James Woods is running for US Congress. (No, I don’t mean the actor, nor the dead guy from Virginia. I mean this guy.) What’s so special about that? He’s an atheist. An out atheist. In fact, a humanist active in the movement. Who actually asked atheists to interview him about his campaign. And blog about it. Now I feel like I’m living in the 21st century. He is not hiding from his membership in the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, or Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He’s making it a focal point of his campaign: it’s what makes him a better representative of the people. He is representing the people who don’t usually get represented.
Woods also happens to be blind. And part of his campaign is about representing the disabled, and minorities of all stripes, who usually don’t have a voice in Congress. If elected he would be the first blind person in Congress in nearly a hundred years. His politics are progressive. He has a good head on his shoulders. He sounds like he’d be perfect for the job. But alas, though a native Arizonan, he is running in an Arizona district that is predominately Republican. He has his work cut out for him. I’d vote for him if he were in my district. You can see what he’s all about at his Facebook page.
He’s running against a Republican incumbent (Matt Salmon, the same buy who ran for governor in Arizona a while back) whom the Secular Coalition for America gave a grade of F on his secular report card. The kind of guy who supports bills barring homosexual couples from adopting, denying equal marriage rights, stopping the government from providing information on comprehensive reproductive healthcare. Yes, he even voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. The kind of guy who shouldn’t be in Congress. Because he spends his time opposing the rights of American citizens and harming our country and its people.
Woods wants to be the one to replace that guy. And his campaign asked me to interview him because Woods wants to reach out to underrepresented voting blocks, including the secular, atheist, and humanist communities. He is planning similar press days for other underrepresented groups, including the transgender community and people with disabilities. Topics we at Freethought Blogs have been trying to give some visibility to as well (see the video lineup at our last FTBConscience online conference).
I asked Woods six challenging questions to see how he thinks and where he stands on a sample of keystone issues. His answers are well worth reading. You won’t usually hear this stuff from a real Congressional candidate. It’s the kind of bold honesty we actually want from our elected leaders, but rarely get.
Carrier: Even though I’m not an Arizonan, I do think every elected member of Congress affects us all, so I’m really glad to have this opportunity to ask you some questions and report on your congressional run to the wider public. I honestly don’t need to ask about your secular credentials or support for church-state separation issues, since I’m quite confident you will come through in that department. But actively voting atheists trend strongly liberal and tend to share similar political policy objectives quite apart from issues of secularism. This is especially true for the humanist community. So I’d like to ask you some challenging questions about where you stand on some of those issues.
I’ll get the tricky election question out of the way first. Arizona has a bad reputation nationally for being disturbingly right wing–especially anti-gay, anti-Hispanic, anti-secular. And yet Arizonans still elected Juan Mendez to its state legislature, who is openly atheist. Now you will be trying for a US seat, in a majority Republican district. What is your strategy for winning a majority vote in your district, knowing most of your constituents might be apprehensive about backing not just a liberal, but an atheist?
Woods: I don’t think my race is going to be hard because I’m an atheist–it’s going to be hard because I’m an unapologetic Progressive in a red district. But my campaign team has spent a lot of time looking at underdog races and what it takes to win. Underdog victories seem to have a couple of things in common: people can win when they’re authentic and when they do things differently. The Democratic strategy in my district has been to move toward the middle, and that’s not serving us. It’s not helping people who have been marginalized by the Right to feel heard, and it’s not inspiring Progressive voters to come out. It’s time to try something new. We’re not going to move toward the middle. We’re going to move toward the needs of my constituents and we’re going to stay honest.
The reality is, we can’t lose this race. Even if I don’t end up with a seat in Congress, we have an opportunity to bring important issues into the public discourse on a national stage. We’re not going to shy away from listening to the needs of underrepresented people and speaking up on their behalf. We’re going to advocate for atheists. We’re going to actively support the transgender community. We’re going to insist that people with undocumented immigration status are people and our policies need to reflect personhood first. We’re going to raise awareness around disability issues. We’re going to push for more end-of-life options and death with dignity. We’re going to stand in solidarity with women and call for reproductive justice. We’re going to organize to make it easier for Progressives to win in Arizona in the future. We plan to run our campaign in a way that makes the atheist community proud of us and encourages other candidates to be honest about their atheism as well. We’re playing to win the long game.
Carrier: Awesome. That’s a good point about using the campaign to force issues to be discussed that often wouldn’t. That’s win-win. If it doesn’t actually cause the other guy show his colors and thus get you into office, it will have forced people to become aware of these issues that are too often ignored or not discussed beyond cliches and soundbites.
Okay, next question. President Obama has declared his desire to increase the federal minimum wage to over ten dollars an hour by 2017 (and then index it to inflation so it will keep pace with the economy thereafter). Do you support that goal? And if so, how would you sell that goal to Republican voters in your district? And is ten dollars in 2017 enough? Should the target be higher?
Woods: Ten dollars probably isn’t enough, but the search for the perfect number distracts from the larger question, which is: should the government have a role in making sure people in this country get paid enough to live on? And the answer is: absolutely. We’ll be able to find the right number once we get everyone on board with that idea. People aren’t fighting against $10 because they think it’s too much; they’re fighting against it because they don’t think setting a minimum wage should be the job of government. But the truth is that the government has both a moral obligation and a compelling interest to make sure workers don’t fall into the trap of poverty, because poverty hurts all of us. It hurts our economy. It hurts our families and our communities. With more money in working people’s pockets, we can increase demand and make a ripple effect. We need to flip the notion that supply-side economics has any basis in economic reality. Consumers drive the economy. Period.
