Anthony Woods may be running for California's 10th congressional seat amid at least eight other candidates, but that's the way he likes it.
"I'm running against the field, and I think it's the best way to approach it," Woods says, noting that the three best-known candidates -- all fellow Democrats -- bear the ignominious distinction of working in the state's capitol. "Right now, Californians give the leadership of Sacramento a 14% approval rating -- I think that clearly helps me."
Woods, an Iraq veteran who was discharged under the military's gay ban just last December, hopes to fill the seat being vacated by the current sponsor of the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal bill, Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, who has been tapped by President Obama for a position at the State Department.
Accomplishing his goal would make him the first openly gay African-American member of Congress. But the path is far from certain in this race, which features no incumbent, an unusually crowded field (including six Democrats, a Republican, a Green Party candidate, and one "decline to state"), and an open primary that pits all candidates against each other regardless of party affiliation. If no single candidate wins the primary vote with more than 50%, a runoff ensues, with the top candidates from each party squaring off against each other.
"You could be looking at 10 or more candidates," says Todd Stenhouse, senior adviser to Woods, referring to the primary. "But the reality is that it's an overwhelmingly Democratic district, so the conventional wisdom is, that's where the race will be determined."
Woods is the only candidate thus far who was born in the district, and as personal stories go, his is plenty compelling. The 28-year-old was raised in Fairfield by his single mother, a small-business owner who cleans houses for a living. He earned a congressional appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and, upon graduating, served two tours of duty in Iraq. He then returned to school to get his master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and was selected to be a professor of economics at his alma mater, West Point, in 2011.
"That was a dream that I could not wait to fulfill and take part in, but then I realized, how could I live in the honor code, how could I stand up there as their professor knowing that I'm lying every single day about my personal life?" he recalls. "I just couldn't be a part of it."
Though he's a newcomer to politics, Woods points out a number of qualities that set him apart in the race -- he's the only African-American, the only veteran, and the only millennial in the race.
African-Americans, he said, make up about 7% of the population in California; and because the district is home to Travis Air Force Base, military personnel and retirees account for about 13%-14% of population.
"That's a natural constituency group that I can appeal to that my opponents cannot," he says. "If I'm the only one who can specifically excite a certain demographic, that could be really helpful to me."
Woods also features his discharge under "don't ask, don't tell" in his campaign literature and thinks his sexual orientation is an asset in a district that voted against Proposition 8, the antigay marriage measure. Lt. Dan Choi, a fellow West Point classmate who was also discharged for being gay and has recently become the face of the repeal movement, endorsed Woods just last week.
True to his life story, Woods's three main policy objectives are providing universal health care with a government-run public option, aiding the economic recovery and stimulus package, and strengthening national security. He calls what he brings to each area "real world perspective." As someone who grew up without health insurance, he says, "I would never reach a solution that wouldn't have helped my mother and I when I was growing up."
And he shrugs off the higher name recognition of his most well-known Democratic rivals: Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, state senator Mark DeSaulnier, and state assembly member Joan Buchanan, who polled at 24%, 13%, and 10%, respectively, in an internal survey released by Garamendi last month.
"John Garamendi has 80% name recognition but only gets 24% of the vote, which to me says that name recognition is not all that important," Woods says of the poll. "'Undecided' is overwhelmingly winning this race right now."
Timing of the vote is still unknown because it depends on Tauscher's confirmation, at which point Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will set a date for the primary. Though the situation is fluid at best, analysts suggest that late summer/early fall is as good a bet as any.
Beyond name recognition, one of Woods's biggest hurdles is something that dogs almost every first-time candidate: money. In order to cover a district that straddles Sacramento and San Francisco -- neither of which comes cheaply -- Stenhouse estimates the campaign needs to raise anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million.
Though he declined to get specific about numbers, Woods says his network of contacts has already given him a good start on his war chest.
"My Kennedy School classmates, they are fresh off the Obama campaign trail and they're excited about one of their own classmates running for office," Woods says of his fellow alum. "All my initial fund-raisers are people who came to me and said, 'Hey, we'd like to pull something together.'" The first official candidate filings are due at the end of June.
But Woods is also banking on employing the campaign skills he picked up working in the trenches for Obama in New Hampshire last year.
"We spent a lot of time at the California Democratic convention and we picked up a lot of volunteers from the African American caucus and from the LGBT caucus," he says. "It's exciting because it's going to be a very grassroots effort."
If Woods has it his way, he will follow in the footsteps of Barack Obama and deploy an army of foot soldiers to help him make history.