While the national press is obsessed, and rightfully so, with the presidential elections this year, it’s important to remember that many decisions that affect the lives of most people in the U.S. begin at the local and state level. The 2018 mid-term election candidates were one of the most diverse cohorts of people stepping into local, state, and congressional races: 411 women, people of color, and LGBT people ran. Many of them were part of a wave of Democrats that won back the House of Representatives, while others aimed for seats in local and state governments.
Ashton P. Woods was one of those newcomers. He ran in a crowded race for an at-large Houston City Council seat in 2018. Though he didn’t win, he didn’t stop there: He’s now running for a state representative seat for Texas House District 146.
Woods is a local organizer, a member of the Houston Black Lives Matter chapter, and is also the first Black, gay, openly HIV-positive person to run for a seat in the Lone Star State. I interviewed Woods about his work, his vision for his district, and who he’s supporting in the presidential election.
Kenyon Farrow: I’ve known you for a few years, just based on your work around HIV activism. You cofounded the Black Lives Matter chapter in Houston. Why did you choose to run for office?
Ashton P. Woods: Well, in my role with Black Lives Matter Houston, and even before then, I spent a lot of time in Austin during the legislative session. A lot of people don’t realize that the legislative session in Austin is literally every other year for five months, unless there’s a special session called.
In that time, as an activist with a T-shirt and jeans on, walking through the halls of the legislature, actually working on bills and working on language in bills, bills that were passed—that includes the Sandra Bland Act and a host of other things. Of course, I’ve always fought to make sure that we had enough people to testify in committee to make sure that certain bills don’t get on the floor that were anti-immigrant—that was in the fall—that were anti-LGBT. Anti-trans, more specifically, when it comes to bathroom bills.
I decided that it’s better for me to run, because it’s one thing to be an advocate on the outside. It’s one thing to be an activist and organizer on the outside, as well. But it’s another thing to be able to affect things by not just sitting at the table, but being one of the heads of the table. To make sure that, intersectionally speaking, any policies that are drawn now going forward are not detrimental, institutionally racist, xenophobic, sexist—or transphobic, for that matter, or anti-LGBT at large.
There are a lot of things that I want to do, which includes expand health care, given that I’ve been HIV positive since 2008 and I’m 35 now. I found out when I was, like, 23, right before I turned 24. And I know that I’m lucky, because I’ll have access to ADAP [AIDS Drug Assistance Program] and Ryan White. But imagine if programs that were very similar were available to all people, all Texans, all Americans. One of the reasons why I’m running is to make sure that we don’t wait for the federal government to provide health care, not just for HIV, but for all medical needs, on a level that focuses more on preventative care, so that most people aren’t getting sick with things that could have been preventable.
The other thing is, I want to deal with education, because I don’t believe in privatizing our public schools. I don’t believe in partnering off our schools with charter schools, or transitioning our public schools to charter schools, altogether. And I believe that there are some things that need to be reversed, like Texas House Bill 1842 and recapture, which takes money away from school districts and also forces school districts to close schools, or even possibly become taken over, because of really weird rules about how schools should do, based on standardized testing, which is crazy in its own right.
Of course, gun reform, climate change. I’m pretty sure the nation saw what happened when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston: 52 inches of rain; enough water to fill New Orleans three times.
And, you know, I think one of the biggest things is, I want to talk about criminal justice reform, including cannabis legalization and decriminalization, but also looking at how we look at the penal code altogether, in terms of criminal justice—including, but not limited to, changing the penal code to support sex workers, to decriminalize sex work, while also addressing human trafficking in totality, as opposed to conflating it into only being human sex trafficking.
That’s also one of the reasons why I’m running. It’s because I believe people need to be educated about the issues before they even decide to have an opinion on them and make very bad decisions. Because, as you know, people say really crazy things on radio shows, and then all of a sudden, they become draft laws, and then they become laws. Right? So we have to be very careful, and we have to be vigilant, protect the strides that we have made, and also continue the strides that we are trying to make.
KF: Was there a turning point at which you just decided, “You know what? I am going to try to shift from advocating from the outside to being on the inside, hopefully as a legislator, to work on these issues.” Was there a moment where that shift happened?
APW: The moment of, “Fuck it; I’ll do it,” came when I realized that, for the last 10 years or more, I have been advising candidates on the platform. Myself, as an individual activist in Black Lives Matter Houston, has been very influential in the electoral politics of Houston and Texas, and even on the national level, if you count how BLM was involved, and I was directly involved, in the  disruption of [presidential candidates] Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, along with several other strong activist Black women. And not to be confused with the trope strong Black women; but I mean strong in their activism—which caused presidential candidates to have criminal justice reform platforms.
But I think that it came when I got tired of advising people and them running on these issues. And then when they get in there, they’re the antithesis of the candidate that they portrayed themselves to be. And so the moment came when I was really just looking around and saying, “We’re making great strides, but they’re not doing enough here in Texas—or in Houston, for that matter, where I’m at and where the district is held and contained—so I feel like I can do a better job, you know?”
