ScienceInsider’s coverage of the 2018 U.S. elections has featured profiles of several candidates with scientific backgrounds running for the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as stories about the challenges those candidates have faced on the campaign trail. This week, we will be profiling three more candidates appearing on the 6 November ballot. Today’s story looks at what those who lost in the primaries are doing now and what they have learned from their experience.
Biochemist Molly Sheehan is finishing her postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania. Jason Westin has resumed running clinical trials and is seeing a full load of patients at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.
Physicist Elaine DiMasi is looking for a job that taps her 20 years of experience as a project manager at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. Epidemiologist Eric Ding is planning to continue his public health advocacy while he’s a visiting scientist at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. And mathematician Mary Wilson continues to be pastor of her nondenominational church in Austin.
It wasn’t long ago that these five scientists were running flat-out for a seat in the House. They were part of a wave of Democrats hoping their scientific training could help the party recapture the House and oppose the agenda of President Donald Trump and the Republican majority in Congress. But all of them lost in their state’s primary elections earlier this year—and within weeks they had returned to the world they knew before taking their first stab at electoral politics.
Not Phil Janowicz. The former chemistry professor at California State University in Fullerton also lost his primary—but he’s still consumed by electoral politics. Rather than stumping for himself, however, Janowicz is working to elect Gil Cisneros, the Democrat standard bearer for California’s 39th congressional district in next month’s general election. He’s also drawing on his experience as a first-time House candidate to educate other novices about running for office.
A life-changing experience
Using a broad definition of a scientist, Science identified 47 candidates seeking a House seat this year who had training or work experience in a scientific, technical, or health field. Of those, 30 didn’t make it past their state’s primary election. They learned the hard way that their resumes and stances on particular issues were often less important than high name recognition, strong ties to party regulars, and access to a large pool of donors and cash. Most science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) candidates lacked all three.
For each of these scientists, running for Congress was a life-altering experience. But each House race is unique, and every candidate walked away with a slightly different take-home message.
Westin, for instance, was disappointed when he finished third in the March Democratic primary for the seventh congressional district in Houston. He can’t shake the feeling that an attack on one of his opponents by the national Democratic party, just days before the primary, generated a backlash that carried her past him and into a run-off election against the top Democratic vote getter.
Although that outside intervention left a bitter taste in Westin’s mouth, within 2 weeks he was back at work, reclaiming duties he had ceded to colleagues when he cut back to 1 day a week to conduct his campaign. His patients took a little longer to adjust to his defeat.
“I’d come in to talk about their treatments,” he says, “and they wanted to talk about how they were disappointed I had lost. I had to say, ‘Let’s talk about your cancer first.’”
Even so, Westin says his year on the campaign trail made him a public figure and created “this public side to my persona. Now, I’m seen as someone who has worn multiple hats. And the political hat has not disappeared just because I’m no longer a candidate.”
That exposure could make it easier to run for office again, he acknowledges. “I was on TV, I was endorsed by the local [Houston] paper, I’m recognized by people at the grocery store, and my connection to political powerbrokers and potential donors has been strengthened,” he says.
His defeat taught him a hard but important lesson. “For a scientist wondering how to lower those barriers, the only way to do that is to run,” he says. “Until you put your foot in the water, there’s no way to judge how warm it is.”
DiMasi found those waters to be quite chilly. An experimental physicist who studies the structure of materials, DiMasi decided to take on her local Republican congressman, Representative Lee Zeldin, because of his vocal support for Trump and his stance on any number of issues about which she cared deeply, from protecting the environment to health care and immigration.
But DiMasi had no ties to local political groups in New York’s first congressional district, no network of potential donors, and no clue how to run a campaign. Those were insurmountable obstacles to getting out her message, and she finished last among five Democrats in the June primary. Equally important, she realized afterward that she didn’t much like retail politics, including the give and take of wooing voters and the bravado needed to convince volunteers and donors they were backing a winner.
Having left Brookhaven to run, she’s now looking for a job. She wondered whether to list her campaign on her resume, worrying that her political advocacy might turn off some prospective employers. But she decided to include it because, “That’s part of who I am and what I’ve done.”
Her need for a steady income has prevented her from doing more to help the Democratic nominee, Perry Gershon, who faces an uphill battle in the solidly Republican district. Her chosen profession also puts a damper on any type of political activity, she notes.
“Being a scientist is not a part-time job,” she says. “Aside from working for the government [which precludes partisan political activity], any job that I take will probably consume all of my time. It’s not like being an attorney, where you can take off a year or work part time so that you can run or get involved in a political campaign.”
Several of the defeated candidates expressed a similar regret. They say the reward system in science is antithetical to anyone thinking about entering politics.
“The legal world, for example, values service in other areas and understands the importance of having an impact on policy questions,” notes Eric Ding, a public health epidemiologist who lost in the Democrat primary to represent the 10th congressional district in and around Harrisburg. “In academia, the thing that matters most is your next grant. And publishing is seen as the only way to engage with the public.”
