2018 Election: Jess Phoenix on Running for Congress in CA-25

"As a society, we have to make sure that we are discussing good ideas and not giving unwarranted airtime to issues that are just designed to produce and spread hate."

May 10, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Jess Phoenix is a scientist running for Congress. These two things aren't always connected. In fact, they're not supposed to be in this belligerently stupid day and age. Phoenix is running in the June 5th Democratic primary for CA-25 to challenge incumbent Republican Congressman Steve Knight. Knight is that brave kind of Republican who failed to endorse President Trump but still voted for him. He voted to repeal health care reform and for Trump's 1% tax cut giveaway. Yeah. He's one of those invertebrate charmers who's been propped up by enough special interest money to make it appear as if he walks on two legs.

Though it went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, CA-25 is the most Republican district in Los Angeles County. The other two top tier Democratic candidates in her race have outraised Phoenix and secured a lot of state establishment Democratic endorsements. One, Katie Hill, who, like Phoenix, runs a non-profit, and the other, the chosen Democratic establishment pick, is Bryan Caforio, was crushed by Knight in the last election. All three are millennials and none have held elected office.

As much as she is a classic new politics millennial who believes in Medicare for All, common sense gun control, free college tuition, and the Fight for $15, Phoenix is also a Renaissance woman who has roared in the face of life and stomped on the terra. She has been on scientific expeditions in over a dozen countries and on six continents. She's worked in sales, customer service, and management. She's been a veterinary technician, a camp counselor, and college professor. She has watched an avalanche in Peru, studied underwater volcanoes in the Pacific, scaled mountains, explored caves, studied in the Mojave desert, and been chased by drug-traffickers while on a geological mission. She's run in the longest, most brutal horse race in the world.

She's not just a geologist and volcanologist, but a firebrand. She's a true-believer in the undeniable virtue of fact-based analysis and a zealot for common sense and curiosity. Like any normal, thinking person with a conscience, Phoenix was deeply disturbed by the election result of 2016, and as soon as she turned 35, answered the call of a Democratic Party looking for younger, mostly women, progressive candidates in 2018. Swim or drown, Jess Phoenix is the shift from Gen X lackadaisical liberals to millennial realists. When we say "We're the ones we've been waiting for," she's it.

Phoenix has said that she wants to help "make the U.S. government a place where logic, sanity, and facts prevail. It may not happen, but at the very least, people like me will have tried." Outspent by her opponents, but with a unique candidacy and the grassroots support to show for it, Phoenix is hoping to go a little farther. She's a proud fighter with no apologies. The consequences of 2016 have moved the country into a dark age, but the sky is looking brighter as candidates like Jess Phoenix are rising. For now, the resistance, personified by Phoenix, has spent its whole life in its prime.

Steve King (Under the Radar): You've said that you took the last election very hard and that it "was pretty traumatic to around half the country." You've mentioned the Dreamers in your district and own family, to a certain extent. You've worried about how this administration will affect the environment. 2016 kind of felt like the end of the world. What was it that snapped or clicked for you when you were just like, "That's it. I'm running for office"?

Jess Phoenix: It was really a culmination of being in shock that Trump won, and then over the next few months I think there was the whole denial phase, where me and a lot of the people I know were just hoping that something would come up like "Oh, no this was all a mistake. Just kidding. Hillary's going to be the president," but obviously that is not what happened.

I had given a lecture at the Natural History Museum in LA and we had a good group of people there. It was about my work on volcanoes. And afterward, a friend of mine, he had his two four-year-old twin boys there and he said "I'm really afraid for the world my boys are going to grow up in, and we need people like you who are smart and who understand science and leadership positions," and I kind of went "Oh...the government..." At the same lecture a couple of my scientist colleagues approached me after I talked to my friend, and they said "You know, what we need is scientists in office" and they just sort of looked at me...and I went "I see where this is going."

I knew I wanted to do something the day after the election. I wanted to do something but I didn't know what it was until that January. It was right around the time that Trump was inaugurated. So it was sort of coming to terms with reality and the fact that reality has changed. We are not where we thought we were even a few years ago, in any sense. We have a different understanding of how much latent racism exists in our country, how much division there is between different groups of people. And a lot of us were happy to think that maybe we had turned some sort of corner in terms of how we relate with each other, but it turns out we still have a lot more work to do. People are getting engaged in a way they never thought they would before, and I'm one of them. 

