It’s 11:45 in the morning on Friday, April 20 and four women are sitting before D.C’s Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization. A few of them shed tears as they describe their living conditions at the Barry Farm housing project in Anacostia, detailing rodent infestations and mushrooms that grow out of the walls. Behind them sits Michael Christian Woods, who’s alternating between listening intently and scribbling notes onto a loose sheet of paper.
Michael is 19 years old and he wants to be D.C.’s next mayor. Despite his age, he’s serious about his campaign. He started attending committee meetings like this when he officially filed for candidacy in December 2017.
As a candidate, Michael considers housing to be one of his top priorities. Before the meeting adjourns, Michael stops to introduce himself to Aja Taylor, the advocacy director of Bread For The City, and rushes out the door. Outside of the Office of the Mayor, he calls for an Uber Pool to whisk him to his dorm at George Washington University. Michael darts up to his room to change, but he comes down still in his suit jacket and tie - he’s just changed into black jeans and a more casual pair of shoes.
Michael graduated from high school in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, in June 2016, but he’s already a junior at George Washington. He’s majoring in both political science and Africana studies, plus a minor in sociology.
It’s almost impossible to imagine that Michael has any free time between school work and campaigning. He both studies and runs his campaign in his ultra-tidy dorm room. Prior to Michael’s most recent roommate moving in, he asked him to keep their shared room clean - befitting a mayoral candidate.
When Michael invites me in to photograph his campaign headquarters later, he has freshly baked chocolate chip cookies sitting on his tiny stove. An elaborate puzzle featuring penguins is taped to his wall - jigsaw puzzles are one of his favorite hobbies. Michael uses his weekends to campaign, but he never loses his genuine friendliness, repeatedly asking if I’d like to take home some cookies.
Although Michael isn’t a native, he’s been visiting his family in D.C. since he was a kid and he’s always felt that his future is tied to the District, which is why he chose to attend GW and run for office here.
“That’s my whole campaign slogan, ‘learning from the past, working and living in the present and thinking towards the future,” he explained before meeting with his study group. “D.C. is going to be my future… I want to make it so that not only I, but everyone else in D.C., will have a better future.”
Michael’s policies may be focused on the future, but acknowledges his desire to be a public servant is rooted in his upbringing. He credits his parents and faith for steering him towards volunteering and joining social justice organizations like his high school’s chapter of the NAACP and Top Teens of America. Still, Michael’s early interest in helping others was self-motivated - he sold cookies he baked himself to fund his trip to middle school summer camp.
Both Michael’s coursework and campaign platforms reflect those interactions with charitable organizations; most of his policies focus on alleviating poverty in D.C. In addition to affordable housing, Michael’s political priorities include eliminating food deserts, reducing gun violence and reforming the criminal justice system around non-violent offenses, all of which disproportionately affect poor, black residents in D.C.
Although Michael initially filed as a Democrat, he later re-registered as an Independent, so he won’t appear in the primary election on June 19. However, if he can collect 5,000 signatures, he’ll be on the ballot to run against incumbent Mayor Muriel Bowser come November 6.
Michael acknowledges he has a long way to go - his four campaign staffers are all college students and he estimates he’s raised about $200. In contrast, The Washington Post reported that Bowser raised $1.4 million by the time Michael filed his paperwork to run for mayor.
Still, Michael believes Mayor Bowser does have a few weaknesses, which he hopes to address as mayor.
“[Mayor Bowser] is favoring developers and corporations, she’s more tied down by her affiliations,” he said.
Despite the criticism, Michael believes Mayor Bowser has done good work for the District, citing the revitalization of D.C.’s libraries.
In spite of the challenges ahead, Woods is conspicuously uncynical, even as both national and local politics sometimes sink into bitterness and seemingly unresolvable conflict. His favorite part of campaigning is talking to people one on one and, even if he doesn’t win the election, he hopes to dedicate his life to helping others. Michael aspires to become a civil rights attorney, although he’s not opposed to running for office again in a few years.
Michael knows that some potential voters might be put off by his age, although he’ll turn 20 before the fall election. But he warns that he shouldn’t be underestimated.
“I’m a fishy and I threw myself into the shark tank, but they don’t know I’m a pufferfish," he boldly states. "When they least expect it, my spines will come out.”