A New Generation of Leaders: Jess Phoenix is running for Congress

In 2018 there are an unprecedented amount of candidates on the Democratic side that come from a scientific background and I was thrilled to be joined by one of them for Earth Day. Jess Phoenix is one of three Democratic candidates vying to unseat Representative Steve Knight in California’s 25th district and with a chorus of calls from the Democratic voters for a new generation of leaders, Phoenix is rising at just the right time.

As a field scientist, Phoenix traveled to different parts of the world studying volcanoes. She founded Blueprint Earth, a non-profit to study ecosystems and educate the public. “We work with children in schools, to give them a chance to do science. I love what I do both with volcanoes and the non-profit but with Trump’s election and realizing that Steve Knight, my representative, is very anti-science, anti-environment, anti-LGBTQ rights, anti-public education funding; it was really imperative that I jump in and attempt to unseat him.”

And Phoenix has been fighting an uphill battle. The loser in the 2016 race, Bryan Caforio—who lost by 6 percentage points in a state Hillary Clinton decimated Donald Trump in in 2016—and outsider Katie Hill had a major fundraising advantage and get much of the ink. But Phoenix explains, “We have the broadest support, the most individual contributions of anyone in the race including the incumbent and my message is very different. We’re running in a different era. This is no longer politics as usual and the candidates who ran in 2014 and 2016, they were all well and good for that era but we are in a new time and we need new voices with a fresh message to get people excited and who can really connect with lots of different people with lots of different backgrounds because it’s all about making connections and overcoming the disconnection that we see from Trump’s toxic agenda.”

If elected to the Congress as it stands today, Phoenix would join Bill Foster (D-IL) as one of only a handful of members who aren’t either lawyers, business executives or career politicians. “I think I am the only Ph.D. scientist of any kind [in Congress]  ,” Foster told PRI at the start of the 115th Congress in January of last year. In a time of intense weather related issues, conspiracy theories about vaccinations and rising sea levels, America has had a scientific deficit in the halls of leadership. And efforts to combat Climate Change have been stymied.

“Previously it was enough for people on the committee to be open to listening to experts and they were willing to do that,” Phoenix says. “But that is no longer the case. We have gotten to an era where people are actually rejecting experts and their expertise and there is kind of an anti-intellectual trend that we’re seeing in society. So it’s very important for us to have voices in our government who are not just cognizant of that, but have a deeper understanding of what the meaning of different scientific results are and have the ability to speak with people of different backgrounds.” Phoenix explains how critical it is to have a government that cannot just respond to scientific issues but to also  be able to explain the issues to people from diverse backgrounds and with levels of understanding. “This is the 21st century and it is only through scientific research and technological innovation that we meet the challenges we face.”

The current technological crisis the United States faces is the incursion of foreign influence in our democracy. The height of this came in 2016 when the Russian government used Facebook and other social media platforms to run an influence campaign to benefit Donald Trump. It was hard to watch members of Congress from both parties trying to question Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on his company’s role in that effort during his testimony on Capital Hill.

“It’s obvious that a lot of them don’t understand Facebook; how it works and the fact that if you’re engaging in something that is free—you are the product. And that is a fundamental aspect of Facebook that I think a lot of, in particular the Senators, wimped out on.” So what kind of question would Zuckerberg have faced from a Congresswoman Jess Phoenix? “I would like to have asked a question on regulation,” she explained. “I’d like to see the United States adopt the regulation the EU (European Union) has, which is GDPR  (General Data Protection Regulation). It is ramping up to enforcement next month and this is to make sure that data privacy laws are all in sync across Europe and we need to do the same thing in the United States because it really is a different way of protecting data privacy to protect consumers and the general public in ways that currently are not done. So, I’d ask Zuckerberg, ‘Do you support the United States adopting GDPR-type regulatory framework?’” Asked about whether social media platforms should have to identify who is paying for political ads, Phoenix says yes. “We have that in print ads and for television and radio ads so having that on digital seems like a logical next step. There’s little doubt that there is a relevant generational gap in discussing these issues and we need candidates who are better equipped to answer cyber security and data privacy concerns that arguably are responsible for the current administration occupying the executive branch of government.”

