Volcanologist Jess Phoenix has spent the past 14 months battling a U.S. political system she says rewards candidates who raise the most money over those who propose creative solutions to the country’s myriad problems. And on 5 June, she says, that system “chewed me up and spit me out.”
The voters’ harsh verdict—Phoenix finished a distant fourth in last week’s Democratic primary for the 25th congressional district in Southern California—has sated her hunger for elective office. But she remains eager to get back to her science—and to share what she’s learned with anyone who is serious about changing the system.
“I’m not going away,” vows the 36-year-old. “It would have been great to continue along the process. But there is also something quite liberating about not running for office.”
Stumbling out of the gate
In November 2016, Phoenix was running the nonprofit Blueprint Earth project—an attempt to record the biological, geological, and chemical footprints under, on, and above a 1-square-kilometer plot in California’s Mojave Desert. But President Donald Trump’s victory—and the re-election of Republican Representative Steve Knight to a third, 2-year term—made her decide she could be more useful in Washington, D.C.
“I saw this assault on facts and the truth,” she recalls. “The whole point of being a scientist is to try and figure out the truth about the universe and what we can prove. And what we see from Trump and from my opponent [Knight] is this denial of truth and alt-facts. It’s kind of frightening.”
That compelled her to throw her hat into the ring against Knight. But it didn’t suddenly make her a viable candidate. She still needed money to get out her message, and in an expensive market such as Southern California, anything less than $1 million would put her at a distinct disadvantage. She also wanted to run a grassroots campaign radically different from traditional electioneering.
Unfortunately, she now admits, she stumbled badly after declaring her candidacy in April 2017. “At the start, I was still listening to the traditional political advice I was getting,” she says. “I got a lot of great press after I declared. But my consultants didn’t even let me get on social media until September, so I wasn’t allowed to capitalize on that great start.”
Instead, she was told to call all the people she knew and ask them to donate. But dialing for dollars, she says, doesn’t work when you’re reaching out to other scientists.
“My network had a limited amount of money in it. I had already told [my consultants] that, and by the time they said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re right,’ we had already lost that wave of excitement from when I first announced. We could have had an amazing fundraising quarter, and we didn’t.”
She eventually raised nearly a half-million dollars, but it was only in the past few months that she managed to put together a team and a strategy that reflected her core values. And there was never enough money for an end-of-campaign mailer or polling that might have swayed undecided voters.
A flawed fundraising strategy wasn’t her only handicap. “I didn’t have a developed network from which to launch a campaign,” she confesses. She wishes she had started laying the groundwork for her campaign several months earlier, and regrets not meeting with local Democratic clubs or local chapters of the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters.
“My first campaign manager referred to local activists as whacktivists,” she says. “The entire team told me I didn’t need to spend any time going to these types of meeting. I understand that wisdom for most candidates—if you’re a lawyer, you generally do not have a unique message. But if you’re a scientist, and are good at communicating and passionate and involved in the community on a particular issue, like reproductive rights or the environment, you need to cultivate those relationships at the same time you are trying to raise money. I think that’s the winning combination.”
Staying in motion
Phoenix thinks her failure to build early support from local activists partially explains the disappointing results; she took just 6% of the vote. Knight collected 53%, a tally not surprising for an incumbent, whereas housing activist Katie Hill won 20% to squeeze past Bryan Caforio and claim the second spot in California’s top-two primary system.
On the other hand, Phoenix admits that a slow-and-steady approach doesn’t come naturally to her. “I just don’t have the patience,” she says. “I had enough trouble to hang onto a race for 14 months. I’m a doer, and we doers don’t like that waiting, waiting, waiting.”
Her background reflects that need for constant stimulation. She discovered geology while earning an undergraduate degree in history from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Then she spent a few years as a veterinary technician before realizing, “You can’t save them all.” She moved to Arizona “because I had had enough snow and gray to last me a lifetime,” and worked as an archivist. During a brief first marriage, she followed her husband, who worked in entertainment, to Los Angeles, California.
That’s also where she returned to her love of geology. She raced through a master’s degree at California State University in Los Angeles, volunteering at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory and going on a cruise to study the geochemistry of the undersea mantle. She did fieldwork on Mexican volcanoes for a doctoral program at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. But she left the program without completing her dissertation after a falling out with her adviser. Then it was back to Southern California, where she and her new husband founded Blueprint Earth. Along the way, she acquired a new last name.
“My husband’s name was Carlos Palaez,” she explains. “After we got married we went by Palaez for quite a while. But we do a lot of public speaking, and people would introduce me with, ‘And here’s Jess,’ and then their voice would just trail off. Nobody could say it, and it’s hard to spell.
“So we decided to create a new name. I loved living in Phoenix, Arizona, and we liked the idea of rebirth, of creating something new from something else. And it still begins with the letter P.”
The need for change
Speaking just a few days after the primary, Phoenix was literally picking up the pieces of her former life. That meant recycling all the cardboard Amazon prime boxes that had accumulated at her house in Los Angeles County during the campaign—her rural town doesn’t have curbside pickup—and assembling new patio furniture in time for summer. Most of all, she was eager to return to her work as a scientist, science communicator, and environmental activist. This week, she started to analyze data collected during five field expeditions for Blueprint Earth that she missed while on the campaign trail.
“I was fine with putting all that on hold for a purpose,” she says. “Defeating Knight and winning a seat on the House [of Representatives] science committee—that would have been a good reason to put my work on hold. But to run again, after the voters had said, ‘No, that’s not what we want,’ that doesn’t appeal to me.”
“Unlike most people who run for office, I love what I do. So why would I want to do something else, when there are other people who want to run, who have the funding and the networks, and who don’t have to kill themselves to do it?”
Nor does she plan to use her campaign to launch a career in politics. “It’s not my thing,” she says. “I just want to solve problems.”
At the same time, she says her defeat “should not discourage other scientists from getting involved. There’s nobody who’s equipped to speak about science policy issues as well as a scientist can.”
But first, they must get elected. And that, she says, will require changing the current metric that equates fundraising prowess with a candidate’s viability. “The system is so f---ed up,” she says. “If you keep electing people whose only qualification is that they have raised a ton of money, you will keep wondering why nothing is changing.”
Despite the disappointing results, her experience running for Congress has whetted her appetite for a greater role in national science policy debates. “I now have a voice, and a platform, and it’s a national-scale thing,” she says. “I can advocate for things I think are worthy and continue to be a good communicator for science.
“You need people who are willing to get out in front and say, ‘Hey, this is important,’” she adds. “And if nothing else, my run has made people very aware that scientists can engage politically.”