You lived in Littleton at the time of Columbine. Your high school boyfriend was there. Before September 11th, Columbine was the big event in our lives. It boggles my mind that these things have only gotten worse since then. What would you do in Congress to curb this killing epidemic?

It's a really good question to ask because as kids who had to experience this, we were the first, and we didn't have a playbook, and now there is one. It's really depressing. There's a certain number of days of media coverage and then you move on to the next catastrophe. That's not how we should be existing as a society.

One of the most important things I could do in Congress would be to make sure that the CDC has clearance to study the gun violence epidemic and that we have full funding for that, and then also that we modernize and computerize the ATF gun registry information, which is not even a true database right now because it's not searchable in any coherent way. It's just file boxes full of paper.

We need to do those two things, but then we also need to try the things we haven't yet; and those would be banning semi-automatic weapons, making sure that we restrict magazine capacity to six for rifles and 10 for handguns and then we institute the common-sense reforms that 80+ percent of Americans favor, like universal background checks, mandatory nationwide 14-day waiting periods, making sure that we don't have concealed-carry reciprocity.

And then, of course, because I am a scientist, I want to see how these things work. If they seem to be effective, let's continue on. If we get data that they're not effective, let's try different things. We have to make sure that we are trying everything we can to protect our country from this epidemic, because it's not just the mass shootings. So many people die by suicide, and it's a real problem for our veteran population. They're much more likely to commit suicide via firearm than the general population. This is an issue that's affecting a lot of people, and we can't just continue to let it go and offer thoughts and prayers and no change.

You were caught up in the California wildfires last year and I'm wondering how long we can keep rationalizing and denying that the climate is changing. It's not writing on the wall anymore. It's burning the wall down. How can you make this issue accessible to voters?

You have to make sure that you emphasize that there are things we can do. It's partially natural cycles. It's also man-made. A lot of people think, "Well, because it has a natural component to it, we can't do anything." In reality that couldn't be further from the truth. We can reduce our impact on the carbon in the atmosphere. We can definitely make sure that we reduce that by re-entering into the Paris Agreement and make sure that we meet those standards.

Then we have to be thinking about what we can do to actually remove carbon from the atmosphere and have net zero or net negative carbon emissions. There are many different ways different countries are going about trying to accomplish that goal. In Iceland, they actually have a power plant that uses geothermal energy and burns trash, and it's called pyrolysis, where you turn that waste product into energy and it's actually a net reduction in your overall carbon emissions. So that's just one example of a kind of approach that we will need in order to not just reduce our emissions, but actually take some of the atmospheric carbon away, and that's something we can do.

We just need to tell people there are solutions. Everything's not dire and awful and everything's not terrible. I think that's kind of been a failing when people are communicating some of the science they've said, "This is really bad. We're headed for disaster" but I don't think they've said we can also do something about this as long as we invest in green technology that's sustainable. We can do this. I mean, we sent a person to the Moon in 10 years. That's a pretty big engineering challenge, so I think we are up to the task. Particularly America, with our long track record of innovation. We're really well positioned to take on climate change, but we just need to make sure that when we talk to people we say "Yes, there is a problem, but look, we can work on this and we can actually create jobs if we do so."

Steve Bannon sees the Me Too Movement as this existential threat to the patriarchy. He's terrified of it. National Democrats, after 2016, wanted a lot more women to run for office. And they got it. This seems, like race, to be a preoccupation with people who are older than us. If you look at the kids speeches at March For Our Lives, they're intersectional, inclusive. What makes people our age or younger better on these social issues than any other generation that came before it? What makes us different?

I would say it's because we have so much connection at our fingertips that previous generations didn't have. We have the ability to connect with somebody on the other side of the planet who has an entirely different life than what we may have. A good example is when I was working in Tanzania at one point last year, I met a Maasai warrior. And he's on Instagram and Facebook and takes selfies, like a boss. And when I was working with him, it was so cool because we are connected now even though we're an ocean and a continent apart. We have wildly different lifestyles and yet we can maintain a friendship of sorts. We can stay in touch. I get a window into his life and he gets a window into mine, and when you see other people, when you experience, just a little bit, even just a glimpse, of what life is like for them, I think it really humanizes people we may not immediately think of as having any sort of relationship with. That's what's so valuable to our generation. Our ability to connect in so many different ways with such a diverse group of people. You can't stem the tide of change. It just doesn't happen. And our trend right now is toward a more open, more global society, and we can't put that genie back in the bottle. That's not the way it works. We just have to say this is the world we're in, so let's use that connectivity toward fostering diversity and inclusiveness and making sure that we have more voices represented in every aspect of society, including government.

