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Kid in America

Corey Woods wasn't even 30 when he ran his first major political campaign. Though the ASU grad student lost his bid for Tempe City Council last week, his hopes and spirits stay high.

 by Stephanie Berger
 published on Thursday, March 23, 2006

/issues/arts/696300
On the cover
 
Corey Woods lost his first election, but he says he's staying positive for the future.
Chelsea Kent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Corey Woods lost his first election, but he says he's staying positive for the future. "I'm going to keep running until I win," he says.
 
/issues/arts/696300
Chelsea Kent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
 

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Corey Woods couldn't have done any worse.

Out of five candidates in last week's primary election for the Tempe City Council, Woods, a 27-year-old ASU graduate student, came in dead last.

"I just ran up against people who had been in the community longer than I had, who had more networks and were able to raise more money than I did," Woods says the day after the election.

"Now I'm going to get some sleep, get my life back and finish up my school career. But I've got no regrets."

It seems that Woods regrets very little. He is relentlessly upbeat, insisting in the days before the election that he had a chance of winning, even though the odds were so stacked against him.

When the votes were tallied on March 14, Woods, a Democrat, came in 1,442 votes behind the fourth-place candidate -- and that was with fewer than 14,000 people voting (although each voter had the option of picking up to three candidates). Characteristically, the loss -- after months of campaigning and a fairly sizeable financial investment for a college student -- doesn't seem to fase him. "I'm going to keep running until I win," he says.

But Woods doesn't just stand out for his optimism. He is that rarest of creatures at ASU - a student who cares deeply about politics, and local politics at that.

He ran to represent Tempe citizens, including students whose apathy is legendary. Most don't even vote, much less get involved in the political process. It's hard to say exactly how many students are registered to vote and actually do so in Tempe elections, but election officials say that fewer than 18 percent of all registered voters cast a ballot in last week's primary. At the one polling place on campus at the ASU Visitor Center, only 299 people voted, which is the lowest turnout for any of Tempe's 19 polling places.

But while most ASU students don't care, Woods cared enough to gather more than 1,000 signatures to get his name on the ballot. He cared enough to knock on doors, put up signs, attend meetings, participate in forums and strike up conversations with perfect strangers.

Along the way, he got a crash course in the workings of the American campaign trail.

On the Campaign Trail

As the sun set on the day of the primary, Woods stood in front of the Lakes Community Center in Tempe staring at a sign with the warning "75 feet." Campaigners could get no closer to the polling place inside.

This was the last chance to make an impression on voters as they approached the polls. Wearing black slacks and a dark beige dress shirt adorned with a blue "Corey Woods" button and an "I voted today" sticker, he shook hand after hand, stopping only to answer the ringing of one of his two cell phones -- one for business use, one for personal.

Woods was capping off a week of almost non-stop politicking which began with a late night "Get Out the Vote Party" at The Three Roots coffee house. Woods invited campaign contributors, volunteers and supporters for a casual get-together, explaining that he chose the coffee house, with its rust-colored walls and comfortable, plush couches, because its atmosphere is more quaint and relaxed than a Starbucks. Over plates of vegan pasta, vegetables and dip, and pitas and hummus, Woods worked the room, stopping to chat with all of his supporters and friends, many of whom are students or fellow Democrats he has met at district meetings.

When it was time for the requisite speech, Woods stood behind the table covered in food and joked about his ambitions.

"I've been preparing to run for almost 20 years now, and I'll keep running until I win," he said. "That's really a threat to you all. Vote for me now, so I don't have to do this over and over again."

A few nights later, Woods sat at the end of a long table at the University Presbyterian Church along with the four other candidates. The room smelled faintly of Pine Sol, and folding chairs had been pulled into the auditorium to accommodate the audience of less than 30 people, most of whom were senior citizens.

As the only African-American candidate and the only one under the age of 30, Woods says he knows that he stuck out "like a sore thumb." But when it came to answering questions, he confidently tackled subjects ranging from whether governments should be allowed to seize private land to the desirability of building a center for day-laborers in Tempe.

In his two-minute closing statement, he joked again about his need for votes.

"This is something I've always wanted to do. I mean, I figured I wasn't tall enough to be an actor, like Denzel Washington, so it was politics instead," he said. Afterward, Woods rushed to the District 17 Democrats' meeting, where a cheer of "Hey! It's Corey Woods!" erupted upon his arrival. After hugging and shaking hands with friends, many of whom were fellow Democrats running for state and local office, Woods headed back to his rented Enterprise van, the back filled with several huge "Vote Corey Woods" signs. It was after 10 p.m., but Woods planned to put the signs up around town before going to bed.