I think the straw that broke the camel’s back is, my opponent, who I’m running against [Democratic incumbent Shawn Nicole Thierry]; we were getting ready to push Sandra Bland Act 2.0. We had the votes, all of them. We had the votes to pass it. And she got in bed with these Republicans who slipped the clause into the bill (and she acted like she was oblivious to it) that was this whole show-me-your-papers thing.
As you know, I don’t believe in allowing law enforcement to challenge people on their citizenship; it’s not right. So that, among other things—her not showing up for the LGBT community; her not showing up, you know, when things are happening. It’s one thing to come around when the cameras are rolling and when the DSLRs are clicking; it’s another thing to show up and be on the ground, and actually be there.
I’ve been there, and I’ve been there free of charge. And while nobody’s asked me to do it, if not me, then who? And I think a lot of people ask themselves that question. Because if you’re asking who’s going to fix the problem, if you’re the one that can identify, while everybody else is oblivious, clearly, it needs to be you.
KF: Describe the district that you’re running in, for people who don’t know Houston.
APW: We’re in the heart of Houston. We are near NRG Stadium, which is where the Super Bowl was, just right outside the Medical Center. So, basically, it encompasses some of Houston’s oldest Black neighborhoods: Sunnyside, Third Ward, South Acres. And it has about 172,000 people, of which 75% to 80% are Black; the other 30% are Latino, Asian, and white. So it’s a gerrymandered district, but they call it a protected district to protect the Black vote—which I find hard to believe.
KF: Why do you find it hard to believe that it’s to protect the Black vote?
APW: Well, if you look at a map—go to my website, ash4tx.com, and click on About 146 and you will see a map that looks like a buzz saw, like it’s carved. It looks like somebody took a sheet cake and made a dinosaur shape out of it.
KF: Right. And so if it’s not a protected district, what is it?
APW: It’s a district that’s gerrymandered. While it will guarantee the Democrats get into office, the thing about it is, last election cycle, during the primary I think about 10,000 people of the 172,000 people showed up to vote. And I still believe that that’s partially because most of the people who are in these neighborhoods, including mine, are very poor. They work two and three jobs just to make ends meet.
You can draw a district any way you want and call it a Black-protected district. But if there’s still illegal dumping, and you’re standing at a bus stop that doesn’t have a sidewalk, and when it rains there’s a ditch less than a foot behind you while you’re waiting on a bus coming down a narrow street with a 30 mph speed limit, no traffic lights, and barely recognizable stop signs, imagine going to work late—because you left for work two hours early and got to work 30 minutes late, in a thunderstorm, with no sidewalk, and a ditch filling up behind you. Because we have huge flooding issues in our area, illegal dumping. We have no zoning.
So, when I talk about a protected district, I’m talking about the fact that we deal with the issue of climate change in a way that’s very tangible and recognizable. And we also deal with a lot of the vectors that come with that—like the polluters, the concrete plants, the chemical plants, that they want to build next to schools, the way that the city wanted to tear down a multi-service center and rebuild a new facility on top of a toxic landfill. That’s not protection.
You’re saying that our vote is protected. But if the voters are not healthy, and they don’t have the opportunity, or even the wherewithal that an election is even going on, how is it actually a protected district?
KF: Right. So would it be fair to say, instead of it being a protected district, that it’s a district that tightly controls the Black vote, or the Democratic vote in the region?
KF: Can you tell me what it’s like to run in your district as an openly Black gay man living with HIV?
APW: Actually, I find doing it, it helps to build relationships. It makes me relatable. It makes them relatable to me, as well. Because everybody in this country, in some way, shape, or form, has some kind of pre-existing condition. There are 336 million people [in the U.S.]; 26 million of them live in Texas; 2.5 to 3 million of them live in Houston; and of that 3 million are 172,000 people who are dealing with issues of diabetes, heart failure, cancer. There are huge cancer clusters that we’re finding in the city.
I think I mentioned very early in our conversation about what if we have programs, or health care, Medicare for All, or some type of universal health care provided by the state that mirror services like HOPWA, ADAP, and Ryan White that allow people to get the care that they need, and not just get the care that they need, but to make sure that they’re getting taken care of in a preventative manner so that they can actually thrive. Because a healthier citizen is more productive, in my opinion.
That’s the conversation that I’ve been having lately. As far as being gay, that’s not been necessarily a topic of conversation, per se, because mostly everybody in Houston who knows who I am knows that I’m gay, and they know that I’m pretty open about it.
That and, as you know, over time, we have been being better as a society—still needs a lot of work—about recognizing going beyond binaries and showing that Blackness is not a monolith; being LGBT is not monolithic; being HIV positive is not monolithic. Everybody has a story that comes along with those boxes that we check off.
So, while I have run into homophobia here and there, I address it head on. And I personally have to say that I haven’t experienced it as much. And if it is there, they’re very good at concealing it from me. Because they know that I’m a very vocal person and I will put them on blast real quick.
KF: What do you think about, turning to the national scene—you know, Texas has been on the—people have said it’s on the brink of turning blue in the next several years. How do you perceive the political climate in Texas? Is there a possibility of sweeping it blue?
