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Challenging Republican incumbent and climate denier Steve Knight, scientist Jess Phoenix wants to focus on facts in California's 25th district.
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As a volcanologist–a geologist and earth scientist who studies volcanoes and natural hazards–Jess Phoenix is used to jokes about whether she studies Star Trek Vulcans instead. There’s an amusing Venn diagram that contains science enthusiasts, Trekkies, and eager voters, and Phoenix is happy to accommodate them all in the diverse district where she lives and hopes to serve as congressional representative.
Phoenix is running as a Democrat hoping to unseat Republican Steve Knight in California District 25, which sprawls eastward from Los Angeles, encompassing Simi Valley to Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert. It’s a beautiful region that’s experienced rapid growth in recent years and is poised to, among other things, continue growing the green and clean technology sectors that cover California’s high deserts. As a district that went for Clinton in 2016, District 25 is also one of the more vulnerable Republican districts in the 2018 elections. It’s listed as a key target on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s battleground map, and Phoenix faces half a dozen other Democratic candidates in the primary.
We recently chatted about the importance of having scientists in government and why climate change impacts every person, no matter where they live or how they vote.
What are some of the most pressing issues in your district that you also see reflected nationally?
There are so many. The effects of climate change are something we’re going to keep seeing across the U.S., and no one will be free of the effects. That’s a national connection that’s easy for me to make as a scientist, and that’s really at the forefront for me because of the wildfires we’ve been dealing with in Southern California. They’re raging all around us here. Across the nation, whether it’s hurricanes hitting Florida or wildfires on the West Coast, people are going to continue to experience more extreme and more frequent weather events as the climate continues to shift.
Our district has the largest population of veterans in Los Angeles County, and threats to privatize the Veterans Administration have a lot of people upset. It’s not just healthcare at risk; there are issues with receiving other benefits. The VA is a convoluted system and it doesn’t deliver services, such as education and job placement, the way it should. We see a lot of vets in our community who say, I want to get my educational benefits and go to college but I can’t navigate the system.
Immigration really hits home for me as well. My husband is Latino, and his mom was undocumented until President Ronald Reagan offered amnesty to undocumented U.S. residents in 1980s. Until my husband was six years old, he had to worry that his family would be split up. Our district has a huge number of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and Dreamers, and as is the case with so many people with papers or not, immigrants are often treated as less than. But this country was built on immigration, and we should be providing paths to citizenship for people doing their best and paying their taxes.
What are some of the most striking changes you’ve witnessed in your district in the past decade?
I started working in this district 10 years ago, when a lot less housing had been built and the population was smaller. In the neighborhood where I live now, in the city of Acton, there are still a lot of parcels. I live on a decent chunk of land, but I can still walk to my neighbors’ place.
We’ve seen a lot of new construction in Santa Clarita and Simi Valley in places we didn’t think could be built up. California is still in the midst of a housing crisis, and housing isn’t more affordable—there’s just more of it. People are moving here because it is a slightly more affordable part of Los Angeles County, but if you work in L.A., you still have a two-hour commute each way. And if you can’t afford a car? Forget it.
How do you think understanding the Earth and running an environmental nonprofit has prepared you for politics and governing?
I’m a big believer that every job should be teaching you something. It can be subtle. I worked eight years of retail sales, and I learned a lot of product knowledge but mostly I learned by helping people. I learned about their lives and how to help them get what they needed, and that job, like so many for me, was about connecting with people.
That skill connects through working as a scientist, too. Being a volcanologist is about technology and science, but that is also a means to an end, which is understanding natural hazards and how we can best explain those to people who live near them. Everyone is close to geologic or natural hazards. With increased fracking, areas that didn’t used to now have earthquakes. Tornado Alley is regularly devastated by storms. You don’t have to live on a fault line to be in a hazard zone.
I have a real passion for learning about the world around us, and I am always asking myself, how can I convey that to others? The nonprofit I started, Blueprint Earth, was one way to do that. I started with this big idea that we need a global seed vault but for entire environments so that we can recreate them if we lose them. And it became a way to provide students the opportunity, at no cost, to learn about the natural world even if they couldn’t afford field research. We worked with scientists—from industry, government, and academia—who would volunteer their time and teach field research skills while collecting real data with students who would come from all over the country. It also gave all of these highly specialized researchers the opportunity to work together in an interdisciplinary way and explore the benefits of professional diversity, the engineers working alongside the biologists alongside the atmospheric scientists and then all comparing notes and learning from one another. It was a win-win-win, for scientists, students, and the planet.
The thing about running a nonprofit for me was that I really love being a scientist, and the nonprofit work really grew out of my passion for my work. That’s a big distinguishing factor in this race, in this district. I am not running to advance my personal career. I am doing this because I see a problem, and that is that we need scientists, and scientific thought and understanding, to be represented in government.
What has surprised you most so far about running for office?
I went into this expecting to be a champion for evidence and science. I didn’t expect to become a proponent of campaign finance reform. I didn’t realize how bad our campaign finance system is.
Less than 1 percent of Americans make political campaign donations. That is literally the one percent driving money to candidates, and they choose who gets on a ballot, and that determines who you will vote for.
If you find a candidate you like and donate before the primary, you’re making the biggest difference in their campaign possible. You don’t have to give the maximum amount allowed, which is $2,700. You could give $200, and that group of those few people, donating in those amounts, can change the state of the nation.
Imagine if people find an awesome candidate, a Doug Jones type, but his opponent is better funded. Because of the way the system is set up, Jones would never make it to the ballot. Regardless of how my race turns out, I will now be a lifelong advocate for campaign finance reform. I believe we need to overturn Citizens United, and we need to have publicly funded elections. Candidates should be learning about policy and engaging voters, but campaigning turns you into a professional fundraiser. For now, it is the system we have, but it is not the system we should have.
Is there something that you wish you had the opportunity to discuss in more detail but often gets sidelined?
People get that I’m a science nerd, but they don’t always realize I am a serious gun control person. I grew up in Littleton, Colorado, and I knew people at Columbine High School. My boyfriend went there. For me, wanting to enact gun control is about more than a common sense proposal. For example, I think the Centers for Disease Control should study gun violence. This idea has driven me throughout my whole career, the idea that young people were killed in this nonsensical way when I was safe and sound a few miles away.
The other thing that’s fun to mention—since everyone knows the sound bite about how I’m a volcanologist but I do not study Star Trek Vulcans—is what I learned from listening to people when I had a job working in the classified section of a local newspaper.
We had a free section, Aunt Clara’s Closet, and I paid for college by taking ads for that, as well as the regular classifieds, learning what people were trying to move along through their lives, whether it was a grandmother’s cabinet they wanted to sell to pay for college, or a small business owner calling to get the wording just right for an ad. It taught me about everyday life in a way that some minimum wage jobs might not, about the things people worry about and are proud of.
Politicians have to be in this because they genuinely care about people. It means a lot to someone when you shake their hand, and they have never met anyone running for office before, or anyone who holds office. You have to be committed to that level of care, and I am.
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