Speaking of the current administration, Donald Trump has been using his office to attack his own Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Phoenix is unique among her rivals to be able to respond to this troubling turn of events. Both of her parents are former FBI agents. Her mom retired in 1998 and her dad in 2002. Both were career FBI agents, specialists in their respective fields. This introduced her to many FBI agents throughout her life. “Of course there were will be, like in any organization, some people who will not have the true values of the organization in mind but I’d say the vast majority of the agents I have come into contact with are people with high integrity who are working to further the interests of our country and to keep people safe. I know that’s what my parents were doing. So it’s really upsetting to see the federal government, the executive branch lead by the president, slinging so many arrows and stones at the Bureau. I know the Bureau’s not perfect. It definitely has issues and we need to make sure we have oversight. But we also have to be able to have confidence in them and when the president undermines the FBI and when the president’s employees like the press secretary undermine the work of the FBI, they’re not just casting stones at some nameless, faceless organization. These are real people who work every day, you know 10, 12 hour days a lot of the time where they don’t see their families because they believe in the mission of the FBI. And they believe the motto: Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity—and Trump, I don’t believe, has ever exercised any one of those things in his life.”

Winning back trust in American institutions could be the greatest challenge of the next Congress. Members of the House of Representatives are only elected to two-year terms and when the smoke clears and #Resistance energy wanes, it will have been critically important for new House members to have made accomplishments to make life better or safer or both for the general public. What does Jess Phoenix feel she must get accomplished during her prospective first term in office? “We need to enact meaningful gun reform and that includes providing funding for the CDC to study the causes and solutions to the gun violence epidemic and it is making sure we implement all of these common sense gun reforms that a clear majority of Americans support but are not being addressed by our Congress and so I want to make sure that we make these changes. And that we have a system in place that is more protective of people’s right to life than of 2nd amendment rights. Second Amendment rights are important, however they aren’t sacrosanct.”

One of the advantages of sending people to Congress who have a background in studying problems and solutions is that issues, while influenced by empathy and emotion, are responded to based in facts and determined by proven results. The gun issue is one among many issues that will face the next Congress and so we asked Jess Phoenix to explain the approach to solving a problem that isn’t reliant on information provided by lobbying firms and instead is based on a logical, scientific process. You might remember Rachel Maddow covering a huge gas leak in Porter Ranch, California. It’s here we find a perfect example of a crisis that requires a response from all levels of government.

The problems of a methane gas leak, like the one in Alisa Canyon, is that it’s a terrible pollutant, highly flammable and smells terrible  and it was one Phoenix’s future constituents experienced first hand. The question for her is how something of that nature should have been addressed but wasn’t. “In the case of Alisa Canyon, [where the gas leak happened], it’s basically something that could have been foreseen. That’s because those wells that are drilled for the natural gas storage function are old. They’re all over 50 years old and there’re over 100 of them there at that particular facility and that particular facility is underlain by the Santa Susana fault which has the ability to rupture up to a 7.2 magnitude [earthquake]. So that right there is a red flag. That facility should not exist in that location. Especially in such close proximity to population centers. So I would want to take the approach of looking at it as a potential major disaster site. So, [a potential major disaster site] is where you can say, we’re storing a large amount of oil here or natural gas or it could be a major transportation hub or power hub vulnerable to disruption. Whenever you have something like that, it’s not just a scientific way of looking at it, but a disaster preparedness way of looking at it.

Preparedness overlaps a few different areas. And it’s a very methodical way of doing things. You have to assess the risk and what hazards exist and then you have to identify what your resources are and your capability of responding to a disaster is. Answering questions like, ‘If you won’t have enough water for people, where can you source water from?’ Like in science, that’s looking at all of the available data in order to eliminate uncertainty. I think that’s what we do a lot of in disaster preparedness so when the worst thing happens, you have plans in place. You have to have actionable steps you can take. And I believe that’s a necessary quality in lawmaking. Too many are tied to their ideology or their core corporate donors or their lobbyists and what they want. And so, all the evidence in the world won’t change their position. But that’s not what we need as a country. We need to be able to adapt. That’s what the 21st Century is demanding of us.”