The week was a tough one, but Woods had nearly a year to get used to the pace. He announced his candidacy in May of 2005 and had to collect more than 1,000 signatures to get on the ballot. Then the work really began.

Win or lose, Woods says he knows he has tried his hardest.

"I feel like I've done enough to get through," Woods said a few days before the election. "I did the door-knocking, I sent the mailers out, I went to all the meetings that I could, I had private meetings with the papers, I went to all the candidate forums, I made myself as accessible as humanly possible. Either what I said was good enough or it wasn't."

An Early Interest

For Woods, the decision to run for office wasn't a spontaneous epiphany or a calculated social move. He will tell you that he's been preparing to campaign since he was 7 or 8 years old when he watched the debates between presidential candidates George Bush Sr. and Michael Dukakis on television.

He wondered why the students at his elementary school weren't as interested in politics as he was.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say that ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to do something like this," Wood says. "I was one of those weird, freaky kids who always thought it would be cool to run for office and be a public servant."

Born in Atlanta, Woods spent most of his childhood in Indiana and New York. His father was a political activist with the Urban League, a civil rights and social services organization, for more than 17 years. His mother was a New York City schoolteacher for more than 30 years.

It wasn't unusual for the family to engage in two-hour political discussions around the dinner table.

"In the evenings when everybody would get home after work and school, the discussions tended to be around social policy, civil rights, domestic policy and international policy kind of issues," says his father, Donald Woods. "Corey, hearing these discussions, had opinions on just about everything."

Woods' mother, Barbara, says her son has always been a leader.

"Corey has always been an independent thinker. I noticed that when he was probably 9 months old," she says. "He always decided what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it."

At New Rochelle High School in New York, Woods was elected president of his freshman, sophomore and junior classes. His senior year he was president of the entire student government.

Woods went on to work on a city council campaign in New Rochelle and later, when he was a freshman and sophomore at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, he was elected as a student government representative for his residence hall.

He says his political interests have been both a positive and negative influence on his life.

"I'd call it a gift and a curse," he says. "You're not supposed to ever say this, but I would like to potentially make a career out of politics. I think it's a noble venture; I don't look at it as some sort of sleaze ball thing to do. I just see it as a way to change lives."

He knows he sometimes has a big ego, he says, but that's necessary in politics. And if he appears overly self-assured or a little bit power-hungry, so be it.

"People listen to you when you're in politics," he says. "It provides you with a forum. If you're an elected official, people pay attention and what you say matters. That's important to me, and not for the purpose of saying, 'I'm Corey Woods, city councilman, roll out the red carpet.'"

Speaking Up

As much as he might have liked it, Woods couldn't spend the past year just campaigning. He had classes to take and classes to teach. He plans to graduate soon with a master's degree in social and philosophical foundations of education, and then start a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies. Meanwhile, he's a teaching assistant, responsible for Culture and Schooling, a 300-level class for education students.

In one of his recent classes, a serious discussion about social theories took place over turkey and Swiss-cheese subs and Coke.

As an apology for taking more than a month to grade his two dozen students' papers (a by-product of trying to balance teaching, studying and campaigning), Woods lined the front table in the classroom with an assortment of subs, condiments and two-liter bottles of soda. Gesturing with a plastic cup in one hand and a bottle of Diet Coke in the other, Woods began a lecture on interpretive theory. His classroom in the Cowden building at ASU has old desks with wire baskets haphazardly strewn around the room, bunched in clusters instead of lined neatly in rows.

Despite his professional dress -- gray slacks and tie -- he's easy and familiar with the students, some of whom are close to his age.

"Some of you guys are probably like, how is this guy teaching a class -- do they screen, or do they just let anyone in these days?"

Education junior Zachary Casey says Woods is an excellent instructor: "What's really cool about him is he's still young enough that he can relate, but he's old enough and smart enough that there's a seamless mix of having a good time and actual instruction."

Woods is also known for being outspoken, in and out of the classroom.

Nicholas Appleton, one of the first professors Woods met when he came to ASU in 2003, says Woods is "fairly transparent" and tells you what he thinks.

"When he first got here, I think he was a little impatient with the way academics approach things," Appleton says. "We ask lots of questions and we take things apart very carefully and analytically. I think he is much more accepting of that now than he was in his first days here in the University."

