A slew of candidates across the country with medical and scientific backgrounds are trying to forge their way into public office up and down the ticket amid a once-in-a-century health crisis.
While they may have launched their candidacies before the pandemic sent shockwaves through the U.S. economy, upending daily life and presenting President Donald Trump with the greatest challenge of his presidency, advocates and aspiring politicians from the scientific arena hope more people from their professions will be motivated to run in the future.
“It’s understandable that people in their everyday lives don’t necessarily see how government affects their everyday lives,” Dr. Nancy Goroff, a Democrat running against Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), told Newsweek. “The pandemic has, I think, shown people how important it is who we elect, that elections really matter, and they matter to our everyday lives.”
The number of lawyers in Congress has decreased over the decades as the professional makeup of members has become more diverse. In 1964, for example, there were 315 lawyers in Congress—or nearly 59 percent. In the current Congress, roughly half of the 100 senators are lawyers along with 160 in the House, meaning about 39 percent are of the legal profession.
The House clerk and the Congressional Research Service offer slightly conflicting statistics on the current number of members who hail from the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields (STEM), as well as the medical profession. Based upon an estimate between the two, there are a little more than 50 lawmakers who fall under the STEM or medical categories, equating to less than 10 percent of Congress. There are slightly more Republicans than Democrats in this group.
The most popular prior occupation for members of Congress is “public service/politics”—about 43 percent—and nearly 40 percent classify themselves as businessmen or businesswomen, about the same percentage as lawyers.
“I discovered how hard it is to break into politics when you don’t have that traditional law or political background,” Shaughnessy Naughton, who ran unsuccessful primary campaigns as a Democrat in 2014 and 2016 for Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District, told Newsweek.
Naughton founded 314 Action, a progressive advocacy group that helps STEM and medical candidates get elected. Some of the most common barriers that such candidates face, she said, is a lack of resources and the idea among those she works with that science and politics remain separate from one another.
But with the Trump administration’s bungled and sluggish response to coronavirus, including downplaying the virus’ severity that has killed more than 210,000 Americans, Naughton said now is all the more reason for STEM and medical professionals to throw their hats into the ring. She laughed at the question of whether more such candidates might politicize science, citing the politicization of the use of masks by the Trump administration and some Republicans.
“There are always going to be bad actors, but the solution isn’t to cede the argument to them,” Naughton said. “The solution is to step up, take a seat at the table and call them out.”
The 314 Action group is investing $10 million into federal races this year, along with more than $900,000 at the state level. Dr. Goroff, who’s running against Zeldin and could become the first woman Ph.D. scientist in Congress, is just one of nearly three dozen candidates up and down the ticket that 314 Action has endorsed.
The organization is also backing the closely-watched races of Dr. Al Gross for Senate in Alaska, Dr. Barbara Bollier for Senate in Kansas, Dr. Hiral Tipirneni in Arizona’s 6th Congressional District and some seeking re-election, like Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) and Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.),
Dr. Cameron Webb, who works in a Virginia clinic that treats Covid-19 patients, is another one. If successful in flipping Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, he would become the first black physician in the House with voting power.
“An ideal version of Congress is that it’s representative of the nation as a whole. At its core, a physician is someone who’s a healer,” Dr. Webb told Newsweek. “At a time where we absolutely need healing nationally, as a physician, my skill set is listening to people, asking folks where it hurts and listening for an answer. That’s what we do, and it’s what we need right now.”