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Elaine DiMasi at a Democratic candidates’ forum in Setauket, New York

Ian Farber/DiMasi for Congress

Physicist hopes the evidence is clear in bid for New York congressional seat

SUFFOLK COUNTY IN NEW YORK—First-time congressional candidate Elaine DiMasi didn’t know what to expect when she knocked on a front door here in this Long Island community. But her opening words—“Hi, I’m a scientist at Brookhaven who quit because I want Lee Zeldin’s job”—were enough to win her an invitation from the woman who answered to come inside and chat.

The 49-year-old DiMasi doesn’t waste time getting down to business. Her top campaign issue, she tells the woman and her husband, is creating clean energy jobs to bolster the area’s economy and protect the environment, including more vocational training. She talks to the retirees about the need for universal health care, affordable housing, reasonably priced child care, and tuition-free higher education for working-class families. She also listened to their stories about the challenges facing their children and grandchildren, and how national Democratic leaders have never once thanked them for their small donations to the party over the years.

Ten minutes into the conversation come the magic words the candidate was hoping to hear. “My priority is getting rid of Zeldin,” the woman tells DiMasi, and “you have our vote.”

Two down, 4198 to go.

“What’s your win number?”

Numbers occupy a special place for DiMasi, a Ph.D. physicist who spent 22 years as a scientist and project manager at the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. Last summer she left the lab to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in New York’s first congressional district. And she is banking on her analytical skills to carry her to victory in the Democratic primary next week.

DiMasi has calculated that she will need 4200 votes to defeat four other Democrats and win the chance to take on incumbent Zeldin, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary, in the November general election. And she believes that retail politics—knocking on the doors of some 2000 registered Democrats, calling 3000 more voters whom she can’t meet in person, and showing up at countless political gatherings to interact with whoever is in the audience—is her best path to victory.

DiMasi lacks the big campaign war chest amassed by one of her primary opponents, commercial real estate developer Perry Gershon. She’s raised and spent $100,000, whereas Gershon has topped $2 million, including nearly $1 million of his own money. Nor can she match the flood of endorsements collected by another opponent, Kate Browning, a former Suffolk County legislator with widespread name recognition. Conventional wisdom says it’s a two-person race between Browning and Gershon, and that DiMasi and the two other Democrats candidates—Vivian Viloria-Fisher and David Pechefsky—will struggle to get more than a single-digit percentage of the vote.

That assessment doesn’t deter DiMasi. Primaries typically draw only hard-core voters, so targeted outreach like neighborhood canvassing instead of TV ads and mass mailings fits with DiMasi’s grassroots strategy. She also seems to savor her role as an underdog, telling a story about a local elected official who had been rather aloof until DiMasi qualified for the ballot by collecting nearly twice the number of required signatures.

“You know you weren’t supposed to be able to do that,” she recalls the official telling her. (She collected 2200 valid signatures, whereas Gershon led the pack with 3200.) “I guess that means anyone can win,” the politico continued. “So, what’s your win number?”

DiMasi had already done the math. Her first assumption was that the vote would not split evenly across the five candidates. “So, you surely will need more than 20% of the total,” she says. Then she looked at Gershon’s 25% share of the total number of signatures collected and decided she would need to capture at least 26% of those casting their votes. She chose an optimistically high figure for turnout.

Each time she cranked the numbers, the answer was the same: 4200 votes. “I guess that’s my win number,” she says.

Seeing the bottom fall out

Growing up in a “solidly conservative” family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, DiMasi says her career options were heavily influenced by the books lying around the house that reflected her parents’ occupations—her father’s electrical engineering tomes and her mother’s anatomy textbooks. Still, she chose to major in physics at Pennsylvania State University in State College because she could take more electives. She earned her doctorate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, followed by a postdoc at Brookhaven. However, what she assumed would be the first step toward an academic career took her down a different path.

“I thought I’d appreciate the university environment, with students and free thinkers running around, and to this day I miss the college-town vibe,” she says about Ann Arbor. “But at Brookhaven I found out what it was like to work with adult professionals—technicians and software engineers and mechanical engineers—and have the chance to build beautiful things and solve problems gracefully. Over time I came to love working with grown-ups, as I called them, rather than with students.”

She describes her work at Brookhaven as helping scientists “see better” by devising tools they can use to analyze data from its National Synchrotron Light Source. She was also co-editor of the Biomineralization Sourcebook, a guide to characterizing organic materials and biomaterials that mimic natural processes.

Her concern for the welfare of other scientists even influenced her decision to enter politics. “When I looked out my window at the new administration, I could see the bottom falling out,” she says about the drastic cuts to federal research spending that President Donald Trump proposed in his first budget. “My job would have been safe—I had been there 21 years, and I have tenure. But I didn’t want to sit and watch as younger people were not able to get a job like mine.”

Although ready for a career change, DiMasi knew she was facing a steep learning curve. So in April 2017 she attended a training workshop in Washington, D.C., sponsored by 314 Action, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit organization that works with scientists and engineers contemplating a run for office. Armed with advice and an initial list of political consultants, DiMasi returned home and within a few months decided to take the plunge.

