“It’s quite a huge journey for a scientist to run for Congress in a big district like this as their first foray into politics, but I do hard things for a living.”
So says Elaine DiMasi, Democratic candidate for New York’s 1st Congressional District (the eastern tip of Long Island, including the Hamptons), who ran the Brookhaven Laboratory until 2017, when she stepped down to focus on her campaign to oust incumbent Republican Lee Zeldin. Since then, she has received positive feedback from her constituents: after a debate last night with her four opponents, one went up to her and said, “You look like you’re ready to go to work tomorrow.” I felt the same way after interviewing her this afternoon, where she opened up about job creation, the economic recession, and how someone with no prior experience in politics could make themselves a prominent force in a change year like this one.
Jeremy Fassler: Tell me a little bit about your background: where you're from, who your parents were, and how you became interested in science.
Elaine DiMasi: I'm from Pittsburgh, where my parents still live in the house I grew up in. My Mom is a biologist who left the lab to raise a family, and my Dad is an engineer, and they both encouraged me to always learn and explore. I'd say my high school teachers got me interested in science, but it's just my nature to be interested in the world. I was a 5-year-old collecting caterpillars, which made my mom unhappy and my father happy, but I just wanted to know how everything worked. In high school, my teachers made me realize I could pursue science as a career.
How does the rigor of the public education system today compare to what it was when you grew up?
Everything is corporatized now. Instead of educating students, we’ve created a way to measure whether they’ve passed some tests, and then we created a scheme so that students have to try to pass the test. They don’t learn how to think critically and do things in groups during the time they’re learning how to take the test. And then we have a government that says, “Did they pass the test? Okay, our job is done here. Can we do it for even less money next time, because that would be even more efficient?” All of that needs a sea change.
Does this affect kids who are already at a disadvantage, either because they come from lower economic strata, or have recently emigrated to this country, or both?
One thing that is desperately needed on Long Island is an expansion of trade schools. Parents and educators are telling me that students who come from immigrant backgrounds and don’t have the preparation in English language, or who want to work primarily with their hands, aren’t making it out of high school because they are not ready to take the test, and then they can’t get into the trade programs where they belong, where the ability to take that kind of test is not important. We are not doing the right thing by these students, and we’re not going to have the talented workforce that we need in the decades to come if we don’t get this right.
How did your interest in science develop in college and graduate school?
In undergrad, I took whatever work or labs were offered because I was exploring my craft and learning what to do in a lab. In graduate school I went into material physics because of the type of experiments I wanted to do, working with my hands to build electronics, for example. It was focused on what my work would be like almost more than what the discoveries would be about. That started to change after I came to Brookhaven and had been here a few years. I started to want to work on some things that people outside the lab would care more about, such as biological minerals that connected me to medical implants, and ocean chemistry. But that core of “what I’m going to do with my own two hands” is how I think about talking to the people in this district. There’s a lot of really talented workers in this district.
When did you first start working at Brookhaven?
I arrived here in February 1996, right out of graduate school. It’s a story I like to tell, actually. During the last year in grad school, I sent my resumes to labs, and my advisor said, “I know people at Brookhaven, so go ahead and send them there. I did, and then they said, “Well, we’re not hiring, but you seem so interesting.” So I followed them to a conference and met them, and then I came home and wrote them and said, “I’d like to come for an interview. I know you’re not hiring, but I’ll pay my own way. If you would host me and let me give a talk, that would be great.” I found out later that the group leaders told his group, “So, there’s this girl coming…she doesn’t really know anything about what we do, but I know her advisor so I’m trying to be nice.” After my interview day they found me a job. So I don’t really take “I doubt it” for an answer with regards to being a candidate, or anything else I’ve done.
You mentioned that you hadn’t been registered with a political party until Bernie Sanders joined the Democratic primary in 2015. What inspired you about him?
Bernie Sanders was shining that spotlight on the wealth inequality and how straightforward it is for us all to agree to fix that. The legislative lever on institutional racism is a little harder to pull on, but the institutional lever to reverse some of these regressive tax and banking policies is pretty straightforward. What he was saying was so important that I wanted to really pay attention to the dialogue and get more involved.
What finally made you decide to run for office?
After Trump’s election, I knew it would be possible because it’s still an insurgent time where you could make the argument that people don’t want a politician in office. I got my first hint eight years before that, when I saw Rep. Vern Ellers [former representative from Michigan and nuclear physicist] ] gave a talk I heard about how important it was to add scientists to the problem-solving body Congress is supposed to be. When I decided I wanted to run a campaign in the spring of 2017, I did training in Washington with he 314 action PAC that trains scientists. Then I came back to my community with a clipboard and said, “Hey, scientists are running for office, are you interested in helping them?” (not me necessarily), then handing off my work and doing Dialing for Dollars for a month in my house on unpaid leave just so I could make sure I knew I was getting into. It’s not an easy gauntlet to start, much less run the route of.
It seems like it’s come really naturally to you though, if constituents are coming up to you and saying things like, “You could do this job tomorrow.”
The debate last night went well because I was saying to them, “I have a specific plan, I know what we need to do about this, and here are the facts.” You never know exactly how the questions are going to be flavored in a debate or what the audience wants to know because you don’t really connect with them while the moderators are asking questions. But that feedback tells me that I’m being heard and that people have had enough of “political sounding” speeches.
