Why this rocket scientist is running for Congress

Aerospace engineer Tracy Van Houten is hoping to trade NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the House of Representatives. She is one of a growing number of scientists and women running for office in the wake of Donald Trump's victory.

Jessica Mendoza
Democrat Tracy Van Houten, one of 24 candidates in the primary for California's 34th Congressional District, goes door to door in Mount Washington, a neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles, on April 1, 2017. Ms. Van Houten, who has worked for 13 years as an aerospace engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is partof a surge in political interest and activism following President Trump's election. 'We have to stand up for the issues that are important to us, if we are competent and capable,' Van Houten says. 'If we want more engineers and more moms, more women in government, I better be willing to say, ‘Pick me. Watch me.’ ”

It may not take a rocket scientist to run for office, but Tracy Van Houten wants to prove there’s room for one in Congress.

“As an engineer, I’m a complex problem solver. I’m a strategist. I’m always developing long-term strategy and the tactical implementation plans to go along with it,” says Ms. Van Houten, an aerospace engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who has worked on the Mars Curiosity rover and the mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. “Those things should be key to our lawmakers.”

Van Houten is one of 24 mostly Democratic candidates vying Tuesday in the primary for the seat vacated by new California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. (Voters will decide between the top two on June 6.) Thirteen are women and many are first-time candidates – including a former journalist, a filmmaker, and a comedian – who have never held public office.

The race gives an early glimpse into the phenomenon of political newcomers, mostly on the left, trying their hand at politics in the wake of President Trump’s successful bid for the White House, some pundits say. Galvanized by a fear of what his presidency could mean for liberal values and causes, nonpoliticians are taking part in the political process on the hope and promise that their unconventional experiences can jumpstart change from within the system.

“People are frustrated with the status quo, and that has led them to think it’s because of politicians that things aren’t getting done,” says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It says to people, ‘Hey, I can do a better job than that.’ ”

It’s a notion that’s easy to embrace during times of political uncertainty. Since the November election, young progressive women across the country have flocked to political training programs, and a surge in activism among scientists has led groups such as 314 Action to launch seminars about running for political office. But some analysts say it’s too early to tell whether or not the trend will persist, or if newcomers can make any real difference once they do make it to Washington.

“I think we’re at a somewhat unusual slice of time right now,” notes Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women in Politics Institute at American University, also in Washington. “Among people who were already quite politically active, those who wanted to take the next step might see it as more feasible, especially in an open seat where it’s anyone’s race.”

“Whether or not that has staying power,” she says, “I don’t know.”

Rocket scientist and mom

Van Houten’s pitch is forthright: “I’m a rocket scientist, I’m a mom, I’m a concerned citizen,” she says, introducing herself to potential voters in Mount Washington, a neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles where she went door-to-door on a recent Saturday morning. Her campaign for the 34th Congressional District seat centers around battling climate change and championing data-driven approaches to public policy and infrastructure.

It was slow going – the streets were hilly and few residents answered their doors – but she met every question and grumpy greeting with a smile. Where no one came out to meet her, she left a handwritten post-it note and a flyer at the door. Her determination, Van Houten says, comes from years of having to prove herself in her field.

“I had friends and close family who had been supportive of me throughout my life who were skeptical when I said, ‘I’m going to be an aerospace engineer,’ ” she says. “My response was: ‘Watch me.’ ” 

The approach is one that could resonate with a progressive voter base. Should she win, Van Houten would be the first female engineer in Congress, and she casts herself as a data fiend determined to defend both the truth and liberal values.

“Answering mankind’s biggest questions no longer feel big enough,” she says. “I want to help address the problems on earth that we’re facing right now.”

Other first-time candidates in the race for Becerra’s seat are using similar tactics. Democrat Sara Hernandez has leveraged her experience as an attorney and former teacher to launch a platform of bridging the gap between policy and how they play out in real people’s lives. Labor activist and former journalist Wendy Carrillo has banked on her ability to spark and run grassroots movements and defense of values like integrity and honesty.

The strategy easily finds purchase in a culture that has historically prided itself on standing up to authority. From its very beginnings, the United States was “a frontier society that relies on the individual,” says Ms. Kamarck, who has written a number of books on political trends and the presidency. In recent years, she says, the American public’s growing distrust of major institutions has only hardened that foundational belief.

“When people are upset with the establishment or upset with where the country is heading, it becomes amenable for outsiders to take on [the system],” Professor Lawless says.

With a sitting president embodying the idea of the outsider infiltrating the establishment, she adds, “people who are not politically experienced but have a history of being politically active can look at that and say, ‘I can probably win a primary for a lower seat.’ ”

A crowded field

Running for elected office, however, is not the same as winning. The race for Becerra’s seat could once more prove that making it as a newcomer in a crowded field – especially in a district known for low turnout – is easier said than done. Candidates are faced with the triple challenge of introducing themselves to voters, informing them that there is an election, and urging them to vote.

Those that do emerge victorious quickly learn that not every skill is applicable to politics and policymaking, Kamarck says. Even those that are require a certain level of understanding and experience before they can be translated into effective governance.

She gives negotiating as an example: “Trump is absolutely right in saying we need good negotiators to be president,” Kamarck says. But negotiating a health care deal without knowing anything about the subject is ineffective at best and destructive at worst, she notes. 

The same could be said for engineers, teachers, and journalists using their skills to craft effective legislation on a range of issues, she says.

“The generic skill is important,” Kamarck says. “But people forget that you need to have substance to be good at it.”

“What [politicians] care most about is getting re-elected, and the issues that matter most to a state or district determines how a member of Congress behaves,” Lawless adds. “That said, it doesn’t hurt to have more lawyers on the judiciary committee, or more rocket scientists when we’re talking about science and technology.”

Indeed, some say there are distinct advantages to electing representatives who are not of the traditional political class. At 314 Action, the political group encouraging scientists and engineers to run for office, president Shaughnessy Naughton says bringing in people who are teachers, scientists, and researchers would allow more diverse perspectives into the political establishment.

“We would certainly get more of an emphasis on facts and what actually works,” she says. They will be less partisan, more collaborative.”

And there’s definitely a growing thirst for it. “We have had an outpouring of scientists and STEM professionals around the country reaching out and saying, ‘We want to do more,’ ” Ms. Naughton says. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Candidates like Van Houten hope to tap into the wave. More than qualifications, she says, what it comes down to is regular people empowering themselves and one another to make their voices heard through the political process.

“This for me is not just about representation but inspiration,” she says. “We have to stand up for the issues that are important to us, if we are competent and capable. If we want more engineers and more moms, more women in government, I better be willing to say, ‘Pick me. Watch me.’ ”

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