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Gay veteran's military dismissal puts spotlight on California congressional race

WASHINGTON -- Anthony Woods says he grew up without health insurance, struggled to get an education and fought in Iraq, a war he didn't believe in.

Then he got kicked out of the military for violating its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy after telling his commanding officer he was gay.

Woods, a 28-year-old graduate of West Point, figures he has the proper anti-establishment credentials to win an open seat in California's 10th Congressional District. He's proud of his lack of political experience, saying experienced politicians haven't done much good in either Sacramento or Washington.

"If we keep sending experienced career politicians to D.C., nothing's going to change," Woods said in an interview.

Woods may be a long shot in the race to replace the retiring Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher in the East Bay seat, but his presence assures it will be a high-profile affair. It's already resulting in national attention.

Woods, a Democrat, is less well-known than his challengers, but his team is banking on the candidate's compelling life story and his status as an outsider to put him over the top in a splintered field.

While a special election has yet to be set and no candidates have formally filed to run, the field is already taking shape. At least 11 candidates, including seven Democrats, are already in or exploring a candidacy in the heavily Democratic district.

The three top candidates -- Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan and state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier -- are all establishment Democratic politicians linked to Sacramento and the state's troubled government. Woods figures that can only help his cause.

"Right now, I'm in a race against three very experienced politicians," Woods said. "And you know, voters recognize we've got an alternative choice here. ... The first thing I would say is Sacramento is filled with experienced politicians. Look at where our state is right now. Or Washington, D.C., it's full of experienced politicians, and they led us into the war in Iraq, and they're continuing to allow 47 million Americans to go without health insurance. Experienced politicians have had a long, long, long time to solve these problems --and they haven't."

Garamendi said it's a three-way race, and he's not counting Woods as a top-tier candidate.

"He's a serious young man that's capable, and he's got a national issue and a good story to go with it," Garamendi said. "And that's to his benefit."

But he said Woods is similar to the half-dozen or so other confirmed or prospective candidates who lack a natural base for their campaigns. "Everybody regards me as the frontrunner," he said.

On Monday, Garamendi, a former state legislator and state insurance commissioner, won the endorsement of the 700,000-member Service Employees International Union. He already has been endorsed by former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore and five members of Congress, and he has a long list of labor endorsements, from the California Federation of Teachers, the California Nurses Association and the United Food & Commercial Workers, among others.

Woods was born on Travis Air Force Base, which is in the district, and was raised by a single mother who worked as a housekeeper. He earned a congressional appointment to the military academy at West Point and, after returning from two deployments to Iraq, was awarded a master's degree from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He delivered a graduate address at Harvard's commencement last year.

Now a full-time candidate, Woods is gaining some national publicity as he promises to bring new energy and a fresh perspective to Congress. He has already been featured on CNN and in the Washington Post, and he says he's lucky that his story is resonating.

He said he's telling voters that they need to send a representative to Congress who understands what happens when a nation's policies break down, when politicians go to war or don't deliver on health insurance. He said the issues facing the nation are both personal and consequential, as his story makes clear.

Woods is busy slicing and dicing the electorate, targeting voters for door-knocking and phone calls. He says he's the only candidate who was born and raised in the district. And he says he must be smart and strategic to win a multi-candidate race, where base voters will be especially important: He's pursuing young voters who backed President Barack Obama, veterans and military retirees who make up 13 percent of the district's voters, and African-American voters, who comprise 7 percent.

Woods served nine years in the military before he grew tired of living a lie and went public with his sexual orientation.

If he goes to Congress, he'll be replacing a member of Congress who introduced a bill to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Tauscher resigned last week and was sworn in Saturday, on the same day she was married, as Obama's new undersecretary for arms control and international security.

Woods is eager to push her legislation.

"I am happy to pick up that torch," he said.

WHO'S RUNNING?

The race to replace the retiring Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher in California's 10th Congressional District is expected to attract a big field of candidates.

While no special election has been set and no candidates have formally filed, here's a list of confirmed or prospective candidates (in alphabetical order):

DEMOCRATS:

TIFFANY ATTWOOD: City planning commissioner from Danville.

TONY BOTHWELL: San Francisco attorney.

JOAN BUCHANAN: Assemblywoman and former school board member from Alamo.

MARK DESAULNIER: State senator from Concord.

JOHN GARAMENDI: Lieutenant governor from Walnut Grove.

ADRIEL HAMPTON: San Francisco city attorney's office investigator from Dublin.

ANTHONY WOODS: Iraq War veteran from Fairfield.

REPUBLICANS:

DAVID HARMER: Businessman and attorney from Walnut Creek.

CATHERINE MOY: City Council member from Fairfield.

INDEPENDENT:

GINO VANGUNDY: Gay activist from Fairfield.

GREEN:

JEREMY CLOWARD: College professor from Pleasant Hill.

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