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Joseph Kopser, a U.S. Army veteran and entrepreneur with an engineering degree, is running as a Democrat in Texass 21st congressional district, a Republican stronghold.

John Davidson

Aerospace engineer and ‘clean energy warrior’ eyes Texas congressional seat

Starting this month, ScienceInsider will be following the 2018 U.S. elections, which have attracted unusual interest from the scientific community. Dozens of candidates with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math are seeking election to Congress, and hundreds more are running for state and local offices. We will be profiling candidates and reporting on news from the campaign trail.

This story is the third in a three-part series about three Texas candidates with scientific backgrounds who are running for the U.S. House of Representatives as Democrats. The primary is 6 March.

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS—Joseph Kopser prides himself on seizing opportunities and making his own luck. But he’s also had a lot of help. He credits his mentors in the U.S. Army for giving him a chance to become “a clean energy warrior” during a 20-year career. And he says he couldn’t have started a successful ride-matching company without his degree in aerospace engineering from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York.

Now, Kopser hopes to help Democrats regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives by winning a congressional seat in south central Texas that has been solidly Republican for decades. To do so, he must first defeat three Democratic challengers. Some observers say his significantly larger campaign chest makes him the favorite in the race. And if they are right that fundraising is the key to victory, then Kopser will need to thank people like Elise Boyan.

Boyan is a longtime Democratic party activist and former classmate of Barack Obama at Harvard Law School. In 2007, she not only worked as a volunteer on Obama’s presidential campaign, she also hosted the then–Illinois senator, who gave a stump speech in the front yard of her home in a tiny San Antonio neighborhood.

This year, Boyan is firmly in Kopser’s camp. She’s given his primary campaign $2700—the legal maximum—to help him become a fundraising juggernaut. Through December 2017, Kopsar had piled up nearly $700,000, giving him at least a 10-to-1 money advantage over his three Democratic opponents.

Assuming Kopser can win the primary, he may need to add another zero to that total to stay competitive in the general election against whichever Republican emerges from an 18-person field. His opponent will be trying to succeed Representative Lamar Smith (R), the bête noire of the U.S. research community. Smith has earned their enmity for his questioning of scientific peer review and his doubts about climate change, positions he has espoused as chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. But Smith announced last November that he would not seek re-election to a seat he’s held since 1986.

Most politicos expect the district, a classic gerrymander by the state legislature that stretches from Austin to San Antonio and includes parts of the deeply conservative hill country, to remain in Republican hands. But Kopser believes that his combination of military service, entrepreneurship, and civic engagement will appeal to enough mainstream Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans to overturn that conventional wisdom. And when Joseph Kopser believes something, he acts on it.

“I don’t wait for somebody to invite me,” he says. “When I see a problem, I go after it.”

A bolt of lightning

The problem that spurred Kopser to become a first-time candidate was what he calls “the current stagnation in [Washington,] D.C., [caused] by professional politicians. They are getting nothing done but preserving their jobs and pleasing their corporate sponsors.” He sees his candidacy as “a calling to service,” answering a plea from voters “disgusted with politics, who just want government to work again.”

Toward that end, Kopser hopes residents of the 21st district will place pragmatism above party affiliation. Unlike the slogans of his Democratic opponents—one labels himself “a progressive Democrat,” another “a real Democrat fighting for real change”—Kopser bills himself as “an independent leader” with “an ability to analyze problems and marshal resources to enact positive change.” That stance has earned him the status as the most centrist Democrat in the field.

Speaking at a recent candidates’ forum here, Kopser was asked to respond to an opponent’s barb that he was actually “Republican-lite.” Kopser acknowledged being a Republican “in the 1980s [he was born in 1971 and grew up in Lexington, Kentucky], when it was easy to be one by default.” But he bashed the “trickle-down” economic theory of then-President Ronald Reagan and said that “the values that thrive in the Democratic party are near and dear to my heart.”

