George Gollin faces an uphill battle in his campaign for Congress. A particle physicist from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), he has never run for public office. In contrast, his chief opponent in the 18 March Democratic primary is Ann Callis, a veteran county judge who has been anointed by the party’s leadership as their best bet to topple freshman Representative Rodney Davis (R–IL) in the November general election.
But Gollin, 60, isn’t backing down. Labeling himself a “scientist, teacher, watchdog” and bolstered by contributions from scientists and educators from around the country, Gollin hopes to convince voters in this swing district in central Illinois that a “progressive” Democrat who has spent his career “analyzing tough problems and fixing things that are broken” deserves their vote.
He’s also embracing the reality that he’s David against a political Goliath. His first television ad, a 30-second spot intended to introduce him to voters, shows the U.S. hockey team beating the heavily favored Soviet squad in the 1980 Olympics as the announcer proclaims, “Do you believe in miracles?” The miracle is changing Washington, Gollin explains. But the words could also suggest that Gollin knows he’s bucking long odds.
Still, at least some in the political establishment are taking Gollin's campaign seriously. On 2 March, he picked up the endorsement for the primary race of the Chicago Tribune, a traditionally conservative newspaper. "We disagree with many of his positions, but at least we know where he stands," the Tribune writes of Gollin. The Tribune said Gollin is a "good fit" for his district and panned Callis for "stick[ing] to safe talking points."
A lifelong academic who grew up in the New York City area and came to UIUC in 1989, Gollin is no Olympic athlete. But he’s gone toe-to-toe against the operators of several so-called diploma mills and won: In 2008, for example, federal officials used his work to help convict a couple in Spokane, Washington, whose sham universities had generated millions of dollars by awarding thousands of bogus degrees.
“I published a report about them and they came after my family and me," he reports on his campaign website. "They threatened lawsuits, arson and gunfire. I fought back.”
In contrast, he tells ScienceInsider, the campaign so far has been relatively clean. Instead of having to fend off personal attacks, he says, his biggest problem has been getting voters to focus on the upcoming primary. But he says people have reacted positively to his political platform—which features more spending on infrastructure, making college more affordable and using community colleges as a hub for job training, raising the minimum wage to as high as $15 an hour, giving legal status to undocumented immigrants, and using Obamacare, once the initial glitches in enrollment have been smoothed out, as a springboard to a single-payer approach to health care.
In addition to teaching UIUC undergraduates, he spent years working on plans for the International Linear Collider and is part of an experiment called Mu2e at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), 200 kilometers to the north in Batavia, Illinois, that is looking for the morphing of muons into electrons. That’s an odd hypothetical process that, if observed, would signal new particles over the high-energy horizon.
That career path has prepared him for tackling the challenges facing the country, he argues. “Reducing unemployment and providing better-paying jobs is the most pressing concern in this district,” he says. “And the resources and people at our universities have a lot to offer.”
Gollin believes that it’s still possible to get things done in Washington but that success will require a bipartisan approach. He says he learned that lesson several years ago while watching Democrats roll out legislation to strengthen federal oversight of diploma mills that cleared the House of Representatives but died in the Senate. The partisan process “immediately labeled what was just good government as a progressive initiative,” he said during an interview with a local newspaper. A better approach, he says, would have been to find Republican cosponsors for the changes, which would have been part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act.
His scientific colleagues are cheering him on. Suzanne Staggs, a cosmologist at Princeton University who worked for Gollin briefly as a graduate student and who responded to his appeal for campaign donations, doesn't expect Gollin to explicitly champion scientific research. But she resonates with his scientist's worldview. "I felt that he would think about things the way I would," Staggs says, "i.e., reasonably logically and demanding evidence and so on." Although many physicists may come across as dry and reserved, she says, Gollin is "enthusiastic and vibrant."
Gollin's scientific connections appear to be helping him. Three-quarters of his donors are scientists, according to federal election data. And while Gollin certainly appreciates their support, his overall war chest of $400,000 falls well short of the $725,000 that Callis has raised.
Gollin is currently on unpaid leave from the university. Observers say that he’s running a solid campaign—pressing the flesh in 16-hour days and using a small army of volunteers to help him get out his message.
“I mention George when I talk about scientists and engineering getting involved in the political process,” says Shane Trimmer, executive director of Franklin’s List, a new nonpartisan political action committee (PAC) that hopes to recruit and support candidates with scientific backgrounds.
The PAC was the brainchild of one of two physicists now in the House, Representative Bill Foster (D–IL), who teamed up with a third physicist-turned-legislator, retired Representative Vern Ehlers (R–MI). Gollin and Foster go way back: Gollin says he tried to hire Foster as his first postdoc at UIUC, but Foster instead took a job at Fermilab. Foster did not respond to requests for comment about Gollin’s campaign, but Gollin says he has sought Foster’s advice.
Gollin has also won the support of a dozen Nobel laureates in science and economics. But he knows that basic research isn’t what voters want to hear about.
“If people ask me why a particle physicist is running for Congress, I tell them that I come from a culture of teaching and research and that I’m familiar with addressing complicated problems,” he says. “I also tell them that I’ve spent my entire career fixing things that are broken.”