CA-25 has been represented by men only. Steve Knight is on the House Committee for Science, Space, and Technology. He has no science degree. This goes hand in hand with Trump, where this unqualified, dumbass white dude is in a position where an overqualified woman should be. This seems to me to be endlessly infuriating. It's something I've just fully woken up to over the last couple years. It should haunt us that the most qualified person to ever run for president was a woman and that somehow didn't factor into the polls. You know what I mean? It should keep more people up at night. Is it a prerequisite for a woman running for public office in post-2016 America or is it just part of being a woman, where these idiots are still running things?

I think of what they said about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. That she did everything he did but backwards and with heels. It's the truth. When you're a woman you are expected to do so many different things by society, and I think we have a lot of people pushing back against that trend right now and saying "No, no, no. It's time for this to change."

We don't have to be this or that and the other thing. Women can choose to have a family or to not. Women can choose to have a career or they can choose to stay home. And recognizing there is no more or less valid definition of what it means to be a woman. And now trans women are entering into that conversation in a way they never have before. I think we're just broadening the horizons for what women can and can't do.

A lot of times I feel sorry for people who don't want to see that broadening because it's so exciting. The possibilities of having more women in leadership positions and the necessity of it is actually going to make for a much more interesting, nuanced, and exciting society because we'll have different types of innovation, different types of leadership. And that's what we need if we want to solve new and different challenges like we're seeing in the 21st century. We need all perspectives, and it doesn't just mean gender. It means we need people from different ethnic backgrounds, different countries of origin, different life experiences, different professions, particularly represented in government if we want to see real world functional solutions to the problems that were facing. So bring on the women, bring on the diversity, because that is how we're going to meet these challenges.

I don't know when it's going to happen. I hope it's the next election but the first woman president is going to have to take it from someone like Trump or Pence. It can't be an open seat like Obama. It has to be a Gillibrand or Warren or Kamala Harris and they need to beat whoever the president is for us to have this kind of historic, societal change. That's not even a question...

That's a good statement.

But how long will that take, though?  I don't see it taking that long. In the next cycle do you think, or what?

That's the thing. I want to be very optimistic. I am an optimist. I'd like to say "Yeah, this go around, let's do it," but I think there is still a very real backlash to Obama's presidency. So many people were not prepared for the notion of having a half-African-American, half-white president who calls himself black.

I just think there are a lot of people who maybe don't understand that they have a prejudice, but it still exists and I think that that prejudice toward a female candidate probably still exists. To me, it's going to be up to the younger generation, the folks that are just now registering to vote. They have the power to really tip the scales in favor of more inclusivity, so if we have enough young people fired up and turning out to the polls, we will see the change that I think is inevitable. But we will see it sooner. If young folks don't show up to vote, then we'll see more of the same and it will just take a little bit longer. I do think it is inevitable. But I also think sometimes you have to help Congress along.

The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter were as much a cultural reaction to Obama as the Women's March, Me Too, and the March for our Lives were a natural, social reflex to Trump. One in five people has protested the current administration. You know a little something about things happening below the surface just before they erupt. What is going on here with all these counterculture protests? How many fault lines can we live atop of and still expect stability?

Our country was founded on certain principles. Those principles were really predicated on a system that involved slavery from the start. So we built our houses on top of those fault lines that you were just talking about. In order to keep a democracy healthy and make sure that it's sustainable and it continues, we need to do a lot of retrofitting. That means that we really need to have the difficult conversations. We have to see the protests. We have to talk to people we don't want to talk to and listen to things we don't want to hear. We have to examine ourselves and our role in either shutting out different voices or paving the way for them to have their time.