Not all scientists are great at connecting to the general public, though. They tend to get bogged down in wonky language and go on the defensive if a Fox News host asks them dumb questions about whether or not global warming is real. You don’t seem to have that though. Did you do anything to overcome it?
Politicians have no hesitation in meddling with science, but scientists don’t want to campaign. My fellow scientists feel weird wearing the DiMasi for Congress button, they feel like they should be apolitical. We can’t be apolitical anymore, time’s run out, so part of it’s about being more fearless, but another part is about performance. I’ve had the privilege of working with Alan Alda, who came to do a study that brought 13 youngish scientists together to teach us to communicate. In the beginning, he told us to give a two-minute talk at the beginning about what we do, and then we did actor’s exercises all day: handing invisible objects back and forth, mirroring our partner’s body language and faces, and teaching us how to look and listen. At the end of the day, he told us to give the same talk we gave at the beginning, and see the change in what we decided to say. I reviewed that DVD before I became a candidate to remind myself how to communicate in a different way.
Why do you think Republicans, and conservatives in general, are so hostile towards science and scientists?
People who disagree with the way the world should be handled disagree with our ideas of ownership. Whoever said we could own the land? That’s something that humanity invented. Once we decide we could own the land, we start talking about how we can own people. We owned people of color, people owned women. An extreme conservative is somebody who says, “This is the end of the story: figure out what we own, let’s make decisions with that property, and we’re done.” That’s who the property owners are. I think progressives are saying, “We have to rethink this business of letting wealth own things.” That’s the undercurrent underneath all this, and so the environment and science come into play there, because if you are caring about the environment and looking at the facts of our human activity that damages the environment, you’re saying, “Our idea of owning the environment is wrong: we are overstepping the sustainability of our land.”
DiMasi, third from right, in a debate with her primary opponents last January.
People my age are concerned about jobs and the economy, but renewable energy is one of the best ways to create jobs wherever necessary. Would you invest in training so that people who are unemployed, or have jobs now that might not exist in ten years, be able to work with the jobs that require these technologies?
Because of my background as a US Department of Energy scientist for so many years, I’m very knowledgeable about the range and breadth of the types of jobs that are available - administrative jobs, finance jobs, budgeting jobs, etc. - for these projects. There are all kinds of jobs. Some of them are for young people coming right out, some are for experienced professionals. Some are commodities things, like installing standard solar panels. Others are for inventions and discoveries. Our district has half a billion dollars coming in to prepare the national lab in this district. It’s the only source of federal money like it in the district, and it’s focused on energy. I’ve worked w/steel-toed shoes and hardhats side-by-side with tech, and I know how to talk to them. I've lived here for 22 years. I’m not just an ivory tower academic.
You can’t just run a campaign on preserving the jobs that are already there and may not be the most efficient anymore, like coal mining. You want to take us further down the road so that we don’t have to rely on coal anymore, we have people who are prepared to take on whatever that next thing is.
Most job losses in the coal industry came from the mechanization of things that people used to do with their bodies, which is a natural outgrowth of making any industry safer and more cost-effective. But yes, it’s time to stop burning coal. Republicans didn’t use to talk about coal quite this much, but now they do. Not only does that do nothing for Long Island in terms of job creation, but the air masses from the fossil fuels that come from coal-fired plants in Pennsylvania and the Midwest move in this direction. Long Island has F for air quality, and some of that is absolutely attributable to these power plants in other states.
It’s frightening for millennials like me, who have had a rough time in the job market. We don’t know where these next jobs are going to come from.
Millennials have been handed an impossible landscape. I know this because you have been my students and my assistants during my whole career. I watched what happened during that recession: a whole three-year cohort of graduates lost the ability to get employed out of their schools, and by the time the economy recovered, you guys were on your way and there was another crop of students coming out to take those entry-level jobs. Millions of people have been stuck in service jobs that they’re overqualified for ever since. Wealth inequality has to be addressed, but how can we elect that in district 1? I’m very serious about this. I care about wealth inequality more than most things, but I do not believe that by giving voters a lecture about wealth inequality, that I will succeed. I want everybody to say, “Wow, the future can be great. Look at the jobs we can do. Look what we’re going to do to protect our environment. Elaine is a scientist. This district has a scientist running. Did you see NY-1? This is national news.” I want to bring out everybody, including the national audience.
You’re running in an extremely wealthy district, where about 15% of the population make upwards of $100,000 per year. They might be afraid of these kinds of policies because they want to protect their wallets. How do you explain to them that an investment in the form of their tax dollars goes a long way 5-10 years from now, after these technologies have been implemented?
Although these folks only have one vote each, they are very influential, We all have to agree that taxes are for investments that we care about, and the data is staring us in the face, saying that if we don’t take care of our environment, there’s nothing for us. Although this 15% feel like their wealth is well-earned and well-deserved, they don’t disagree with these moral statements. I think at the end, the facts have to have a final say.
What would you say to people who might want to run for office themselves someday?
Get out in your community now and find out what the organizers and activists are doing. I don’t mean finding out what causes they’re posting about on social media. Go to the library, sit in that hard, plastic chair in the meeting, make the phone calls to get everybody to show up at the rally. Find out what the organizers are doing. That was very important to my start, learning what community organizers here did physically in order to get the lay of the land and calculate what to do and how to rally people. It’s real work, and it’s work that a candidate has to do.
For more information about Elaine DiMasis's campaign for Congress, click here.