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Mel Hall campaigns in the Indiana district he hopes to represent.

Mel for Congress

Mel Hall hopes data-driven career will take him to Congress

ScienceInsider’s coverage of the 2018 U.S. elections has featured profiles of several candidates with scientific backgrounds running for the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as stories about the challenges those candidates have faced on the campaign trail. Today’s story looks at Mel Hall, the Democratic nominee for the second congressional district in Indiana.

It was a beautiful spring day in 1979. But Mel Hall remembers having some reservations as he drove along Cass Avenue on the western end of downtown Detroit, Michigan.

“Let’s just say the underground economy was in full swing,” recalls Hall, referring to the drug dealing and prostitution then rampant in a now rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Fresh out of seminary school, Hall had asked Methodist church officials for a challenging assignment—and they had granted his wish. But now Hall was wondering “if this Indiana farm boy had gotten in a little over his head.”

Hall had never been to Detroit, some 350 kilometers northeast of where he grew up. “So, the first thing I did as a minister was to walk through the neighborhood and introduce myself,” he says. “And part of the reason was for my own safety, so they would know who I was.”

Four decades later, the 65-year-old finds himself once again walking through unfamiliar neighborhoods and introducing himself. But this time he’s making his pitch to residents of the second congressional district in north-central Indiana. He’s also got a lifetime of experience under his belt, including a Ph.D. in data science and 2 decades leading a health care company whose success is rooted in collecting and analyzing patient data.

“I’ve never aspired to run for office or to be a politician,” he says about his campaign to oust the Republican incumbent, Jackie Walorski, who represents a district that President Donald Trump won comfortably. “But I think that someone who’s a relentless pragmatist, who’s driven by data, can best represent this district.”

A better survey

Hall says a hunger for data eventually prompted him to leave the ministry and return to Indiana for graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend. “I still wanted to change the world,” he says. “I thought there has got to be a way to understand what I’ve seen in Detroit and some of the reasons for the inequality, and that statistics might have some answers.”

Hall wondered how the structure of a community organization might influence its tactics. However, his first attempt at designing a questionnaire to elicit that information was a dismal failure.

“I showed it to the head of the social science training lab and Rod just laughed. ‘This is a real shit survey,’ he said.”

Rod was Rodney Ganey, who became Hall’s adviser—and racquetball partner. In 1985, Ganey and another Notre Dame professor, medical anthropologist Irwin Press, had formed a small company that designed patient satisfaction surveys for hospitals. The firm, Press Ganey Associates in South Bend, was based on Press’s research showing how patient attitudes toward their treatments affects health outcomes. And after Hall earned his doctoral degree from the sociology department, the two hired him to run the company’s fledgling research department.

“We needed someone to mine the vast amount of data that we had already collected,” recalls Press, who retired in 2001 and now lives in Chicago, Illinois. “Mel was available, and we were very lucky to get someone as good as him on our first try.”

Hall had assumed that a Ph.D. would lead to an academic career. But Ganey’s job offer set him on a new path. “I felt that I knew what academia would be like,” he says. “It’s very secure and it can be a very nice lifestyle. But I decided to give this a shot, and I figured that if it didn’t work out I could always go back to academia.”

That never happened. Press Ganey grew rapidly and within a decade, it had become the dominant player in a rapidly growing field. Hall moved quickly up the corporate ladder. “Mel encouraged people to do interesting research, and we published a lot,” Press says. “People liked him, and he clearly was well-organized and a very good manager. So, we kept promoting him.” Within a few years Hall was named chief operating officer, and he became CEO in 2001.

The company benefited from a new federal requirement that patient surveys be part of a hospital’s quality assessment. Academic medical centers also appreciated the company’s scientific approach, Hall says. “They liked that Rod and Irwin and I were all Ph.D.s, and that we took matters of reliability and design very seriously.”