APW: Well, here’s the thing. And it’s kind of a loaded question for me, because I live in the most populous county in the state, in the largest city in the state. And you cannot win the State of Texas without winning Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and the Southern Texas region near the border. The reason being is that we have been steadily turning blue since 2014. Before there was a blue wave in 2018, we had already swept a good chunk of the [Republican] part of Harris County to Democratic.
And a lot of people don’t realize that in Texas, every single judge, except for on the municipal level, is literally on the ballot. So, we elect all of our judges, even our Supreme Court judges. People who I called friends, who, I’ve worked on their campaigns with them for BLM Houston. A lot of them were Black women and were elected in 2016, and they were re-elected in 2018.
And then we came back and turned, and flipped, the other piece [of Harris County] that we didn’t flip in ’16. So I guess the thing is, is that we’ve been turning blue for so long, so living here, it’s kind of relative. We’re starting to see peripheral counties around Harris County, like Fort Bend, and Montgomery, and Brazoria County—which is, like, Pearland, Sugar Land (if you’ve ever been to Houston)—basically our suburbs are turning blue, and they’ve been turning blue for a minute.
So Texas is definitely trending towards liberal, Democratic blue, and very fast. I think that we have to be careful about being in this position of wanting to get Trump out for the sake of getting Trump out, and then putting someone in, like a Mike Bloomberg, for example, who is a very bad candidate for president, in my opinion, when it comes to Black and Brown communities..
KF: And if I’m correct, you’re supporting Elizabeth Warren in the upcoming primary?
KF: Can you say why?
APW: I like her platform. And I also like the [fact]—well, I’m tired of seeing white men in office. There’s that, right? That’s my own personal thing, you know? I would have preferred a Black woman. I’m not sure that I would have supported Kamala, but the fact that she ran was a thing, a thing to see. I like the fact that there’s a gay man who could possibly be a frontrunner, but his policies and who he is as a person is the antithesis of what I would need in a presidential candidate.
So, there are all of these symbolic candidacies. But at least Elizabeth Warren has been consistent. Her and Bernie Sanders have been consistent on where they stand, their policies. And those policies are more beneficial to people who look like us than with the other candidates, to be honest with you.
KF: What would you say to other folks, like-minded folks, who have ever thought about running for office? So, progressive-minded Black gay men, people living with HIV, etc.?
APW: The first thing: If you’re going to run for office, know what the duties of your office are, and know how they affect people. And know that when you build your platform out, make sure you build your platform out on things that you know and can talk about.
Number two, make sure you have people around you who can show you how to address issues that might not be in your field of vision. And it’s best for you to read up, get educated, and make sure that you know to talk—because it’s one thing to just put your hat in the ring; but if you’re not familiar with the issues and you can’t connect with the people, and you don’t have a plan for how you would do the job when elected, then hang it up.
And if you are a fighter like I am, I would say that you continue to look at the issues that are closest to you and how they affect you, and look at how they intersect with other issues that may not necessarily affect you directly, but affect people who are very proximate to you.
We all have our unique issues, and I think it’s that when we draw to intersectionality, we’re able to hone in on that, and talk about what people really need to hear. Like, I need to know—like, when I talk about transit and traffic, we talk about making sure that buses actually run on time, making sure that we’re getting better forms of inter-local transportation like light rail and bus rapid transit, actual sidewalks, actual streetlights that work—the small things that fall under constituent services.
It’s one thing when you realize the seat is a two-year seat, so you have to go every two years, in my instance, up for re-election. You have to make sure that you are helping people in districts, and you’re looking at what the folks are talking about, what the voters are asking for. And it’s as simple as going to your city government website, or whatever municipality you live in, because most districts are contained within someone’s municipality.
You look at the complaints that people call in. Like, in Houston, we have 311; they document everything that people call in about. There are maybe 600 instances of potholes. Is it in your area? Is there a streetlight? Listen, because people call about those things. And it’s the first research, what people are complaining about, and what people are demanding. If you don’t have the time to do that—you know, if you’re one of those people who share polls without reading them—then you’ve got some work to do.
KF: Anything else you want to leave us with that we didn’t get to talk about?
APW: I think it’s important that people understand that it’s not just about the fact that people need to go vote. Because I’m not going to tell somebody to go vote for the sake of voting. You have a right to undervote, reserve your vote, however you feel. Just be ready for the consequences that come with that.
So, I’m not judging you. But if you are so inclined to vote, make sure you research your candidate. Make sure you research me and my issues if you’re here in Houston and in District 146. And see how that affects you and how your life will change if a lot of what’s in my platform, or another candidate’s platform, will directly affect you or benefit you.
Because, at the end of the day, everything that we do as candidates, including myself, should be about increasing life chances for everybody involved, and should be about increasing quality of life. And if we’re not doing those two things, then all of this is moot.
So, I encourage you to go vote, not just for the sake of voting, but to vote your issues to make sure that your voice is being heard any way that will change the trajectory of where you are right now.
If you’re in Texas, early voting began for this race and all others on Feb. 18 and ends Feb. 28. The Texas election day is Super Tuesday, March 3.