As a country we have so much potential. America is a fantastic country. Because we have so much diversity, we have to work hard to go outside of our own comfort zones and to understand other people. Because diversity isn't going away and we need to ensure that we have a society where everybody has an opportunity to live their life to its fullest. Whether they have a disability, are a person of color or maybe a person somewhere on the autism spectrum, or somebody who identifies as transgender or non-binary, we have to make sure that everyone has that opportunity, and of course we have to make sure that we don't allow hate speech to have an equal place at the table as actual discourse and disagreement.

I saw an analogy somewhere; I wish I could credit the person: when you go to a potluck, you could argue about mashed potatoes and whether they're too boring, whether they were seasoned enough. You could get into an argument about that. But you can't argue if someone brings a plate full of dog poop and puts it on your table there at the potluck. You're going to say "Get that off the table. That's not appropriate for this setting." As a society, we have to make sure that we are discussing good ideas and not giving unwarranted airtime to issues that are just designed to produce and spread hate.

Your fundraising is strong. You're not bringing in the same money as your other opponents. The Democratic establishment has closed ranks around Caforio.

That's the thing, nobody's been endorsed by the party because they recognize it's a pretty contentious seat because Caforio wasn't able to win last time. This time it's interesting because we've got qualified candidates who are saying we can take Knight out. So the party decided they were actually going to stay out of it.

And that's a good thing. It's a good thing to let healthy a primary happen. You've got a lot of donors making an average contribution of $46. You've got major celebrity endorsements; my favorites came from Star Trek cast members because I'm a big Star Trek nerd. You've said, "I'm bootstrapping the whole thing-it's very grassroots." You also told Dame Magazine "I went into this expecting to be a champion for evidence and science. I didn't realize how bad our campaign finance system is. Less than 1 percent of Americans make political campaign donations. That is literally the one percent driving money to candidates, and they choose who gets on a ballot, and that determines who you will vote for." Even in a state as progressive as California, that seems really messed up. How would you like to see it fixed?

For me, obviously nationwide legislatively would be to overturn Citizens United. That really opened the door for dark money having an undue influence on the political process, and I think following that we need to make sure that we are having publicly funded elections. We can look to other countries for different models of holding elections. Like by putting time limits on how long an election can actually last.

I can say from experience now that I declared I was running for Congress in April of last year. So now I've been running for over a year, which means I haven't been working, we are a single-income family right now, I can't earn an income and also run for office because campaigning is a more than a full-time job. And that would really push out a lot of people if you think about it. How many people could never run for federal office like this, or even state office because it's such a full-time type of job. Just because they are a single parent or they're single and don't have a partner who can pay the bills while they're out campaigning. I know I'm extremely fortunate to be in that position.

It's something that is really a fly in the ointment of our democracy, that we don't have a way to make sure that anybody who wants to serve their country by running for office has the ability to do so, and it's not all just all about fundraising. Really, right now that's what it is. It's how many wealthy people do you know that you can shake money out of? That's just wrong. We don't need professional fundraisers in DC making our laws. We need people who can actually solve problems, and those are very different skill sets.

Every problem has a solution. Problems come with solutions already installed. They're there. They're just waiting for you to find them. I don't know how you solve this Congress, which, by virtue of its donors, has a system that's set up to not be fixed. How do you hope to change Congress?

I'm really hopeful and anticipating this Blue Wave of people who are really getting excited. Congress is not about one person making a change. It's about the 434 other people, plus you, working together to get things done in forming coalitions and working groups and committees and caucuses. I've got an interesting angle on running, which no one else has, and the Republican I'm running against is a member of the House Science Committee. When Congressman Jerry McNerney endorsed me several weeks back, he actually said "I need you on the House Science Committee so I can remove Knight and replace him," and I could have a much greater influence right out the gate of any other freshman congressperson by virtue of the fact that I have specific expertise on a committee that is a really important one for our country. 

You're a scientist. You know what works and what doesn't. Is democracy in the United States just a failed experiment?

I don't think so. I think that particularly when you look at it in a historical context, right now, we're having some issues with the democratic process and with Russia influencing the elections. We are still one of the wealthiest nations on the planet and we just have to be better about making sure that everybody gets a piece of that pie. That means making sure the people get opportunities. Having worked in Australia and Mexico and so many different countries, I am not going to say that we are a failure. I think we are a success, but we are a success in progress, and it's always going to take a lot of work for us to continue to progress. The march of progress is kind of inexorable, and we have to add input to the system, which means we need everybody participating if we want to see the sort of progress that we can all be proud of.  