The trio worked together closely despite their different religious and political beliefs, says Ganey, who is retired and living in Henderson, Nevada. “Irwin is Jewish, Mel is a former Methodist minister, and I’m Catholic,” he says. “Irwin is a liberal Democrat, Mel is a Democrat, and I’m a conservative Republican.”

Those differences meant the men generally refrained from discussing politics. But that didn’t mean their conversations were always harmonious. “We had a standing joke that, whenever the three of us went to lunch, we asked for a table where we would be able to yell at each other,” Ganey says. 

Midterm reality check

Seventeen candidates with scientific training will be on the 6 November ballot in hopes of winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Here’s a demographic profile of the group.

Ph.D. J.D. M.D. D.M.D. Master’s Bachelor’s By gender Endorsed by 314 Action, Chances of winning Favored Long odds Toss-up Competitive Backed by 314 Action Not backed by 314 Action Male Female on 6 November which helps scientists running for office

Free of labels

Hall left Press Ganey in 2012 and worked for 2 years as an unpaid health consultant for a Washington, D.C., law firm. Then he spent 3 years running a health care staffing company in Nashville, before returning to Indiana in early 2017 and deciding to run for Congress. He has done well enough in business to pour $2.1 million of his own money into his campaign, allowing him to match Walorski’s fundraising prowess and keep his pledge not to take any donations from corporate political action committees.

Hall says he moved away from his family’s Republican roots as a young man because, “Democrats have generally been on the right side of human rights, on the right side of civil rights, and on the right side of workers.” And he takes care in describing his political philosophy.

“I’m not at either end of the political spectrum,” Hall explains. “I am a Democrat, but I’ve already told the leadership of my party that I will not support [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi [D–CA]. Because I know that, if you do the same things with the same people at the same time, you’ll get the same results. We need different results. And I think both parties are to blame.”

Hall says he isn’t running primarily against the policies of the Trump administration or the president himself. Rather, he hopes to appeal to voters who think Congress is “broken” and who want someone who hasn’t “gone Washington,” as a recent ad says about his opponent. If elected, he promises to step down after three terms.

Walorski, 55, has already served three terms in Congress and sits on the influential Ways and Means Committee. A South Bend native who worked as a reporter and development officer before spending 6 years in the Indiana state legislature, Walorski is a fiscal and social conservative who has won her past two races by more than 20 percentage points.

On the stump, Hall emphasizes his business experience and his role in helping the region’s economy. “When I started at Press Ganey there were 35 cars in the parking lot,” he says, acknowledging that a few friends from his Detroit days accused him of “selling out” when he joined the company. “And over the years it grew to 800. So being able to create well-paying jobs and a chance for people to do good was immensely rewarding.”

He takes a centrist position on health care: He supports preserving features of the Affordable Care Act such as its coverage of preexisting conditions, but would like to see increasing competition to lower overall insurance premiums and prescription drug prices. On trade, he thinks the Trump administration needs to be tough on China but he criticizes the administration’s new tariffs as a “knee-jerk” reaction that is hurting U.S. farmers and small businesses.

A broad appeal

Both Press and Ganey are rooting for their former business partner to succeed. But the extent of their support reflects their differing political philosophies.

Ganey says he has mixed feelings about “sending another Democrat to Washington” but is sure Hall “would do a good job and will retain his independence” when voting on sharply partisan issues. “We need people in Congress like Mel with a scientific background,” he adds.

Press, who early on donated the maximum $5400 to Hall’s campaign, is much more excited about the prospect of Hall serving in Congress. “He is an amazing candidate with something for everybody,” Press gushes. “He’s got the academic credentials, the farm credentials, the urban credentials, the religious credentials. And as a sociologist, he’s more likely to really listen to constituents and understand where they are coming from. I just hope people understand everything he has to offer.”

Hall has the same wish, of course. But he’s careful not to oversell his record—including his academic credentials.

“I’m not a real scientist,” he says, laughing. “I’m only a social scientist. But I do believe in the power of data.”