And we need to do more for workers with disabilities. Right now in the United States there are more than 400,000 people with disabilities working in segregated workshops for sub-minimum wage. It’s unconscionable. These workers are averaging something like $5.80 a day, which isn’t even enough to pay for a Big Mac Extra Value Meal at the McDonald’s in my neighborhood.
If we can successfully sell the idea of a better minimum wage to Republicans in my district, it will be because we’re successful in showing that the current reality is immoral–and it hurts everyone. Our values belong to the higher ground. But the people we’re really trying to win are part of the disenfranchised left and unaffiliated voters who haven’t been turning out because they’re not feeling connected and they’re not feeling inspired. Those are the people we’re talking to.
Carrier: I so much want to see that happen. You’re spot on with all of it. The best of luck to you. My next question concerns a major issue playing out in the military today: the rising tide of rape and sexual assault in service, and the military’s failure to adequately seek justice for victims, sometimes even defending their attackers instead. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) got the Senate to vote up her own bill to try and address this issue; but Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) wants to go further and remove the chain of command from prosecutions altogether, a move McCaskill opposes. Do you support Gillibrand’s proposal? Why or why not?
Woods: I have a strong anti-rape position. I hope most people would say they’re against rape, but I want to go further and be really proactive in working against the policies, systems and attitudes that make it possible for rape to happen. With regard to the military, there is an institutional bias to be self-protective, and in order to address military sexual assault we have to address that bias. I strongly support Senator Gillibrand’s position. Taking prosecutions out of the chain of command will help ensure unbiased trials. Having public forums rather than secret proceedings can only provide better oversight. Transparency, wherever possible, will only improve our security and readiness.
Carrier: Another major issue on the minds of many secularists and liberals is the fact that even the Obama administration seems to be punitively prosecuting whistle blowers and using the state secrets doctrine to prevent evidence of state criminality or malfeasance from being presented in court. The problem was just recently covered in two articles at the Huffington Post (here and here). There is certainly a tension between a legitimate need to protect state secrets as well as personal privacy on the one hand, and on the other hand the abuse of this to cover up criminality or malfeasance or to keep information away from the voting public that would affect their vote. As a congressman you will be representing the people as an investigative committee member and as an author or supporter of legislation. If you are elected, using those tools, how would you propose to resolve this tension between defending legitimate secrecy and ending its possible abuse by the government?
Woods: What a great question! I agree that some situations require state secrets. But that should be an extraordinary exception. Government does need to be open, transparent and accessible to the people. There has to be accountability so we can make decisions about who we elect and what policies we support. We can’t elect officials to represent our interests if we don’t have the most comprehensive information possible.
Carrier: The biggest issue facing America today is the unsustainable growth in federal debt. Not only has congress borrowed unconscionable amounts from the social security trust fund (and other federal trusts), catastrophically draining it, but every year the debt owed to the world in government bonds continues to rise as well, and is already over twelve trillion dollars, three quarters of GDP, and another five trillion is owed back to our social security and other federal trusts on top of that. It is not a matter of opinion, but economic fact, that this cannot continue without our country’s ruin. Yet it seems the only rational way to start paying down this debt instead of increasing it is to raise taxes, and Republicans seem intent on never conceding or allowing this. As a congressman, how would you propose solving this problem? And how would you convince your constituents to support it?
Woods: The best way to decrease our debt is to have sustainable economic growth. We need to work toward innovative ways to get more people contributing to the economy instead of being blocked from it. Republicans advocate for cutting the exact programs we need to get people back into the economy. A moral society should expect more from people who can afford more and empower people who are in need. Aside from being the right thing to do, this spurs economic growth, which is good for all of us. But Republicans see it differently and I’m not certain they can be persuaded to change–especially when the wealthiest donors control our elections. I certainly will work for solutions and compromise when it helps improve the situation–but long-term, we need to organize a strong, grassroots movement that gets more Progressives in office so we have a real shot at healthy, ethical economic policies.
Carrier: Sadly, that’s probably right. I guess that is ultimately the only solution. Our nation’s future depends on it. If the Republicans won’t compromise to better the national interest, they just have to go. Okay, last question is a freebee. Are there any legislative objectives you personally have that you think are more overlooked by the voting public than they should be, objectives that should warrant more attention and concern? Can you describe at least one objective like that (or, if you like, more) and explain why it deserves more attention and concern from voters?
Woods: Let me answer this by starting with a story. When I was 26, I had a great job in the tech industry, but I was working as a contractor and didn’t have medical insurance. I got very sick and ended up being hospitalized for a rare illness that nearly killed me. I went completely blind. I had most of my toes amputated and lost part of my collar bone. I spent two years in and out of hospitals and nursing homes as I recovered. My family did an amazing job supporting me through that incredibly difficult time–but we needed help. I needed Nutrition Assistance, Medicaid and Social Security Disability or I never could have survived. I bring this up because as I’ve started talking about my experience, people have been reaching out to tell me their own stories of hardship. I’ve learned a lot by listening to those stories. I’ve learned that job market participation in the disability community is only 19%. I’ve learned that more than 400,000 people with disabilities work for less than minimum wage. I’d like to pass legislation that ends sub-minimum wages and segregated workshops. I’ve heard stories of the immense unmet medical needs of people in the transgender community. I’d like to pass legislation that protects transgender people and addresses their medical needs. I’ve heard stories of how our current immigration and deportation policies rip families apart and scar entire neighborhoods. I’d like to stop deportations. I want to keep listening to these kinds of stories and I want to take them with me to Washington so I can advocate for underrepresented people.
Carrier: Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions! And good luck on your run for Congress.
You can donate to James Woods’ campaign and sign up for email announcements about the progress of his campaign at his official campaign site here. More resources about him should also be available there (soon if not already). Also check out SecularCandidateBios.com. And follow his campaign on twitter.