’re slashing your ability to field a flexible, resourceful workforce? California is a fine example of that. We have politicians who have no problem slashing education in times of budget crisis, and that just exacerbates the problem.

Who else is running in the 10th? I heard [Lt. Gov. John] Garamendi is in it.

Yes, he’s in. There are three Sacramento politicians running, which is usually where I end it. That’s the way they work.

[The other candidates who’ve expressed interest in the congressional seat are state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier and state Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan.]

Back to the issues …

You nailed the things I’m committed to right on the head. We need to pass some real health-care changes. I’ve been one of the 144 million Americans without insurance. My mom didn’t have insurance for us, and it was scary. Now she’s just gotten insurance, but she’s a small-business owner and struggling to figure out how to pay for her ever-rising premiums.

The next is economic recovery and job creation, and that’s where the service-to-college program comes from; we need a way to build our workforce and grow our economy, which is impossible to do if we’re slashing education. I have a number of other ideas specifically in that realm.

In addition, there’s national security. If you look at the demographics of who goes to Congress, fewer and fewer of them have actually served in the military over the last 20 years. You can learn a lot about it and get up to speed, but there really is no substitute for the experience of fighting in a war that’s based on failed policies as a means to learn how to ask tough questions. If we’d had more folks who would ask tough questions, who’d have really thought this thing through, we’d be in a much different place now.

In terms of veteran’s affairs, there’s no substitute for having the experience of knowing what war does to soldiers, to families, of knowing what it’s like to come home from combat. It’s one of those things that you can’t read about in a book.

What about immigration?

I like the idea of some of the proposals for comprehensive immigration reform. It doesn’t make sense to fight wars overseas when you’re going to leave the back door open by not protecting the border.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean scapegoating immigrants. We need low-skilled labor in this country just as we need high-skilled labor, and if people from other nations want to provide that, let’s provide them with the option of a pathway to citizenship, while recognizing that we are a country of immigrants. Let’s not scapegoat our problems on immigrants.

Now, back to gay politics. Why do you think Prop. 8 passed?

A couple of things come to mind. One, I just think that we didn’t talk to people in ways that they can really understand and in ways they can relate to.

My friend [and campaign manager] Todd [Stenhouse] always says, “Why does no one make the point that [convicted mass murderer] Charles Manson has more rights than I do, because he can get married and I can’t?” You’ve got to change the discussion and frame it in ways that I think help people recognize the absurdity of the situation.

It’s a powerful, clear message that doesn’t allow for some of the discussion tactics that the Yes on 8 side had, you know, like we’re going to teach your kindergartner about whatever and we’re going to ruin traditional marriage.

We’re going to have to come back and be smarter about how we reach out to different groups. But I wasn’t inside those campaigns, so I don’t know their strategies and their tactics. It’s not fair for me to judge how hard they worked based on the results. Because you know, Al Gore lost and John Kerry lost, and it’s hard to make a conclusion from the outside about what happened.

But I can look at the outcome afterwards, and that’s what concerns me the most. The GLBT community needs to recognize that it is not at all within our interest to come out and scapegoat Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans when we fail. That’s extremely counterproductive.

We need to recognize that the only way that marriage equality is going to pass in California—in the entire country, for that matter—is with a broad coalition that includes African-Americans and includes Hispanic-Americans and moderate religious folks. You can’t scapegoat any one group when you need them on their side.

It’s about building bridges in those communities, finding areas of common interest and working on causes together. A point that was brought up to me, and that I found kind of interesting—and it shouldn’t always be transactional—but the GLBT community needs to recognize the value of going out and fighting for the civil rights of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans. You can’t get angry that those groups didn’t show up for you when you didn’t show up for them. You have to have a way to build on the similarities.

It’s very important that you insure that you’re working on their issues and causes, too. And I’m not saying that the GLBT community doesn’t have a vested interest in the issues of other groups, but we need to make it clear by showing up to fight racial inequality or issues dealing with the justice system, or issues with prisons.

These might be more obviously issues that affect the African-American community, but inequality and injustice should always be a GLBT issue. You can be sure that if people of color are being treated badly, discriminated against, in any given situation, that GLBT people are going to see the same thing happening to them, and so a bit of unity would be a good thing.

Show other groups that you’re not just interested in those issues that are unique to GLBT people. Demonstrate that the GLBT community understands that we’re all in this together, and then you will have these other communities and groups showing up for GLBT issues. You can’t just stick with issues that are unique to you. You’ve got to reach out and say, “Look, I recognize that you’ve got an issue that’s challenging for you, and I want to help you deal with it. And I know that you’ll recognize that my issue is very important to me, and you’ll want to help me with it.”

I think that would be a much more constructive strategy going forward. And what a fantastic thing for the right to drive this wedge between two groups who actually have a lot in common and see eye to eye on many issues. It would be fantastic for the right to say, “Oh, look, African-Americans killed this for you, gay community. What do you think about that?” If the GLBT community pounces on that and lets that become a wedge, it’s so counterproductive. It doesn’t help anyone but the far right.

In a few short years—maybe much sooner—we’ll be working on this issue again, and I don’t want any member of that coalition looking at us and saying, “Well, you had some pretty terrible things to say about us not so long ago.” We need to be speaking the same language right away.

When you see people working so hard to gain the right to marry, that speaks to the value of marriage. That reinforces the power of marriage, it doesn’t erode it.

And what about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which is kind of where we started this conversation?

Think of all the straight soldiers who are left in the unit now who are going into battle with one less person on their side, one less resource for their unit.

Look at my friend Dan Choi, for example. He’s an Arab linguist, speaks Arabic fluently. Now his unit has to go to war without translator. They’re less effective at doing their job and they’re more at risk while they try to do it. It simply doesn’t make sense to take talented, competent people who want to do their job and remove them and send everyone else off to war without them.

Or we could talk about the $400 million it has cost us to implement “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” That would buy a lot of body armor and a lot of armored Humvees. Instead, we’ve got a net benefit of zero.