“I’m going to do stuff”

Becoming a House candidate has meant trading in her “expert” badge and joining the ranks of trainees. Instead of seasoned professionals, she’s working mostly with rookies (her campaign manager, one of her few paid staffers, is a rare exception) and a collection of middle-age volunteers with limited technical skills.

Even so, she’s molded them into a team that enthusiastically embraces her scientific identity. Campaign staffers wear bright blue T-shirts emblazoned with the message: "Have you heard? There’s a scientist on the ballot for Congress, June 26th. Ask me. I volunteer for her.” 

T-shirts tout Elaine DiMasi’s background as a scientist.

J. Mervis/Science

DiMasi says she has no intention of altering her traditional approach to thorny problems to suit the political winds. Although her stances on most issues place her squarely in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, she says anything she will do as a lawmaker “must be based on evidence-based policy. I can’t put it into action if it won’t actually work and make things better.”

DiMasi likes to describe the Republican incumbent as “an unsolved problem that we need to get out of the way before we tackle our bigger problems.” And she cites climate change as one of those bigger problems.

“Our district is an island,” she reminded the couple that invited her in to chat. “We have had a rise in sea level that is closing the fishing stations, and nitrates in the water that are ruining the shellfish industry. If Republicans in Congress won’t admit that human activity is causing climate change, then they aren’t going to do anything about it.”

That evening, at a candidates’ forum sponsored by a local Democratic club, DiMasi flashed both her thorough knowledge of the topic and her political naivete. Asked what they would do to reverse the Republican “assault” on the environment, one of her opponents mentions joining the Progressive Caucus in Congress and another expresses the hope that having Democrats retake the majority in the House of Representatives will lead to meaningful climate legislation.

DiMasi dispenses with such generalities. “I’m going to do stuff as a freshman,” she begins. “We need to pressure the [executive agencies] to make sure they adopt evidence-based policies,” ignoring for the moment that those agency heads will still be answering to the Trump White House come next January. “I’d also reach across the aisle and use Republican-flavored talking points put out by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby,” a nonpartisan group trying to find common ground on the issue.

DiMasi’s detailed responses to that and other questions seem to go over well with the 200 party activists who attended the forum. “I was intrigued by her comments,” said one member of the audience, who said he arrived without a strong opinion of any of the candidates. “I liked what she was saying and that she had a plan for dealing with these difficult problems.”

But that doesn’t mean he plans to vote for her. “She’s too green,” the activist added, pointing to the holes in DiMasi’s political resume. “Kate [Browning] has a lot more experience, and I think that she won’t back down when she’s attacked” in the general election. “You have to be tough.”

DiMasi’s response to such criticism, which she says he hears frequently, is not typical of first-time candidates, who often paint themselves as outsiders with a fresh perspective on the political system. Sticking to her philosophy that knowledge matters, she instead insists that her track record at Brookhaven is more than equivalent to those who have held public office.

“A year ago, I would have been skeptical, too,” DiMasi tells another canvassed homeowner who asks about her experience “But I’ve shown what I can do,” DiMasi says, ticking off her fundraising efforts, her ability to run a campaign, and the many hats she wore at Brookhaven.

That sales pitch makes an impression on the homeowner, who had previously cited Browning’s six terms as a legislator as a good reason to vote for her. “You remind me of my daughter,” she tells DiMasi, mentioning her daughter’s work with a global nonprofit organization serving children with special needs. “I’m amazed and gratified that young women like you and my daughter are getting involved in public service.”

That compliment is enough for DiMasi to put her in the undecided column. “I was able to break through and make a human connection,” she says later. “If she reminds me of her daughter, maybe she’ll vote for me.”

Losing neurons, gaining votes

Touting your scientific credentials can be risky for a candidate with low name recognition. “I love Elaine, she’s so smart,” says one Democrat activist. “But sometimes she comes across as too smart. I’m not sure she has developed the common touch.”

As a longtime elected official, Democrat Steve Englebright can speak from experience about the challenges facing a scientist who enters politics. A geologist and founding director of the Museum of Long Island Natural Sciences in Stony Brook, Englebright has been a New York state assemblyman since 1993 and is now chair of the assembly’s committee on environmental conservation.

“If you are a scientist, the pathway to success is to specialize and become an expert in a narrow area,” he explains. “Being successful in politics requires exactly the opposite approach. You have to be a generalist, and speak to a diverse set of issues that do not lend themselves to quantitative analysis.”

DiMasi says Englebright has been an “amazing” role model for her. In return, he praises DiMasi’s “overall skills and thoughtful approach” to the issues.“We need more people with her scientific background and analytic skills in Congress,” he says. But he hasn’t endorsed her, saying that he is remaining neutral to avoid alienating the supporters of everyone else running in the House primary.

That leaves DiMasi to fend largely for herself in a world she is still trying to understand. A list of the names of the 20 committees in the U.S. House is taped to the bathroom wall of her modest home in Ronkonkoma, and her refrigerator is adorned with an article about Representative Bill Foster (D–IL), the only experimental physicist now serving in Congress.

Foster is fond of saying, “There is a long list of neurons that you have to deaden on the campaign trail to convert a scientist’s brain into a politician’s,” citing the need for endless repetition of a brief message that lacks any substantive analysis. As unappealing as that may sound, DiMasi hopes for the chance to experience exactly such a transformation in service to the voters of the first congressional district.