Speaking out has sometimes gotten him into trouble, Wood says. After graduating from the University of Michigan, Woods took a job with a music distribution company.

During a year-long training program, Woods says he was asked what the company could do to recruit minority employees, but his suggestions were ignored.

He also complained to management that employees were not being given the day off for Martin Luther King Day, a federally recognized holiday.

"Without Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, I wouldn't have been sitting at that desk, so you have to understand how deeply that cuts with me," Woods says.

He says that when the training period ended, he was assigned to a job as a market researcher, instead of the college recruitment role he had hoped for.

"I think he put me in that job because he wanted me to quit. And what people don't realize is I don't blink, and I don't like it when people try to intimidate me," Woods says. At the end of his second year with the company, in June 2002, Woods says he was fired. He thinks it was because he didn't get along well with management, but the company told him he simply wasn't a good fit.

Company officials declined comment.

An Independent Side

When it comes to politics, Woods shows the same independent streak.

"People see I'm African American and assume I'm liberal right off the bat," he says. "But my whole goal when I started this campaign was to not focus on being a party person as much as being an issues person -- an independent free thinker who doesn't pander to groups. I'll tell you what I believe, and you can either like it or not like it. I don't respect people on either side who always do what their party tells them to do. I hate robots."

During the campaign, Woods sided with conservatives who oppose the use of eminent domain -- the public taking of private property -- to generate revenue in Tempe. But on other issues, he was consistently liberal. He was the only candidate who supported building a homeless shelter in Tempe. He spoke out in favor of both abortion rights and partnership benefits for homosexual couples.

"I think it's riveting that people will see the same exact thing and come up with two totally different interpretations of what they just saw," he says. "You have to agree to disagree and maybe try to find common ground."

It's that kind of thinking that led competitor Onnie Shekerjian, one of the Republican candidates for the council, to say that she'd love to work with him.

"When you get to local issues, it's all about problem-solving for the community, and he's a person who'd be willing to do that, to transcend political party lines," Shekerjian says. "That willingness is the key to success."

Woods also likes to think of himself as being unique.

"Maybe I'm just a contrarian," he says. "Someone goes this way, I go the other way."

He enjoys being left-handed because it interests people, he says. He doesn't drink, even as a college student, because he likes to be in control of himself.

"People might claim that I'm a control freak, and that's probably true," Woods says. "The idea of trying to dull my senses is not something that makes me happy. It actually kind of freaks me out."

A Long Shot

Even those closest to Woods thought he would have difficulty winning a seat on the Tempe City Council.

Appleton predicted that Woods' youth and newness to the city might deter voters from choosing him.

"Because he's new, he doesn't have the connections. He hasn't been well socialized into the life and the networking within the city," Appleton says.

Woods' father agreed. He says he told his son at the outset: "If you feel that you can do it or that you really want to do it, you should go ahead and do it -- just understand the realities: you're a new person in Tempe that is still developing roots out there, and you're not going to be able to bring a pot of $100,000 to the table."

And Woods' father was right -- his son ran his campaign on a miniscule budget, spending less than $15,000.

"I'm running a shoestring campaign. Everything's pretty much no frills, and still that's cost me over $10,000, about $3,500 of it my own money," Woods said before the election. "Being a grad student, that's going real deep."

With fewer than five staff members, Woods answered all his own e-mail and phone calls and set up most of his own appearances. He says that he ran himself ragged while campaigning.

Still, he'd do it again. If you aren't willing to take risks in life, you have no right to complain, he says. And if you want something, you've got to go for it.

And he probably will.

"Some people try to play coy, but honestly, I think in a couple years I'll be back doing something," Woods says. "Life circumstances can change, but if everything in two years is as it currently is, I definitely would run again."

Meanwhile, he plans to join some city boards or commissions.

Woods' mother says she has no doubt that if her son so desires, he will be back on the next ballot.

"We didn't think that he would win the race, but we thought that at least he made some inroads," she says. "It's only the opportunities in life that you let slide by that you wind up regretting in the future. In this case, he took the bull by the horns and he tried it, and he may do it again. I'm sure he will, knowing Corey."

And next time will be better, Woods says.

"This will probably be the hardest election I'll ever have to run because I'm starting so new and still trying to build that base and that network," he said shortly before the election. "I really think I have a talent, and it's not going to be this hard forever. I'm going to break through at some point."

Reach the reporter at stephanie.berger@asu.edu.



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