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How a volcano scientist set out to change American politics

More scientists are running for Congress, so what’s that like?

Photography by Weston Reel

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It’s almost 7AM on election day, and we’re waiting for Jess Peláez Phoenix, a volcano scientist who is running for Congress in California’s 25th District. A Vice camera crew is also waiting for Phoenix in a corner of the parking lot.

Phoenix rolls up 20 minutes later in a bright blue Chevy Volt with “Vote Jess Phoenix” scrawled in chalk across the back window. She climbs out of the car in sneakers, torn khaki cutoffs, a gray T-shirt with “California” stamped on the chest, and Oakley sunglasses that push back long red hair that’s shaved on the sides. (“I have a full mohawk,” Phoenix says when I notice the shaved edges, lifting up her hair to show it off.) Her husband Carlos is in an almost identical outfit, minus the mohawk.

Phoenix is here, at the small library that’s serving as a polling place, to vote for herself.

“I feel like I left it all on the field.”

In LA County, nobody rubbernecks at a video crew. But with the cameras on Phoenix, I check for recognition among the Acton, California, voters. A woman in leggings tucked into mud-covered riding boots told me she didn’t know who the redhead at the polling place was. Neither did her mother. A tall, tanned man with a creased face also didn’t recognize the woman with the two cameras pointing at her.

Outside, after casting her ballot, Phoenix says voting for herself felt surreal — the culmination of more than a year of work. “Who knows if it will pan out,” she says. She tears up when she talks about the support her campaign’s received. “I really think we did every single thing we could. I feel like I left it all on the field.”

Jess Phoenix at campaign headquarters
Thirty-six-year-old Jess Phoenix at her campaign headquarters.

Phoenix is part of a surge of scientists who have been chasing public office since Donald Trump was elected. If they succeed, it could herald a change in the shape of Congress. (Right now, Congress is overwhelmingly made up of lawyers, Bloomberg BNA reports.) These new voices could bring new questions, new ways of seeing situations, and new methods for evaluating evidence to the process of policymaking. But scientists have to get to Washington first. More are trying than ever, says Shaughnessy Naughton, president of 314 Action, a political action committee that supports scientists who are making this leap. About 60 scientists entered federal races this past year, she says. Tuesday’s primary election in California is a chokepoint for five of them in races across the state, including Phoenix.

The spark that set off Phoenix’s run for Congress came just days after Trump’s inauguration. She gave a talk about volcanoes at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and one of her friends, Jason “J” Bell, was there with his two young kids. Bell and Phoenix are concert buddies, he says: “She was into punk music, and I’m more of an old-school heavy metal guy.” Watching her speak, Bell was struck by what a good politician she’d be. “Not for the skeeziness, but because she’s an honorable, good person who has great ideas,” he says. Bell told her so after the lecture with his two kids in tow.

“He came up to me afterward with them, and said, ‘I’m really afraid of the world that my sons are going to grow up in. I wish that people like you would be in charge,’” Phoenix recalls. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to be in charge. But hm... serving in office. That’s something that maybe I could do.’”

“Serving in office. That’s something that maybe I could do.”

So in April 2017, 36-year-old Jess Phoenix officially announced her candidacy for the 2018 race to represent California’s 25th Congressional District, a trapezoidal swath of inland California that bumps against the edge of San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. It’s an important district — one of just seven in California that The New York Times predicts could swing from red to blue this November.

For that to happen in California’s 25th Congressional District, though, the top Democratic contender will have to beat incumbent Steve Knight, a Republican who has represented the district since 2015. California’s primary election is what’s known as a top-two primary. That means the two candidates who get the most votes will go head-to-head in November’s general election.

As the only Republican contender and the incumbent, Knight is a shoe-in for one of those top-two spots in the primary. The big question is: which Democrat will come in second? There’s Bryan Caforio, the lawyer who lost to Knight in 2016; Katie Hill, who worked with a nonprofit serving the homeless; Mary Pallant, an insurance agent; or Phoenix.