In a country where domestic investment is something the Republican Party seems to be allergic too, it seems unimaginable that we can be prepared as a country for worst case scenarios. But Phoenix is optimistic. “I think it’s about how we engage with people. And that means you have to do a lot of hands-on work. One way you can get people involved in disaster preparedness that I would like to see is the government, whether it be local, state or federal, creating, for example in California; earthquake kits for families. And the way to disperse them would be to have group gatherings. Make it a public day. Where you can come it’d be a carnival type atmosphere.” She describes a situation where information and samples can be distributed in a family friendly environment with activities for all ages to help make preparing more palatable. “I think too much of what we do is not hands-on. And so another thing I’d like to see is taking the people in charge of preparedness to see the results of an actual disaster.” She recommends taking lawmakers to sights like the site of the 1928 St. Francis Dam failure which claimed the lives of an estimated 400 people. “That sort of hands-on experience sticks with people. And it presses upon them the potential cost of what can happen when things go wrong.”

It’s different for preparing for cyber disasters and threats though. Phoenix explains the two camps, “At this point we’re wavering between two different groups; people who say, ‘I’m so afraid I’m going to get hacked’ or people who say, ‘We’re putting so much information out there, of course we’re going to get hacked.’ What they don’t necessarily understand is it’s not just about personal information leaking, it’s about our financial system being compromised and it’s about control over things like stop lights and water and electricity. Those are vulnerable to hacks because more and more of them are being housed in the cloud. So, we need to make sure we have opportunities to engage people in simulation of what could happen if an attack were to occur. A lot of this stuff is that we just haven’t been investing enough in creating simulations of these things. There’re some great earthquake simulations online as to what will happen such as shaking and if the San Andreas, which is where we are, ruptures. But it’s just a matter of having government play a role here. The government’s #1 job as far as I see it is to make sure people have a good quality of life. And one way you do that is to be prepared for disasters. We need to engage with as many people as possible and start when they’re young—not to scare them, but to help them to be ready for unexpected things.”

It’s hard to trust what the government tells you when faith in American institutions is at ridiculous lows. A Quinnipiac poll taken in August of 2017 showed Congress with an approval rating of 10%.  If the public is going to ever be able to trust its representatives in Washington DC again, Phoenix believes it will take a major shift in who we send to Congress. “Right now it’s just unacceptable,” she says. “We have 80% lawyers and business people in Congress. And that is not something that is representative of our population. And if people want to know why there’s a disconnect, it’s because the makeup of Congress is still 81% male. In a society that is 51% female? That right there is a bid one. If you look at the people who are Latino, who are African American, who are Asian and Pacific Islanders, Middle Eastern, I don’t want to forget anybody. But we have people from all over the world with all different backgrounds; occupational backgrounds, religious backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds. All of these things are represented in the US and they are not represented anywhere close to parity in Congress so unless we widely change the makeup of Congress, we’re going to keep on seeing the same old, same old. And we’re going to keep having politicians who take money from corporations, from lobbyists who are devoted to big donors. So, I think to be able to elect different people we need to overturn Citizens United to get rid of the big money and the dark money in politics.”

Of course the only way to accomplish this is to tear down the barriers to entry. “We need to publicly fund elections because of candidates having just insane amounts of money,” Phoenix argues. In an example why this is necessary she mentions Rick Scott (governor of FL) who, “is able to buy his way to the [nomination] where a candidate who is likely more qualified can’t compete. That is a problem because we are losing the voices of low income communities.”
It will be a heavy lift for the new members of Congress to change the institution of Congress that has been so disconnected from the lives of the voters who sent them there but Phoenix declares, “I think [Democrats] can provide the antidote to Trump and get people excited and out to the polls if we are genuine and we come from different backgrounds as candidates and hopefully the public will give us a chance. That’s really all we can do is do our best and see what the public thinks. That’s what I’m doing in my race.”

Jess Phoenix is a candidate for Congress in California’s 25th Congressional District, she is a Volcano scientist by trade and a founder of Blueprint Earth. Find her on Twitter @JessPhoenix2018 or to find out more about her candidacy visit http://www.jess2018.com