The election of President Donald Trump prompted one of the most profound groundswells of citizen action in recent memory. That action has taken many forms, including a flood of donations to progressive organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, and organized marches around the country on behalf of women, science, and climate. That civic reaction has rooted itself to politics too: Well ahead of the 2018 mid-terms, a slew of novice candidates for Congress are looking to unseat longtime incumbents in both Republican and Democratic strongholds.
Pacific Standard spoke with several of these political outsiders about their campaigns, including Derrick Crowe, a climate activist turned congressional candidate looking to unseat Republican Lamar Smith—a 30-year incumbent for Texas' 21st congressional district and infamous climate denier.
Why did you decide to run now?
I started off as a climate change activist in this district. In response to these signs that the climate was kind of going off the rails, the representative in this district escalated his activism on behalf of the fossil fuel companies. Smith is a chairman of the House Science Committee who doesn't believe in science. Instead of exposing the misbehavior of fossil fuel companies, he has used his position to protect them from investigation for defrauding shareholders and the public about the risks of their products. When he took those actions and combined them with very explicit support for Trump's agenda, I couldn't stay on the sidelines.
People act like Trump's America is this new thing, but Smith has been preparing the ground for these policies for 30 years in politics. He's got a voting record that 100 percent lines up with the things Trump is actually implementing right now.
If you look at Trump's attacks on the press, Smith has been on the record saying that more than a terrorist attack, more than an economic disaster, liberal media bias is the greatest danger to the United States of America. Folks who are appalled by what Trump is doing should look at the people in Congress like Smith who've been preparing the ground for the last three decades.
How has Smith used his position to undermine science-based policy and bolster industry?
The importance of science-based policy is that you have policies that have a chance of working in the real world. Science has given us everything from putting people on the moon, to the cell phones in our hands, to medical treatments that can save people's lives. For members of Congress to use the honesty of scientists about the inherent uncertainty in their work to cast doubt on things that have overwhelming consensus, like human-caused climate change, means we have representatives that are serving the interests of corporations, not the people that they are elected to serve.
I'm from a really small town in Texas that has a refinery right outside of it, and that refinery has frequently been cited for Clean Air Act violations and violations of the Clean Water Rule. The company that owns that refinery right now is donating to Smith. Smith is using his position to protect corporations who hurt these communities where these companies operate.
How does the fossil fuel industry harm communities?
The behavior of fossil fuel companies in general endangers the communities around them in a lot of ways. [The industry] poses dangers to drinkable water and breathable air. These industrial processes have byproducts that are poisonous, and that's why we have things like the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Rule. It's not just that we have this long-term catastrophic potential for increasing carbon dioxide, it's that, in the short-term, they often are located in low-income and minority communities, and those communities see things like elevated asthma rates, elevated cancer rates, the mortality rates are higher than they should be, and it's because oil and gas and coal have very dangerous byproducts. If representatives are going to go to Congress and not stand up for those communities when they face those short-term consequences, or even the long-term consequences, it shows you that our political system is broken and that we have to have citizen activism and new candidates to push these people out of office.
Why hasn't Smith stood up to the fossil fuel industry?
When I talk to folks out here I tell them, look, when we want something clearly, like action on climate change, and our representative form of government doesn't deliver it, you have to ask why, and the why is money in politics. Smith has been perfectly happy with a rigged political system because he's reaped the benefit. But for those of us who live out in his district, we're not reaping the benefit of it. These big corporations have their hands around the economy and the political system's throat. Corporate power is completely out of control in this country. That means you're less free politically because they're picking and choosing winners in politics, but it also means they're picking and choosing winners in the economy.
If we don't address money in politics, we're looking at an escalating disaster as time goes on and we hit the wall on climate change. That's one of the reasons I'm not taking corporate PAC money in this campaign. We're going to fund our campaign from contributions of individuals who feel like we do—that not only do we have to address climate change, but we have to address corporate power in politics.
Smith has won this district 16 times in a row. Can he be defeated in 2018?
While this district has tended to vote pretty conservative, Smith is very much out of step with them when it comes to the idea of regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. There have been surveys done by the Yale Climate Connections project on the opinions of people in various counties, congressional districts, and states, about what they think about fossil fuels and climate change; upwards of 60 percent of people in this district support regulating it and investing in alternative energy resources. This district leads the state in solar jobs, and this state leads the country in wind jobs. The majority of people here support moving to this new energy economy. This district was constructed to protect Smith specifically—it's gerrymandered horribly. But that protection is starting to fail. Smith won with less than 60 percent of the vote for the first time this past year. When you look at what's happening between presidential cycles, Mitt Romney won 60 percent of this district and Trump only won 52 percent. It really does seem like this is the year that Smith is going to go.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.