Caforio or Hill have the best chances of going up against Knight in the general election, the Times predicts. Like Phoenix, 30-year-old Hill is a political newcomer whose campaign advocated for universal health care, supporting veterans, protecting the environment, and boosting the local economy. Unlike Phoenix, Hill raised $1,385,501.39 in contributions during her campaign, just beating Caforio’s $1,030,751.22 and smoking Phoenix’s $453,520.13, according to the Federal Election Commission’s latest numbers. She has endorsements from pro-choice PAC Emily’s List and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. And, compared to Caforio, Hill “is viewed as the stronger candidate,” the Times says.

But until the votes are in, Phoenix is still campaigning.

Outside the Phoenix campaign’s headquarters.
Outside the Phoenix campaign’s headquarters.

Back in Phoenix’s campaign headquarters, she meets John Billingsley and Sandi Milne. Both are actors; Billingsley played Dr. Phlox in Star Trek: Enterprise. He’s been supporting Phoenix’s campaign for more than a year, after meeting at a house party. “I’m the spleen of the operation,” Billingsley says. What? “I was looking for a more useless organ, and I inadvertently stumbled on spleen,” he says.

“Phone banking is kind of my forte,” Milne says. But, she says, it’s going the way of the horse and buggy. “If we don’t have caller ID, no one picks up.” It took some convincing to train the volunteers to even leave a voicemail if no one picked up the phone on the other end.

Phone banking is political telemarketing, where the candidates and their staffers cold-call potential voters. Each of the phone bankers — Milne, Billingsley, campaign manager Ricardo Gutiérrez, and two staffers in a quiet office — have their own style. Milne sends people to the website for more info. Gutiérrez offers to give the people who pick up the phone a ride to the polls, regardless of who they’re planning to vote for. And Billingsley has a longer message, the highlight of which is that Phoenix, as a scientist, can help put common sense and an emphasis on evidence back in government.

Billingsley does not enjoy phone banking. “It’s the bane of our fucking existence,” he says. “Nobody in their right mind picks up their phone on election day.” But for more than three and a half hours, he, Milne, and a handful of other staffers and volunteers make their way through lists of voters. When they don’t have someone hang up on them, they leave cheerful voicemail messages. “You guys going to throw up if I say ‘see you at the polls’ one more time?” Milne says from her spot on a hard-backed chair, tethered to the wall by her cellphone’s power cord. “Too bad, you’re going to hear it 300 more times.”

John Billingsley phone banking.
John Billingsley phone banking.

You’d think science, tedious and detail-oriented, might prepare candidates for public office. Later that evening, Phoenix will compare the process of campaigning to watching an unmoving submersible do absolutely nothing on the ocean floor for four hours at a stretch, with only the occasional fish to make it bearable. That fish is like meeting a kid while campaigning, says Phoenix. “They’re like ‘you inspire me!’ and you’re like, ‘Okay, that made my whole month!” she says. Campaigning is “the same kind of thing because my favorite parts are the interactive parts: when you’re learning something new, when you’re discovering, when you’re making a new connection. [It’s the] same with science.”

At noon, Carlos assembles an armful of signs and hustles everyone back into their cars, pausing to hand Billingsley an iridescent, red-white-and-blue top hat. We’re headed to the intersection next to the Antelope Valley Mall, so that Phoenix, Carlos, Milne, and Billingsley can do an in-person version of phone banking: standing on a corner by a busy intersection and waving signs at the cars as they speed by. The signs include a massive, illustrated poster of Phoenix that says “VOTE TODAY Jess Phoenix for Congress,” and handwritten “Honk if you voted” and “Honk 4 voting” signs. A fourth, difficult-to-read sign on a fluorescent green poster board says “Green Tech Jobs!!,” which Phoenix pledged to cultivate in the district.

“Body parts are sore that I didn’t know I had.”

