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Elaine DiMasi (left) talks with a luncheon crowd in the Long Island, New York, district she hoped to represent.


Physicist learns hard lessons about money and leadership in U.S. politics

Physicist Elaine DiMasi doesn’t actually believe she was lying to her campaign volunteers. But letting them think that she expected to win the Democratic nomination for a seat in Congress—“We’re going to win, I have the right message,”—despite clear evidence she was falling far short of her targets for fundraising and identifying likely supporters never felt right, either.

“As a scientist you wouldn’t say things that you don’t know to be true,” says DiMasi, who quit her job at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, to run in New York’s 1st congressional district. “But for politics, the reality is that’s what you do. I was good enough at it to feel this dissonance, but not good enough at it to get the money I needed. And I’d known it all along.”

DiMasi is still processing her last-place finish in a five-person race to take on Representative Lee Zeldin, the Republican incumbent, in November. In keeping with her scientific training, she’s brutally honest about the mistakes she made during her year as a novice candidate.

“Sometimes I felt like a fake politician during this campaign,” she says. “I’ve spent the last few days [after the 26 June primary election] trying to do mostly nothing, trying not to make any decisions about my next job and trying to get myself into a mindset where I think I do have some skills.”

Money, money, money

Money is the bane of a candidate’s existence, but also essential for getting out one’s message. As a longtime project manager at Brookhaven, located within the eastern Long Island district where she lives, DiMasi understood how to show the U.S. Department of Energy that its money was being well-spent. But as a first-time candidate for Congress, she struggled to learn the art of persuading would-be donors, including scientists, to invest in her campaign.

“When I started, I thought it would be easy to put $100,000 on the board,” she says. “But it wasn’t easy at all.”

The $100,000 was to be seed money toward a $400,000 war chest that would allow her to distinguish herself from her Democratic opponents and lay the groundwork for a fall campaign that would reach out to Republicans and Independents. But DiMasi never hit her initial target—she started off with $22,000 and reached $100,000 by the end of the race—and she puts a lot of the blame on herself.

“I had been procrastinating in making my calls,” she admits. “As a scientist, asking another scientist for $250 was a real challenge. To start with, you don’t have their phone numbers because scientists do everything by email. And you can’t ask for money via email; it just wouldn’t work.”

She also wrestled with the problem of gauging how much a person is likely to give. “There was one scientist for whom I made too big an ask,” she recalls. “He drives around in a Jag, and he’s got two homes. I asked him for $5000, and he turned me down. And even though I thought about going back to him and asking for $100, I never did.”

Follow me

Another hard reality for DiMasi was discovering that fundraising is more than simply a way to pay the bills and broadcast your message.

“How much money you can raise is really a measure of your political skills,” she says. “Bill Foster [an Illinois Democrat who is the only Ph.D. physicist now in Congress] says that making the calls is actually training in getting people to go with your agenda. And if you can’t succeed in getting people to drop their agenda and decid[ing] to help you, then you’re not a politician yet.”

One metric of leadership is how many volunteers a candidate can attract to her cause. Liuba Shirley, a friend of DiMasi’s who won the Democrat primary in a neighboring congressional district, began her campaign with 2000 volunteers, DiMasi says enviously. “I attracted maybe 20 super volunteers,” she says.

Of course, having lots of volunteers is just a means to an end, which is winning the election. DiMasi received only 1207 votes, or 6% of the Democrats who went to the polls on 26 June. [Real estate developer Perry Gershon won with 35%.] She blames that poor showing on a flawed approach to tracking would-be voters, including having insufficient resources to do it properly.

“Well, you need to identify your supporters, and then keep their support by touching them several times during the campaign until Election Day,” she says. “So, the big problem is, ‘How do you keep them once you’ve found them?’”

“I met lots of people who said, ‘I wish I had met you sooner. But these other people have all run TV commercials and sent mailers and you haven’t. So how can I take you seriously?’ It didn’t matter that the commercials were awful,” she laughs. “And that’s a sobering lesson.”

A mass movement

DiMasi thinks scientists are an untapped resource for candidates. To unlock their potential, she says, they need to understand how campaigns operate. And that means using their contribution as a carrot.

“Here’s how it works,” DiMasi says. “If you have $100, then you have to give the candidate $100 when they call. And then you need to say, ‘I’ll give you another $500 once you’ve raised $20,000. And I’ll give you another $1000 once you’ve raised another $50,000.’”

Most scientists are clueless about how to influence the political process, she says. A political action committee (PAC) can help like-minded voters channel their support of a preferred candidate, she notes. But she doesn’t think the PAC run by 314 Action, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit created 2 years ago to help scientists and engineers run for office, serves that purpose.

“314 Action says it’s doing this, but it’s not,” she asserts. “Because when you send them money, you don’t really know where your money is going.”

At the same time, she says, a science PAC may be too dull a weapon to wield effectively on the political battlefield. “No scientist wants to elect another scientist solely on that basis,” she says. “We’re all individuals. And besides, not everyone is ready to give money to a candidate. You have to talk them into it by winning them over. And that’s the way it should be.”

What’s next

DiMasi plans to use the next several weeks to figure out whether she’s still interested in being politically active and, if so, what role she could play.

“I need paid work, so that affects what I can do,” she says about her current employment situation. “If I work for [Brookhaven] again, I can’t take a paid consultancy to work on a campaign. And if I don’t get paid, and offer my advice gratis, people won’t listen, because it’s not in anyone’s nature to take seriously something that’s free.”

At times she wonders if she was ever cut out to be a candidate. Small talk doesn’t come easily, she admits, nor does she find it rewarding.

“When I knock on doors, I don’t want to stand around and cajole a person into giving me something that they don’t want to give,” she says. “I want a straight-up transaction, like in my professional world. ‘Oh, this engineer wants to work on this project, so I want to talk to them.’”

Even so, she says she has no regrets about running for Congress. And anyone who thinks she should have aimed lower misses the point. “There’s nothing else that would have motivated me to make the big asks that I did,” she says. “This is what I wanted to do.”