Connor Wood

Walking past a spread of tea and biscuits, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth and several bookcases of Shakespeare’s works, Connor Wood ’19 settled into an empty upstairs room at the Elizabethan Club, one of Yale’s elite literary societies, for an interview with the News about his post-graduation plan: to run for elected office in Virginia’s 10th senatorial district, located in and around Richmond.

But despite his fondness for the club, Wood is hardly a member of Yale’s old guard. Raised by a single mother, he grew up knowing only one of his grandparents, a poor tenant farmer in Virginia. Now, he is the first in his family to leave Virginia for college, and he hopes to become the first to represent the state’s 10th district in the state Senate.

A Democrat and Virginia native, Wood announced his candidacy on Aug. 12 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in front of a small crowd of roughly 40 people.

“A lot of people get into politics out of anger, out of bitterness. It’s more about breaking down their opponents than about building up their neighbors,” Wood said in the speech. “They’re forgetting the reason we have politics and laws in the first place. Civil society is a tool of mercy and justice to smooth out the rough edges of human nature. It’s here to help us, not to hurt us.”

Wood told the News that he had never considered running for office until one of his family members died after not receiving adequate medical treatment in the past year. Other members of his family also have struggled to find decent health care options in Virginia, he said, and he began consulting with friends in Virginia about how he could “make a change.”

“Look, I’m not this legacy kid coming here [to Yale] easily,” Wood said. “I want to go back home and make a change with the education I’ve received, not run off to New York City to become a consultant.”

Wood’s competition is Eileen Bedell, a 45-year-old lawyer who previously lost a race for Virginia’s 7th congressional against Republican David Brat in 2016. If Wood wins the 10th Senate district’s Democratic primary in 2019, he will likely run against Republican incumbent Glen Sturtevant.

Neither Bedell nor Sturtevant’s office responded to request for comment on Wood’s candidacy or platform, which includes a range of liberal political proposals, such as the coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and tansgender people under Virginia’s fair housing and employment discrimination laws, statewide universal background checks on gun sales and a halt on production of gas pipelines in the state of Virginia.

Bedell’s campaign website does not include a platform, though the homepage promises that she would “hold accountable those whose representation does not reflect Virginia in the 21st century.”

Wood told the News he thinks he can find success in a new “political moment” because the 10th district, though historically Republican, has begun to develop what Wood called a “Democratic or partisan lean” due to growing frustrations with President Donald Trump’s administration.

“I’ve put by now three-quarters of a year into learning everything I can about the district and the issues, becoming the best candidate I can be as early as possible,” Wood said. “The other candidates have generally held office before — they’re attorneys — but, in this climate, people are fed up with well-heeled candidates that don’t actually represent their demographics.”

Sven Philipsen, who knew Wood in high school, said that Wood never seemed to have political aspirations. Rather it was circumstance that drew him into the electoral arena. Frustrated with his family’s inadequate health care coverage, he was inspired by the activism of the Parkland school shooting survivors to become politically active.

Though he is running as a Democrat, Wood was chairman of the Conservative Party of the Yale Political Union in fall 2017. The party is an intellectual debating society that, despite its name, does not align with either of the major American political parties. Wood also mounted a failed bid to become president of the Yale Political Union in the spring.

Gabriel Groz ’19, a friend of Wood’s and former chair of the YPU’s Party of the Left, described Wood as a “patriotic Richmonder” and someone “who really wants all the best for all the people who live in his hometown.”

Groz also told the News that Wood, despite his background in the Conservative Party, is a thoroughly progressive Democrat and that “it speaks to his character that he has engaged with years of conservative argument in the Conservative Party, even becoming their chairman, and still emerged a proud liberal Democrat.”

Outside of his political life, Wood’s friends told the News, he is known for his talents as a pianist, classicist — Wood spent the summer of 2017 at an archaeological dig site in Italy hunting for antiquities — and avid stamp collector.

“One of the key memories I have of Connor is from a comparative government trip we went on to Canada, and he insisted that we go to a stamp exhibition gallery, and this was a classic Connor quirk, he is super into stamp collecting,” Philipsen recalled. “And now, looking back on it, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s on a stamp one day. … Him putting his talents to elected office would be a fantastic use of his dedication and passion.”

Two other Yale students also announced political campaigns this year. Jordan Grode ’21 is running on the Republican ticket for the 94th district in the Connecticut House of Representatives. And this week, Grant Richardson ’19 announced in an interview with the News that he was running as a Republican to represent the 93rd district in the Connecticut House.

Britton O’Daly | britton.odaly@yale.edu