The honks come as single horn pumps, multi-toots, and long, sustained blares. A woman in a truck waiting to turn right calls out the open-window: “My husband’s obsessed with you!” The campaign crew cheers. As a gray SUV speeds by, a man yells: “Screw Jess!” After an hour under the noon sun, we’re heading back to campaign headquarters. Campaigning is physically demanding, even when you aren’t sweating it out with a sign. Phoenix hasn’t been able to work out in months. “Body parts are sore that I didn’t know I had,” she said. “I am just decrepit.”

Then it’s on to the Phoenix’s house: they have three dogs, two cats, three birds, and two rescued racehorses. The horses need feeding. And the dogs need to be let out so they don’t pee in the house. (The chiweenie has a tiny bladder, Phoenix tells me.) Inside the house are books ranging from Plato’s Republic to more than a dozen hardcover Nancy Drews to art books about Magritte to a Hindi language dictionary. And, of course, the geology books, a sample of which includes: Roadside Geology of Southern California, Paleoseismology, and two copies of Volcanoes and the Sea, second edition.

By now, it’s 2:30PM, and there’s still more campaigning to do. There’s another intersection to wave signs at, and more doors to knock on. The boring, tedious grunt work of campaigning will stretch for three and a half more hours until the election watch party. That starts at 6PM on a green, tree-lined cul-de-sac in Valencia, California. It’s the greenest place we’ve been in all day, and there are four cars with different flavors of “Vote Jess Phoenix” painted on the windows.

The watch party is easy to find: there are 15 Jess Phoenix campaign signs decorating the lawn, another three staked into a flower bed, and one attached to the mailbox. (There are no signs on any other lawns on the street.) But behind the house, it feels less like a party and more like campaign headquarters. We’re transplanted to a shaded patio set rather than stained office furniture. Groups of people keep leaving to go canvas, and at 6:40PM, the party still hasn’t really started.

There’s a brief commotion when the pizza arrives, and the campaigners discover that the guy who delivered them — who’s wearing a NASA baseball cap — hasn’t voted yet. “Jess, get the pizzaman to vote for you!” someone yells. Someone offers him a ride to the polls, and another says that Phoenix cares about everybody, “meaning humans and animals.” But Phoenix hustles the delivery guy back to his route: “We don’t want to get you in trouble with your job,” she says. “Your hat is amazing, by the way.”  

“It is our job to open the door and get out of the way.”

At 8PM, Carlos announces that the polls have closed, and everyone clusters around Phoenix, who’s standing in front of a handmade “Vote for Jess” sign. She starts her speech with geology puns, of course. “So you all just really rock,” she says. “And it’s not your fault that you’re choosing to spend your time engaging in politics, and we know who to blame that on — that would be Trump.” After one last pun about the “schist from the Trump administration,” though, Phoenix gets earnest.

She looks out at her audience — about 50 people in total. Phoenix thanks them for their hard work on the campaign. “If I make it through whatever I’m saying right now without crying, it’s going to be a minor miracle,” she says. She talks about protecting the environment, keeping people from living in poverty, and making sure that everyone is represented.

“It is our job to open the door and get out of the way. And that’s what I’d like to do — to help open the door for scientists,” she says. “No matter what happens with tonight’s election, we have already won.” Phoenix is a longshot. So even though the election returns aren’t in yet, this garden party is a swan song. That’s why she’s talking about the next generation of leaders; this is a concession speech.

Headquarters for the Phoenix campaign.

Among the crowd is a man in a Carl Sagan T-shirt that says “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” He’s a network engineer, and he has supported Jess’s run for office since before she announced it. “Before Trump, wearing a Carl Sagan or a Neil DeGrasse Tyson shirt was the extent of my getting political,” he says. Now, he says, he sees where the problem-solving skills of science could fit into politics.  