Ding says that wasn’t the case for him at Harvard, where he says departmental leaders encouraged his forays into public health advocacy. Ding has resumed a position there as a visiting scientist after leaving to run for office. And he’s not sure what lies ahead. “I’m not a traditional academic scientist,” he says, “and I still have political aspirations.”
Sheehan’s decision to run for Congress was a reaction to “getting kicked in the gut” by the 2016 election. And the political novice got a few breaks early on: The Democratic front-runner bowed out after he was accused of sexual harassment as a state legislator, and the incumbent Republican decided not to run and later resigned, after having used congressional funds to settle a harassment complaint. Then a court declared Pennsylvania’s current congressional districts were illegal and came up with a new map that reshuffled the political deck.
The realignment turned a yearlong marathon campaign into a 10-week sprint for her and nine other Democrats running in the newly drawn fifth congressional district outside of Philadelphia. Sheehan finished fourth, behind two lawyers with large war chests and a longtime politico.
She gave herself 6 weeks to decompress before returning to Brian Chow’s laboratory to churn out some papers before her postdoc ends in December. And that’s as far as she can see at the moment. “It’s not something that I can put my family through again at this point,” she says about another run for office.
Her academic career is also on hold. “It made sense for me to finish up and leave because I’m not going to be applying for any faculty positions next year,” she says about what had once been her obvious next career move. And she understands that most academic employers would expect her to be devoted to her career.
“I’d be less sure about leaving bench science if there was the possibility of finding a part-time position,” she muses. But given the tight job market, she doesn’t think such an arrangement is realistic.
She hasn’t lost her interest in civic engagement, however. Next year, she hopes to work with area high schools setting up STEM incubators for their students. And she sees a silver lining in her race: Both candidates in the general election are women, assuring an end to Pennsylvania’s current all-male, 18-member delegation.
Start sooner next time
Wilson pulled off a stunning upset in the March Texas primary over Joseph Kopser, who had outspent her by a 20-to-one margin and who enjoyed the backing of the political establishment. But she received only 31% of the vote in a four-person field to win the Democratic nomination for the 21st congressional district. That result triggered a runoff 2 months later in which Kopser’s enormous advantages in resources, visibility, and volunteers translated into an easy victory in a district that stretches from Austin to San Antonio, Texas, and encompasses a large rural area to the west.
In hindsight, Wilson says she should have realized that the first round of voting represented a political high-water mark for a campaign built on her progressive stances and outsider status. If she were ever to do it again, she says, she’d start preparations a lot sooner and cast a much broader net.
“You need to anticipate not 2 years in advance, but maybe 4 years in advance,” she says of running for office. “That gives you 2 years to cultivate the support of party officials, both local and national. Those contacts can help you cultivate the support of high-end donors even before you declare.”
That those relationships also need to be mutually beneficial, she says. Immediately after her defeat, Wilson criticized the party’s national campaign organization, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), for trying to push district voters toward Kopser in the runoff.
Five months later, on the eve of the general election, she feels the DCCC has failed to capitalize on the enthusiasm that she and other House candidates throughout the state had generated among rank-and-file voters. “I think they were not prepared for the energy shown by the average person who wanted to get involved,” she says. “They need to pay more attention to what is happening at the grassroots level.”
Where can I sign up?
Janowicz was also the victim of some sharp elbows thrown by national Democratic party leaders trying to winnow the field in advance of the California primary on 5 June. The DCCC’s goal was to prevent Republicans from taking the top two slots and shutting Democrats out of the general election.
Janowicz bowed to that pressure, ending his yearlong campaign just 3 weeks before voters went to the polls. Even so, he has been bitten by the political bug in a way that promises to change his life.
“The night of the primary, Gil’s campaign called me and invited me to their victory party,” Janowicz says. “We talked for 45 minutes. And the next day I signed up with his campaign.”
And that’s not all. Janowicz is also director of the newly created Democratic Unity Center in Brea, California. Its goal is to coordinate the field activities of area candidates at all levels, as well as offer instruction to those thinking of taking the plunge. “This is how the blue wave gets created,” says Janowicz, who is also trying to raise enough money to support the fledgling organization through election day.
Janowicz honed his fundraising skills during his campaign, which required him to spend several hours every day calling up potential donors. He got pretty good at it, but his war chest never matched those of his opponents, including Cisneros, a U.S. Navy veteran who became a philanthropist after winning a $266 million lottery jackpot in 2010.
After dropping out, Janowicz immediately channeled his energy into a failed effort to prevent a Democratic state senator in the district from being recalled as part of a Republican backlash against a gasoline tax. Since then he has plunged even deeper into local party affairs, becoming a member of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and, somewhat ironically, serving on its endorsement committee.
“I am certainly not done with electoral politics,” Janowicz says about his own political ambitions. “But I don’t what the next step might be.”
A Cisneros victory next month could create an opportunity, he admits. “Everybody needs a good science adviser.”