Kopser relishes ticking off incidents from his past that he says give him the skills needed to be an effective member of Congress. The 1993 West Point graduate was serving as company commander of a motor pool in Fort Hood, Texas, when a fleet of 15-passenger vans pulled up. A young woman in civilian clothes jumped out, he recalls, “and behind her, like geese in a V formation, were all these generals and colonels.”

When Kopser inquired after the VIP visitor, he was told that she was a senior aide on a congressional committee checking on the Army’s state of readiness. “And it struck me like a lightning bolt that, no matter how much we do in the military, in the end it’s the civilian government that makes the final decisions. I said, ‘I have to study up on this.’” So he earned an MBA from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and returned to West Point to teach cadets U.S. government and politics.

Several years later, after a 14-month tour of duty in Iraq, Kopser was working at the Pentagon and wanted to cut down on his commuting time. “A buddy of mine heard I was building this optimization tool to help people make better use of their transit options and he said to me, ‘Hey, we could turn that into a company. Lots of people would want to use it.’ I said, ‘I don’t know anything about building a company. I’m in the U.S. Army.’ And he said, ‘You have the soul of an entrepreneur, and you’re an engineer. I’ll build the company around you.’”

After moving to Austin in 2011, Kopser turned the idea into a technology platform called RideScout. In 2016, the company was bought by a subsidiary of automotive giant Daimler AG, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz.

Kopser’s work on mobility drew him into a political fight in Austin over regulating ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft. In 2015, Kopser joined with industry and business leaders in opposing the city’s decision to require fingerprinting of the company’s drivers. The companies managed to put a referendum on the ballot that would ease the rule, but voters rejected it and the companies pulled out.

Kopser says neither the companies nor the local politicians were willing to accept a compromise that he proposed. But he also supported the referendum, which he says was wrongly characterized as “an example of a corporate takeover of Austin.” The state later overturned the city’s actions, and both companies have resumed operations.

Immigration is another issue that Kopser says is ripe for his type of pragmatism. The current U.S. immigration system needs to be reformed, he says. But he criticizes President Donald Trump for using “terrible phrases and imagery” that have tainted the debate by convincing people that immigrants “are taking away American jobs.” The reality, he says, is that people are losing jobs because of automation and a lack of relevant skills.

“There are 18,000 jobs open in San Antonio, and 40,000 jobs in Austin,” he asserts. “But it’s easier to scapegoat an immigrant than to say that my high school education is probably not cutting it anymore,” Kopser says providing more support for vocational training could diffuse the immigration debate and make it easier for Congress to find a solution.

A new generation

Soon after Kopser decided to run, he gained the support—and endorsement—of 314 Action, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., formed to help scientists and engineers run for elected office. The organization says that anyone with at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering or the natural sciences fits into its target population.

“We want to see problem solvers in office,” says Shaughnessy Naughton, the group’s founder who holds an undergraduate degree in chemistry. “People trained in the scientific method, I think, are uniquely qualified to get over the dysfunction that is so pervasive in Congress. And they do it not from an ideological perspective, but in looking at the facts and figuring out the solution.”

That description seems tailor-made for someone like Kopser, who has never done any bench science. And 314 Action liked his willingness to take on Smith. “That was a big lift. It’s hard to unseat a 30-year incumbent who has been given a pass for too long,” says Naughton, who has twice run unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for a House seat in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her organization was also impressed that Kopser had raised more money than Smith did once he entered the race.

Kopser says that money is simply a means to an end in politics. “You need money to advertise, to capture the attention of the great majority of voters who don’t follow politics like they do, say, sports.” He attributes his fundraising prowess to having a strong organization, an appealing message, and a solid track record. In return, he says, money gives a candidate clout.

“For me, the whole issue was getting a new generation of leadership into public service,” Kopser says. “Lamar Smith happened to be the first one we decided to run against. And after we out-fundraised him for two quarters in a row, he decides to drop out. So, in that respect we’ve already accomplished one goal, to get rid of Lamar Smith. Now, we are working on the second goal, to elect a better government.”