Why you should care
What if the biggest qualifier for office was adherence to the facts?
It’s a surreal day for Patrick Madden. After dropping off his two kids, he parks outside the high school, glued to his Bluetooth for an interview with a local radio station. Next, a breakfast sitdown with a national reporter, then a conference call with his finance director, who moved to upstate New York for him, and his media consultant, Joe Trippi — yes, that Joe Trippi.
Yesterday, Madden was just another relatively anonymous professor teaching computer science at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Could he ever have imagined sitting in this seaweed-green booth at a local 50s diner, having announced the day before that he was running for a U.S. Congress seat? “Um, no,” the 52-year-old says, laughing and shaking his head.
STEM candidates … are refreshingly authentic.
Joe Trippi, political consultant
Yet the bearded Bernie Sanders lover is one of many intellectuals nationwide making the shift from professor to political hopeful. While there is nothing exceptionally new, per se, about teachers hitting the stump, it’s the type of teachers who are breaking the mold. Namely, booky math profs cut from a far different cloth than the social-justice-y Elizabeth Warrens of the world. More than 300 college professors served in Congress from 1774 to 2014, according to an analysis by the Chronicle for Higher Education: Almost a third taught law, while only 15 were mathematicians. Still, the nonprofit 314 Action — named after the mathematical equation for pi — says that 5,000 STEM professionals have recently raised their hands to run for office. In doing so, they are flipping the script on one of academia’s once immutable laws: Never mix emotions with science.
Self-preservation has partly instigated the shift. Many scientists feel like they’ve been left without a seat at the table, especially after President Trump cast a climate-change denier as head of the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed a budget that would significantly cut both the National Institutes of Health and the EPA. Congress isn’t much better: Only 24 of its 535 members have Ph.D.s — two fewer than those who don’t even have a bachelor’s. Thanks to the Great Recession, research had already been stalled, and higher education was wilting with colleges shifting from tenured tracks to adjuncts — and all that under a president many considered an ally. “The attacks on science and, frankly, on facts didn’t start with the Trump administration, but it certainly has been a catalyst to get more scientists to step up,” says Shaughnessy Naughton, founder of 314 Action and a chemist who ran unsuccessfully for Pennsylvania’s 8th District in 2014.
Academics aren’t the only unconventional actors entering the fray. Progressive groups such as VoteVets and New Politics have battled to help veterans and other service-minded individuals run for office, with some success: Democrat Seth Moulton, a former Marine, upset a nine-term Massachusetts incumbent to ascend to the U.S. House in 2015. And the ACLU recently rolled out a model to back compassionate candidates for local district attorney posts. In May, the civil-rights organization helped Larry Krasner — a defense attorney with no prosecutorial background who wanted to end cash bail, the death penalty and stop-and frisk and who also bragged about suing cops — win a seven-person primary for Philadelphia’s DA. The strategy: If you can’t change their minds, then replace them. And that’s where scientists like Madden now stand, having watched as science became intensely partisan while they sat on the sidelines, ostensibly to avoid politicizing it. “That pursuit has failed,” Naughton says.
Professor types face several obstacles: They often lack name-brand recognition, grassroots networks and, most crucially, cash. Most aren’t Republican and could struggle in rural districts. Academics are sometimes even rejected by the Democrats they would most likely align with, passed over for those who have waited patiently in the party pipeline. And there’s a question as to whether voters will judge them as unserious. Why should they back candidates like Madden when he himself seems unsure about giving up tenure for the grind of Washington politics? “Realistically, I would try to arrange a sabbatical,” he says, should he actually win. “And if I’m blowing my brains out and know I can’t do this anymore, [I’ll] do my best to hand it off to someone who is rational.”
Then again, that frankness may be a strength, argues Trippi, the former campaign manager for the unconventional Howard Dean. He is now advising Madden and other STEM candidates, whom he finds “refreshingly authentic.” The average professor doesn’t toe the party line in their beliefs, which is fitting for a group that has a varied hue, neither completely red nor blue, as the latest presidential election proved. Shut out of the traditional fundraising machine, they will have to rely directly on the people. Don’t count them out, though: Some have surprising connections up their sleeves — such as Silicon Valley in the case of Madden, who has spent the past two decades training and networking with its top shakers. Just like in the laboratory, this scientist takes the long view: “Whether or not it pans out,” Madden says, “you’ve got to run the experiment to see the result.”
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