There’s a Blind, Atheist Feminist Running for Congress

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Photo: James Woods for Congress

James Woods had been working for an Arizona insurance company less than a month when he was infected with MRSA. So he was uninsured when the antibiotic-resistant staph infection — combined with his type-1 diabetes — caused him to go into kidney failure, and then blind, a month before his 27th birthday. The recovery was long and lonely. “Because I was an infection risk, I was alone for upwards of 20 hours a day,” he told the Cut. “I had a lot of time to think.”

But rather than come to Jesus, Woods promised himself that if he was able to get out, he would make a plan to give more to his community. He volunteered for the Democratic Party in his legislative district, and when it began looking for someone to put his name on the 5th District ballot against career Republican Rep. Matt Salmon, Woods, now 35, leapt at the opportunity.

Woods hoped he would speak for the politically marginalized groups he belongs to (lower-income Americans, the disabled, atheists) and serve as living proof of the importance of America’s social safety net (he relied on Medicaid, Social Security disability, and Nutrition Assistance while sick). “Society has invested so much in me, standing up and fighting for them is just one way I can try to pay everyone back their tax dollars that kept me alive,” he said. But along the way, he’s become a crush object for feminist blogs like Wonkette and Jezebel, thanks to “Prevent Abortion” condoms he sent to a local pro-life group.

The Cut talked to Woods about the very civilized stunt and more.

Why did you send the National Pro-Life Alliance custom James Woods campaign condoms?
It wasn’t just the pro-life group themselves. They had activists in the district send form letters to me, and the language it used was really offensive, about the “sanctity of life.” It really struck a nerve with me, how fringe this group is. So I wrote a letter expressing that, yes, reducing the number of abortions is a laudable goal; however, I think their methods are the wrong way to do that. Research has shown conclusively that sex ed, access to birth control, reproductive health services, and family-planning support, especially for lower-income women, are the best ways to reduce abortion. To drive that home, I sent each of them a condom.

Photo: James Woods For Congress

That seems like common sense to me, but it’s rare to hear a Democratic candidate speak about abortion in more concrete terms than “choice” or “privacy.” Why are you able to talk so frankly?
Because I am in a very red district running an openly progressive campaign. Pew showed Mesa, Arizona, one of the majority areas in my district, is the most conservative city in the country, so I have nothing to lose. Being an underdog candidate gives me the freedom to speak out about controversial issues that normal campaigns won’t touch because it’s too divisive. And a lot of people agree with me. Even Republicans and libertarians are coming to me to say they think government has no part in saying what’s medically appropriate for women. And even if they disagree with you, they respect your honesty.

What’s the status of abortion rights generally in Arizona?
They are under constant threat. We have a real problem with religious intrusion in our state legislature. The Center for Arizona Policy — a very conservative, religious-based organization well funded by the Family Research Council — puts forward bills to try to limit women’s access to these services. It’s important to stand up and fight for these things, because it’s not just about abortion rights — Planned Parenthood provides cancer screenings and birth control — for some women, it may be the only doctor they see. Those services need to be there. It frustrates me that more people aren’t willing to stand up.

You describe yourself as a humanist who believes public-policy decisions should be made without “ideology, revelation, or religion.” What’s the secular argument for abortion rights?
It’s not a baby until it’s viable as a living organism in and of itself. Prior to that, it’s a collection of cells. As a humanist, protecting the mother’s life and her well-being should come first. A woman’s right to choose is good for her, it’s good for the child, and it benefits society in general. It reduces poverty rates among single women, reduces childhood poverty, they both have better health outcomes. The research is overwhelming on that. You can’t make a legitimate argument that they aren’t good things.

Secular government protects everyone. America was founded as a secular state. I don’t want to live in a theocracy, and I think most people agree with me on that. That’s how I tell it to believers: You don’t want government telling you how to worship, and I don’t want your church telling my government how to govern.

Arizona has already elected a nontheist to Congress, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, who also happens to be bisexual. Is there something about Arizona that makes it more open to non-traditional candidates?
Arizona does have a very strong libertarian streak. I mean that in the classical sense: Government has a role, but it needs to be separate from personal life. Research has shown that non-affiliated, non-theists, and non-believers are one-fifth of the population, and there is a definite movement for secular government here. Through the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, I was able to meet other activists — secular activists, immigration activists, the LGBT community — all these people who align on so many issues but each have their own one-level issue. We can all help each other out.

All of those groups are seen as marginal now, but they're on the right side of demographic shifts ...
It’s going to happen. Hopefully, I can be on the crest of that wave.

After this campaign, what will be your next move?
Assuming I’m not moving to Washington?

I’m sorry. Is it bad luck to answer that question?
I may go back to school to get my degree. This campaign has opened up a lot of doors for me, and I’ll make that decision when I get to it. But I hope people take my example: You don’t need to be a C-level executive at a Fortune 500 company to run for office. It doesn’t need to be Congress, either. It could be a school board. It could be just canvassing your neighborhood. That’s why we have the people we have in Congress — voter turnout, especially in midterm elections. When our national turnout is consistently under 50 percent, and the person who wins gets 50 percent of the vote, only 25 percent of the people are choosing who goes to Congress. People underestimate the power of Congress. It’s really where the political sausage gets made. Can you tell I once wanted to be a civics teacher?