A ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ candidacy

Anthony Woods’s adult life could have gone in a number of different directions. The 28-year-old U.S. Military Academy graduate had completed two Army tours in Iraq by 2006 and felt he had more to give. While still in the Army, he earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and was chosen to speak at the 2008 commencement ceremony. The California native had also been invited to return to West Point in 2011 to fulfill his dream of teaching economics to the newest ranks of the Army.

But Woods’s wide-open future quickly narrowed when he told his Army commander in June 2008 that he is gay and six months later was honorably discharged under the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

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Woods returned to his hometown of Fairfield, Calif., this spring and is poised to run for the congressional seat likely to be vacated by Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D), who is awaiting Senate confirmation to become arms control undersecretary to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. If elected, Woods would become the first openly gay black man to serve in Congress.

Had it been up to Tauscher, Woods wouldn’t be running for her seat in the first place — not because she opposes his candidacy, but because she has been the lead lawmaker for the past several Congresses on overturning “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The irony is not lost on Woods.

“I actually haven’t had a chance to meet [Tauscher],” he said in a recent interview while visiting Washington, “but when I do, I owe her a big thank-you for her stance … and her leadership, specifically on the issue of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”

Another big irony hangs over Woods’s story: It was his strict adherence to the military’s honor code that led to his discharge.

“[At] West Point, I was on the Honor Committee,” he said. “We have an honor code, and it’s something that I believe in personally, and I was done lying.”

His time at the Kennedy School helped Woods reach what he called a “painful” decision to come out. He had enrolled in Harvard through an Army program that pays for officers’ graduate degrees in exchange for extended service. But as graduation neared and his return to the military became more real, Woods grew less comfortable with the idea of continuing to hide his true self.

“When I was at the Kennedy School, it was an opportunity for me to reflect and realize, ‘You know what? I accept myself, and I’m not about to go back to an environment where I have to lie to my commanders, to my soldiers and my friends about who I am and what I’m doing,’ ” he said.

That decision came with a roughly $35,000 price tag. Because of his discharge, Woods has to pay back the education benefits he received through the Army.

That cost seems to pale in comparison to the freedom Woods now feels. He doesn’t describe himself so much as an activist for lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) issues, but he does see his military discharge as impetus to fight for any community he thinks may be shortchanged by federal policy.

“I had to experience what it’s like to have my dreams and my career ripped away from me because of my orientation,” he said. “And so I guess my message to the LGBT community would be: I have suffered as a result of bad policy situations, and I know firsthand what it’s like to have something that’s important to you taken away, and I’m going to fight vigorously for my district as well as the various communities that I am a part of.”

Woods is an only child who was raised by his mother, a housekeeper whom he said has “lively” political opinions. One of his earliest political memories is sticking a Michael Dukakis for President poster in his bedroom window as an 8-year-old. He said his upbringing was humble; he had no healthcare for his first 18 years, and he had to bank his higher-education prospects on an institution like West Point, which provided an education in return for military service.

At Harvard, he launched a campaign for student body president during his first year, something he found out later no one ever does.

“The election takes place very early on, so it’s just hard for [a first-year] student to form coalitions of friends who will vote for you,” he said. “I did really well, I learned a lot, it was a fun experience, but of course, like every single year before it, a second-year student won.”

His other hands-on experiences with politics include a post-college internship with former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and an eight-month stint in New York Gov. David Paterson’s (D) office as an economics analyst while his “Don’t ask, don’t tell” investigation was under way.

He’s playing the upstart yet again in the pending congressional race. Both Tauscher and neighboring Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the House Education and Labor Committee chairman, endorsed state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D), and at least three other candidates are expected to vie for the seat. Woods is working with Storefront Political Media, the California consulting firm managing San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign, and Todd Stenhouse, who managed retired Air Force Lt. Col. Charlie Brown’s (D) two runs for California’s 4th congressional district in 2006 and 2008.

Tauscher declined through a spokesman to comment for this article, citing her pending Senate nomination hearing.

But at least one member of Congress is watching Woods’s candidacy with anticipation. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), the first openly gay man to be elected to Congress as a non-incumbent, said he found Woods to be a “very hardworking and earnest” person when the two met last month.

“It would be nice to put a face on ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” Polis said.

Woods’s future is now going in a different direction from where it was headed, but he feels the same sense of duty to work for the public good.

“I’d always known,” he said, “especially during those earlier days at West Point, that, you know what, whether it’s in the military or out of the military, I want to serve my country.”