But it’s not necessarily easy for scientists to fit themselves into politics. They might be accustomed to tedium, but many aren’t used to a major component of campaigning: asking people for money. Sure, scientists have to beg for research grants, but they do that by sending their ideas to a panel of other experts to evaluate for funding. But in politics? “The stereotypical view is that it’s shaking hands and kissing babies, and once in a while you do fundraisers,” Phoenix says. “I think a lot of people would be surprised that it’s actually 10 hours a day, locked in a windowless room, dialing for dollars, and talking to only rich donors.”

“We’re not going to win races that we don’t run candidates in.”

Other scientists who have run for Congress had similar experiences. Phil Janowicz, who used to be a chemistry professor at California State University in Fullerton, ran for Congress in California’s 39th district. But when it looked like his run could spread the Democrat vote too thin and harm Democrats’ chances for a top-two finish in the primary, he dropped out just months before the election, Science reported in April. “It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” he says. “Logically, I was at peace with it within 30 seconds. Emotionally? Get back to me.” He, too, said that campaigning wore him out. “It was fun, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed it,” he says. But he didn’t enjoy sitting in a closet, calling people repeatedly to ask for money. “Someone gives a few dollars and my finance director says, 'Call them again for another hundred.’”

It’s a challenge to run for Congress, says Naughton, who has a chemistry background and worked in breast cancer research before an unsuccessful run to represent Pennsylvania’s 8th district. “Especially as first-time candidates, there are added barriers,” she says. That’s why she launched 314 Action. (314 did not endorse Phoenix, though it did donate to the campaign.) “We’re not going to win races that we don’t run candidates in, and we’re not going to hold elected officials accountable if we don’t challenge them each election,” she says.

“It’s not like we’re going to change the vote tally by staying up later.”

In any event, once the polls are closed, the grunt work is over. The now-dark backyard is punctuated as peoples’ faces are lit up by their cellphone screens. Phoenix has 4.8 percent of the vote. Bryan Caforio and Katie Hill are tied at 19.3 percent, with 2 percent reporting. There’s a chance the results could turn around.

By around 9:30PM, Carlos has wrangled a projector and is trying to project the election returns onto the blank white back of a giant sign for “Our Revolution,” a political group that grew out of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016. It didn’t matter, though, because for the next hour, the poll numbers don’t budge. The backyard gets colder, someone turns off the patio lights. As it draws closer to 11PM, Phoenix decides to call it a night. “We were here as long as we could be, you know? It’s not like we’re going to change the vote tally by staying up later. Plus, our pets need to go out and pee,” she said. Particularly the chiweenie.

When I call the day after the election, Phoenix is out feeding the horses. She’d found out the election results when she picked up her phone this morning and saw a WhatsApp message from her dad. “And he’s like, ‘Oh, sorry, honey. I saw the results,’” Phoenix says. In the end, Steve Knight came in first with 52.8 percent of the vote; Katie Hill came in second with 20.2 percent. Phoenix came in fourth with 6 percent of the vote — after Bryan Caforio, but ahead of Mary Pallant. In the rest of California, where four other scientists were running for Congress, only one has made it through to the general election: TJ Cox, an engineer whose only opponent was the Republican incumbent.

“Some other people can learn from that data.”

In science, when you finish an experiment, you have data. Even if your hypothesis doesn’t work out — and, often, it doesn’t — that’s still a contribution to human knowledge. Elections are a zero-sum game: you either win or lose. “Obviously, I wish it would have ended differently, I wish I would have progressed to the general election,” Phoenix says. But, considering that she’d had no political network when she started out, “I’m extremely proud of the job everybody did working on the campaign.”

But Phoenix — a scientist, after all — doesn’t think her defeat means failure. Sure, she didn’t figure out how to make it all the way to Congress as a political outsider. And while she doesn’t plan to run again, she thinks the fact that she ran at all may have kicked down some doors for future politicians who can learn from her experience. “Hopefully, I have at least tested the hypothesis a bit, and some other people can learn from that data.”

Naughton, perhaps predictably, agrees. “When you run a credible campaign and talk about issues that are important to your community, you contribute to the dialogue — whether you ultimately win the race or not.”