Chrissy Houlahan makes her pitch to voters in Pennsylvania’s sixth congressional district.

Kelly Schulz

How a Pennsylvania industrial engineer became the odds-on favorite to win a seat in Congress

Pennsylvania is a key battleground in the fight for control of the next Congress, and scientists are in the middle of that fight. In February, the state’s highest court threw out a Republican-drawn map of the state’s 18 congressional districts and installed one that, for the most part, eliminates partisan gerrymandering. Those new districts helped push some Republican incumbents into retirement, while at the same time prompting many first-time Democratic candidates to run for seats that now appear winnable.

The result is a political free-for-all in which veteran campaign watchers are hedging their bets on who the winners might be. “I haven’t seen a single poll, and without a poll, you can’t begin to make a guess,” says political scientist Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College (F&M) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs and runs the F&M Poll. A crowded field, he says, simply adds to the confusion.

This story is the second in a three-part series on candidates with considerable scientific training who are running as Democrats for the U.S. House of Representatives in Pennsylvania. Their first test is the 15 May primary.

Follow our rolling coverage of 2018’s science candidates

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—Before Chrissy Houlahan decided to run for Congress in southeastern Pennsylvania, she made a list of things she felt anyone serving in that body needed to understand. At the top were how to protect the country, how to grow the economy, and how to educate the nation’s children.

Houlahan, who holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and a master’s degree in technology policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, realized she was well-suited to tackle all three questions with her experience as a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, an executive with two successful startup companies, and a chemistry teacher in an urban high school. But before throwing her hat into the ring, Houlahan applied one more lesson from her time in the classroom, on the job, and in the military: She gamed out a way to win the election.

Some 15 months later, Houlahan has implemented that plan to perfection. Thanks in part to a near-flawless campaign and prodigious fundraising, she is now the only Democrat on the 15 May primary ballot for Pennsylvania’s sixth congressional district (PA-6), an area southwest of here. Because of some good fortune, she’s also a heavy favorite to win the general election in November for what is now an open seat.

The 50-year-old Houlahan says she isn’t afraid of competition. “But it’s very draining if there are lots of us [Democrats] fighting among ourselves” in the primary election, she notes. And although she says her ultimate goal is to turn the district “from a red dot to a blue dot,” it’s no secret that she wants to be that blue dot.

“Our system is in desperate straits, and you can either run away and hide or try to be part of the solution,” she says. When asked why she chose Congress for her first foray into politics, rather than a local post, she doesn’t mince words. “I don’t have time for that. The stakes are too high, and I think I’m qualified.”

No more flying solo

Ask Houlahan about her childhood, and her answer—“I grew up everywhere”—reflects her military upbringing. Houlahan’s father and one of her grandfathers were U.S. Navy pilots, and her dad’s job flying P-3 Orion antisubmarine reconnaissance planes meant the family would always be along the water. By the time she was a teenager, Houlahan was a certified scuba diver, an open-water swimmer, and a budding marine biologist. Her easy access to both oceans and sky, combined with a strong parental push to study science, led her to put astronaut at the top of her career choices.

In her mind, the process began by becoming a pilot. She won an Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship to attend Stanford. However, the military was not welcome on campus when she arrived there in 1985. So every Friday, Houlahan was one of 20 Stanford undergraduates who would pile into cars and drive 40 kilometers to San Jose State University for daylong training.

Hostility to the military wasn’t the only obstacle she had to overcome. Engineering classes were typically offered Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—and Houlahan said Stanford made no attempt to accommodate the ROTC students who would be absent. “So ROTC meant you were basically missing one-third of your classes, for 4 years,” she recalls. “And that made it pretty hard to be a very good student.”

The size of the ROTC class would eventually dwindle to four, with Houlahan as the only woman. And although her military heritage helped her persevere—“I knew exactly what I was setting myself up for,” she says—she made an unorthodox decision when the Air Force offered her one of its highly competitive slots for pilot training.

“I turned them down,” she says. “I had already started dating my husband and was hoping that we would end up making a life together. I had grown up in a wandering lifestyle in which we moved every year. He wasn’t going into the military, and I visualized what his life would be like if I were in the military.”

Her classmates and Air Force officials couldn’t believe it, she recalls. “I remember the Air Force was pretty disappointed, and my ROTC cadre was stunned. But it was a lifestyle choice. And we’ve been married for 28 years, so I think I made the right one.”

