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 & 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 first 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.
HAVERFORD TOWNSHIP, PENNSYLVANIA—Molly Sheehan relishes going rogue as she runs for a U.S. congressional seat from suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, right down to wearing an outdated campaign button on her blouse.
A postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) who designs proteins for possible use in treating cancer, Sheehan has ignored conventional wisdom about the importance of raising tons of money to spread her message that she’s “a mother, a bioengineer, [and a] proud progressive.” Instead, she’s urging scientists and others in the community to offer their considerable skills to work for candidates they support. She also discounts the value of endorsements from establishment figures, casting herself as part of a new generation of elected officials who hope to loosen the gridlock in Washington, D.C.
But Sheehan, a Democrat, isn’t oblivious to the political winds. And the recent upheavals in the state’s political landscape could bolster her grassroots bid to represent the suburban Philadelphia district where she grew up. That’s where the button comes in.
As a scientist and first-time candidate at the age of 32, she knew she would be a long shot against four-term Republican incumbent Patrick Meehan, who represents Pennsylvania’s seventh congressional district (PA-7) in the U.S. House of Representatives. But then things started to break her way.
In December 2017, one of the early favorites in the race for the Democratic nomination dropped out amid charges of sexual harassment during his tenure as a state legislator. The next month, Meehan announced he would not seek reelection after The New York Times revealed he had used congressional funds to settle a complaint of sexual harassment brought by a former aide. (In late April, Meehan resigned his seat, leaving the door open to a special election.)
Within days an even bigger political earthquake hit. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out a congressional map created by the state’s Republican-led legislature. After the court drew a new one, candidates had less than a month to decide whether—and where—to run in the 15 May primary.
The choice was easy for Sheehan. The new fifth congressional district (PA-5) included all of Delaware County, her home base, and is now heavily Democratic. The more favorable map—PA-7, where she had been running since last spring, was rated a toss-up—attracted several Democrats who had been sitting on the sidelines, and by the 20 March filing deadline, Sheehan had nine opponents. (Four others have dropped out along the way, one as recently as 2 weeks ago.)
Sheehan ran third at a recent straw poll conducted by Delaware County Democrats, behind two first-time candidates, both lawyers, with large war chests and the backing of prominent politicians. (None received a majority, and there was no endorsement.) Three other candidates with more traditional political pedigrees are also seen as serious contenders. The winner of the Democratic primary will be a heavy favorite in November over Pearl Kim, a lawyer and the sole Republican left in the race.
In addition to the added competition, the new map made obsolete Sheehan’s supply of campaign buttons touting her status as a candidate from PA-7. But Sheehan wasn’t about to discard them. Her bare-bones campaign chest ruled out wasting money on a new batch. And symbolically, the button was a subtle reminder to voters that Sheehan had been running long before the state’s highest court had made the new PA-5 an attractive target for Democrats.
“It seems like the second time I’m running,” Sheehan confessed at a recent workshop on community engagement put on by a graduate student group at UPenn. “And I’ve had the education of a lifetime. One of my goals is to re-engineer campaigns to make them work better and to build a sustainable movement that doesn’t accept the dogma about the impact of money. Scientists aren’t the best donors, but you are very good volunteers.”
Relating science to the real world
Sheehan’s central message to the collection of UPenn graduate students, fellow postdocs, and faculty members was straightforward: Don’t underestimate yourself, stand up for what you believe in, and use your skills in amassing and synthesizing vast amounts of information to foster social change. She has followed similar advice in entering science and running her campaign.
Her father, a chemist who spent his career working for the state’s environmental protection agency, used to take Sheehan and her brother to the local recycling center on weekends to sort plastics. “We’d learned about their chemistry, and which ones you can mix,” she recalls. “It was fun relating science to the real world.”
Sensing her interest in science, a middle school teacher gave her a book on string theory that fueled her curiosity. “And the more I learned about science, the more I realized that academia was the place I wanted to be to explore the frontiers.”
Toward that goal, she earned an undergraduate degree in biology from Haverford College here and a Ph.D. from UPenn in molecular biophysics, where she was also active in improving health care benefits for graduate students. Taking a year off to have her daughter, now 4 years old, Sheehan says she returned to UPenn for a postdoc and was preparing to apply “for my dream job” as a tenure-track academic when the results of the 2016 presidential election “shook me to the core. It was a huge step backward, and it made me rethink my priorities.”
In addition to what she saw as “horrible” political attacks on women, minorities, and immigrants—“My daughter began introducing herself as white rather than using her name”—Sheehan began questioning her intended career path. “Rather than trying to develop new medicines,” she told herself, “maybe I should be trying to improve access to the ones we already have.”
In January 2017 she started a web-based platform to connect potential volunteers with candidates needing talented help. A few months later she decided to become a candidate herself.
Many of her positions mirror those of former presidential contender Senator Bernie Sanders (I–VT), including support for universal, single-payer health care, federally funded preschool, and a free community college education. She also backs apprenticeship programs for green industries and greater investments in research to stimulate job growth.
At the same time, she believes that her scientific background gives her an edge in advocating for many issues. Relating a meeting with an activist fighting a proposed natural gas pipeline through the district, she says he breathed a huge sigh of relief after she introduced herself. “‘I’m so glad that I don’t have to spend the first 2 hours explaining to you what volatile means, or a blast radius,’ he told me.”
But scientists don’t have to be candidates to get involved in public policy debates, she argues. “You can be a lie buster for your community,” she told those at the UPenn workshop. “Most politicians have memorized a few sounds bites. But they can’t really go any deeper than that.”
An authentic experience
She has open scorn for the current U.S. electoral system, which reflects the power of what she calls “the campaign-industrial complex.” TV ads “are almost always manipulative advertising,” she tells a Sunday afternoon gathering at a well-to-do retirement community in her district. “You can’t have an authentic communication in 30 seconds.”
The idea that expensive TV ads are the best way to reach voters is also false, she asserts. “Having a conversation about a candidate with someone you trust is seven times more effective than even the most perfect TV spot,” she tells her audience, many of whom said they had never heard of Sheehan before the host, a friend of the candidate, invited them. “But perpetuating that myth is how the wealthy get to be in control of our political system.”
Of course, to seal the deal, a candidate needs to be authentic herself. And Sheehan, who admits that glad-handing didn’t come naturally to her, now gives a passionate, polished performance on the stump. Anecdotal support for her argument surfaces after Sheehan fields another question. “I’ll vote for you for president,” one audience member interjects.
Ever the stickler for facts, Sheehan demurs. “I’m not old enough,” she answers, referring to the minimum age of 35. “But I think I’d be an improvement.”