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Mary Wilson, a former mathematics professor turned minister, is hoping to win the Democratic nomination in the 21st congressional district in central Texas. But the field is crowded.

Mary Wilson campaign

In Texas election, a mathematician turned minister looks for winning formula

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 second 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.

AUSTIN—Can a former mathematics professor turned minister with no political experience, little money, and a very progressive agenda be elected to Congress in a solidly Republican district? Mary Wilson, who is running as a Democrat for the U.S. House of Representatives from the 21st congressional district in central Texas, hopes the answer is yes.

Wilson, 58, sees her career as ideal training for what she thinks is now lacking in Washington, D.C.—greater compassion and the ability to listen to those with opposing views. Since 2002 she has led a small church here that also hosts monthly sabbath services for Jewish congregants, Friday prayers for a group of female Muslim worshippers, and an alternative school. Before that she spent 2 decades as a professor and administrator at Austin Community College (ACC), helping a diverse group of students take their first step into careers in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics field.

In both jobs she focused on helping people in need. “I’m a politician who comes from a people background,” she explained at one recent candidates’ forum. “Everything I have done in my career has involved meeting people, sometimes in the worst times, and trying to get them to a better place.”

She knows it won’t be easy to get to her next destination—the halls of Congress. Her campaign is not on the same scale as what her three Democratic opponents are waging. She has raised relatively little money, and as a result she lacks what money buys in a modern campaign: a paid staff and office space, a large network of volunteers knocking on doors, and a sophisticated social media presence.

“I guess $100,000 would be great,” she says, a big jump from the $19,000 she raised and spent through the end of 2017—and a tiny fraction of the $678,000 one opponent—clean transit entrepreneur Joseph Kopser—has amassed. “Of course, that’s an obscene amount. And I don’t know that money is what wins an election.”

Even her approach to fundraising is unorthodox. Instead of simply appealing to a voter’s desire to help her gain office, she encourages donors to match contributions to her campaign with an equal gift to their favorite charity. “I’m pretty good at raising money for a cause,” she notes. “But asking people to give me money is a new skill that I need to learn.” And if they ask for suggestions, she’ll mention, which provides support for low-income communities around the world to practice self-sustaining agriculture and commerce.

Math as a foundation

Wilson grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, with one parent a Republican and the other a Democrat. Her family was deeply religious, and she attended Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, where she met her ex-husband. Following their graduation, she taught secondary school math as the couple moved around the country in step with his career in finance.

Mary Wilson (left) with her spouse, Betty McDaniel (right), on a hiking trip in Peru.

Mary Wilson campaign

Relocating to Austin in 1987 from upstate New York, Wilson began a Ph.D. program at the University of Texas (UT) here. But she says it wasn’t easy being a part-time graduate student with two small children in a top-ranked mathematics department. And after a few semesters as an adjunct at ACC she began to rethink her educational goals.

“I loved mathematics, but I realized that research wasn’t my thing,” she says. “I decided that UT wasn’t the right fit for me. And when a full-time position came open at ACC, I took it and found I really enjoyed it. Instead of standing in front of a big lecture hall of freshmen, I was working with 20 or 30 students from all backgrounds who wanted to learn math and really appreciated my help.”

After coming out as a lesbian in the 1990s, she made sure that her office was a safe space for LBGTQ students. She also began taking classes herself, at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary just down the road from the college. She says the philosophy and theology courses were very compatible with her mathematical training, and once she was ordained she took over a small and progressive congregation affiliated with the United Church of Christ.

The switch from teaching calculus to preaching social justice has gone smoothly and been very rewarding, she says. But after the 2016 election, she felt the need to do more. “I’ve taught, I’ve been a minister, I’ve lobbied in the state legislature,” she told herself. “What else can I do?”

A series of comments from the longtime incumbent, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chairman of the House science committee, convinced her that “he doesn’t believe in science. He’s also said that the only place we can get the unvarnished truth is from the president. I beg to disagree.”

Her answer was to run for his seat. (Smith has since announced his retirement.) She launched her campaign in April 2017, and since then has juggled her duties as pastor of “an open and affirming church” with the insatiable demands on her time as a candidate. “I think my congregation has been getting the short end of the stick,” she confesses. Even so, she has struggled to build recognition in a Democratic primary with three strong challengers—Kopser, Derrick Crowe, and Elliott McFadden.

Given her limited resources, endorsements from political activists could help amplify her message. But securing them has been an uphill path. For example, by the time she had declared, 314 Action—a national nonprofit group trying to get more scientists to run for public office—had already decided to back Kopser.

Closer to home, she also came up short in seeking the backing of the Stonewall Democrats of Austin and San Antonio, Texas, two gay advocacy groups. “One might assume I’d be the natural choice,” she says, “but it doesn’t always work that way.”

The San Antonio group, for example, applauded her listing of “equity, education, and health care” as her top priorities, but threw its support behind Crowe. “He’s been working [Bexar County] endorsements really hard,” she notes, “so I’m disappointed but not surprised.”

Wilson is hoping none of her opponents captures a majority of votes in the 6 March primary, and that by finishing no worse than second she can participate in a two-person runoff in May. In the meantime, she says she’s buoyed by audience members coming up to her at candidate forums and telling her, “We can tell you care. If people meet you, they will vote for you.”