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 Randy Wadkins, a chemistry professor at the University of Mississippi running against Trent Kelly—the Republican incumbent in Mississippi's first congressional district. Though Kelly won his seat in 2016 with nearly 69 percent of the vote, Wadkins is hoping that Kelly's support for the American Health Care Act, which is expected to strip roughly 10 percent of his constituents of their health insurance, will give Wadkins the edge he needs to take the conservative district.
Why did you decide to run now?
I had just completed a year as a congressional fellow back in August of last year; I worked in the office of Steve Cohen, he's the congressman from Memphis, and part of being a congressional fellow was to try to help the congressman with very complicated issues, like health care and science-related issues. While I was there, it was clear that people—not just in Mississippi, but all communities in the United States—needed better representation, because [representatives] are often voting on things that they don't understand, and they have staffers who don't understand them.
When I got back, Trump was elected; he has a very anti-science platform. He has basically come out and said publicly that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese; he has stated publicly that vaccines cause autism. I think the final straw when was when the president's budget was released—it basically would have tanked all the science and technology efforts for the entire U.S.
In your view, how has the current representative, Kelly, let the district down?
In the Mississippi first district, our representative voted [last week] to take health insurance—Medicaid—away from 71,000 or more people in our district; that's nearly 10 percent of our district, because the first district of Mississippi is very poor. It has some of the worst economic issues in the entire nation. To take 10 percent of our population here off the only health care they had—it made no sense to me. Many of the things that are being said about health care in this country are just simply false. For example, Republicans kept saying Obamacare is collapsing, and that is completely wrong. But that's the story that's being repeated over and over again, so people start to listen. Are there problems with the Affordable Care Act? Yes. Could we fix those problems? Yes. There was no need to repeal the whole thing. [Last week's] vote was certainly a disaster for the first district of Mississippi, and I'm sure it's going to be the same in a lot of rural districts where there is widespread poverty and health issues.
This is one of the things that's going to drive any scientist who is in Congress crazy: that politics takes precedence over policy. They're playing a game with people's lives. That's the part that needs to change dramatically, and, hopefully this next election, what's going on now will get people out to the polls to vote. I think if you can get people to understand how important to their lives it is who they put into office.
Should science have a larger role in government and policy?
The founding fathers were fascinated by science; it was used to inform the foundation of this country. Abraham Lincoln created the National Academies of Science to advise the U.S. government on complicated matters. Science has always been important to policymaking in the U.S.—except recently. We've entered completely uncharted waters, I would say, in terms of science policy now not informing Congress, not even being valued by the government anymore. You can see that with Environmental Protection Agency regulations being rolled back. The people who are allowing this to happen really seem to be absolutely ignorant of so much science and so much technology. That ought to scare everybody in the U.S. to death.
Do you think we would be better off if there were more scientists in Congress?
It's hard to come up with solutions to complicated problems, from the health-care crisis in the U.S. to issues in the Middle East, if you don't have an informed opinion. Scientists are very good at this kind of thing. This is what we do for a living—to look at complicated, complex systems and try to make sense of it all; come up with ideas, and make informed decisions based on the data that we have. The more people we get like that in Congress, the better the country is going to be, because we'll be making fundamentally sound decisions based on evidence.
What are the biggest issues facing your district?
For my campaign, it's looking at what is the future of jobs in U.S., and how do we position the first district of Mississippi to take advantage of that, because we have problems here. I've been a chemistry professor at the University of Mississippi for 14 years, and every year at graduation it's a little bit of a sad time for us, because all the people that we train in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, and computer science, after graduation, they immediately leave the state. It's been going on that way for 14 years, because there's no infrastructure here to create jobs for them to stay. Until we have someone working on that problem, the poverty issues that we have and the educational issues that we have and the health issues that we have are just going to continue, because those are all interconnected.
Kelly won the first district in 2016 with almost 69 percent of the vote; do you think he can be ousted by a Democrat?
A lot of people forget this but when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, three out of the four congressional districts in Mississippi were held by Democrats. They were conservative Democrats on many issues, but still Democrats. It was the 2010 Tea Party wave that really took the Democrats out, especially in the first district. So it is conservative. But those in this district are also a pragmatic people who realize that there is enormous dependence on federal funding in the first district, and some of the proposals that the Republicans are putting forward, they're not going to do anything for our district. You just have to convince them that you're the candidate to make their lives better. Like I said, 71,000 people in this district were just kicked off of their health insurance; if I can turn those 71,000 people out on November 6th, 2018, then I win.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.