After graduation, Houlahan spent 3 years at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Massachusetts, which focuses on electronic communications systems. There she worked on air and space defense technologies “one or more generations in the future.” The challenges included figuring out “what types of information people need, and in what order, and with what visual displays, when ballistic missiles are raining down on you” and “how to communicate in a postnuclear war environment.”

Corner office to the classroom

After leaving the military, she made use of her MIT degree, which combined business and engineering courses, to help her husband run a fledgling sports apparel company, AND1. The startup, based here, soon grew to rival industry leader Nike. Its socially responsible benefits included 40 hours of paid community service annually for every employee, which Houlahan invariably used to improve educational opportunities for underserved populations. “And for me,” she says, “that meant women and girls in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] and communities of color.”

Eventually, she decided that she needed to experience the problems facing the nation’s public schools before she could hope to have any impact. So she left an executive position at another startup her husband had co-founded and enrolled in a program for lifelong learners at the University of Pennsylvania, retaking chemistry and taking biology for the first time. She also was accepted into Teach for America, an on-the-job training program that placed her at Simon Gratz High School, a storied but troubled school here.

For someone used to working in a corner office, Simon Gratz was an eye-opening experience. “We had some labs, but we didn’t have access to them for most of the year,” she says. A bigger problem, she soon realized, was that “teaching science to kids who are reading really, really below grade level is an impossibility. And my kids were reading at the third or fourth grade level.”

Although Teach for America fellows, who are often fresh out of college, must stay in the classroom for 2 years to earn their teaching degree, Houlahan left the program after 1 year. She had learned enough, she says, to understand the importance of literacy in tackling many of the problems facing urban schools. She then joined Springboard Collaborative, a nonprofit based here that aims to improve literacy by creating a year-round learning environment for students that extends into the home and community.

A wall of money

Houlahan says that she and her husband have emphasized to their three children, now adults, the importance of putting their talents to the “highest, best use.” After Donald Trump was elected president, she says, she applied that imperative to herself.

“I was raised to respect the democratic process, and the will of the people, and whoever is your commander in chief,” she says. “And this was the first time that I felt I couldn’t do that.”

Anticipating that her response to that dilemma might lead her into electoral politics, Houlahan spent the next 3 months exploring what it would take to run a campaign. One day, she appended a note to a fundraising solicitation from Emily’s List, a nonprofit that supports women running for office and to which she regularly donated small amounts. “I want to run for Congress,” she wrote. “What does it take?”

Once she made up her mind, Houlahan hit the ground running. She wanted to learn as much as possible about the district. She also wanted to raise enough money to scare off any challengers.

“I wanted to put up as big a defense as I could,” she says, “because it doesn’t do anybody any good to fight among ourselves.” Her strategy has been wildly successful: As of 31 March, Houlahan had raised $2 million, a staggering haul for a political novice in the run-up to a primary.

Raising vast amounts is “a necessary evil” for first-time candidates like herself who need to introduce themselves to potential voters, she says. “But it’s also a big part of what’s broken in campaigning.” If voters send her to Washington, D.C., she promises to seek ways “to lessen the role of money and increase transparency in campaigning.”

Houlahan has also benefited from forces beyond her control. The two-term incumbent Republican who holds the seat, Representative Ryan Costello, dropped out of the race a week after the 20 March filing deadline. That leaves Greg McCauley, a tax lawyer and neophyte candidate, as the only eligible Republican.

In another stroke of good luck for Houlahan, the district in which she is running has become decidedly more Democratic since she declared her candidacy. In January 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out a map apportioning all 18 congressional seats that was created by the state’s Republican-led legislature. The old PA-6 was nearly evenly split between those who voted for Trump and those who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. But Democrats enjoy a 10-point advantage in the newly redrawn district. As a result, political handicappers have shifted the seat from a toss-up to likely Democrat.

If Houlahan wins, she will be looking for opportunities to promote her ideas on national security, the economy, and education. She says she’s “pro-business” but progressive on social issues. She’d also like to explore ways to shorten the campaign season—and lessen the incessant need to raise money.

“I have been campaigning for 18 months for a job that, if I win, I will hold for 2 years,” she says wearily. “And as near as I can tell, I’ll start fundraising to get re-elected the day after I’m sworn in.”

Even so, Houlahan is looking forward to meeting some kindred spirits in Washington, D.C. “I’m hopeful that, if I get elected, there will be a lot of people like me who want to be part of a wave of change. And if there are enough of us, maybe we’ll have the opportunity to make a difference.”

*Correction, 9 May, 10:53 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct Houlahan's age.