You've said, "We are at sort of a cultural inflection point where we have an assault on facts and the truth like we have never seen before," and you told Buzzfeed, "It's almost like somebody opened a floodgate, where we have no moderation now whatsoever. It's the extremism of the attitudes that I'm really concerned about. That's not common sense, it's not practical, and it's not based in reason." But it seems these days there's only uncommon sense. Perception of reality becomes reality. Just because something isn't true doesn't mean it's not a fact any more, which is really sick and twisted. What people think they see has become what they see. How on earth do we fix that?

It's making a change in how we educate young people. It's really putting an emphasis on teaching them how to tell truth from fiction and how scientific method works, and how to check sources and cite sources in your own discussions in daily life. It's teaching them how to distinguish fake news, a new term, from real news. If we can emphasize this sort of discernment in what we teach children, that's how we make the change.

Everybody has that older relative who believes everything they read on Facebook and shares it all. Even when it's completely appalling and easily debunked. You're probably not going to make a lot of headway with the older relative types. Those are the sort of people who often fall prey to scam phone callers and things like that, who need your bank account information, etcetera. As you get older, you're always going to be a bit more vulnerable to those things because technology will always evolve and society will always change around you, but I think that if we continue to emphasize critical thinking skills and logic and reasoning, and being able to understand what sources are and what journalism's value is to society, I think that's how we ensure that we raise a generation of people who can tell truth from fiction. 

The 2016 election kind of divided America in a way like nothing else has in our lifetimes. It's affected married couples, and families. All of this stuff was bubbling just below the surface and now it's exploded. You've said that you own father, a lifelong Republican, used to send you articles about how climate change wasn't real and I think it's like that for a lot of people all around the country right now. I don't know how to fix this either. It feels like a weird question without an answer. What might your answer be to that?

I just tell people when they ask me that sort of question, the best thing you can do is ask why they believe what they believe because you may not convince them of truth or reality, but you can at least understand their point of view. Once you get to the source of someone's beliefs, that's when you can have a more honest discussion where you're not just saying "yes, no, yes, no." Where you're actually saying, "Oh, that's interesting. I didn't think about it that way." It doesn't mean you end up agreeing but it definitely increases the opportunity for real genuine dialogue that is meaningful and still has potential to move the needle. Like I said, it may not fix it but at least it's a start.

We really lose when we stop communicating; as long as we're still talking to each other, not screaming, but talking and listening, then we're still progressing in some sense. So that's why I always tell people, "Have those difficult conversations. Don't give up on someone. Try to understand. Try to understand why. If it's truly hateful, if someone is actively throwing hate your way, don't necessarily subject yourself to that sort of abuse. But if someone says something like "Climate change is a scam," ask why they say that. Obviously, everyone knows what their own limits are, and we need to make sure they're taking care of themselves, but try to have a difficult conversation as often as you can, because I think that by cloistering ourselves away into different groups, we lose a lot. We lose so much when we don't interact with different parts of our culture. We really have to take it upon ourselves as a duty to listen and try to understand as much as we can.

I want to end on a lighter note. What's it like to see your name on a ballot for the first time?

It's pretty cool. So many interesting and surreal moments have happened on this campaign. Obviously the easy ones are having coffee with Patton Oswalt and him recognizing me in the coffee shop, or meeting [Star Trek actor] Wil Wheaton and having lunch with him, or talking to Yetide Badaki from American Gods, like "Oh my goodness, you're amazing, we get along perfectly." Those were really incredible moments because those were famous people, and I think, "Oh, I'm just normal."

The moments that are going to stick with me, I'll probably take them to my grave, are after one of our candidate forums we had in Santa Clarita a few months back, a young person approached me and said, "You're a role model for me because I'm a scientist and I just don't see that anywhere else, and thank you for putting yourself out there because you're also interested in politics, and so am I. You are showing me that there is a way forward." It floored me because I'm not trying to be a role model. I'm just trying to do what I think is right, and seeing that I've made it this far, over a year and running for office without institutional support. That message resonates with people so I know that it's not just about me; it's about a bigger movement. It's about people wanting facts and truth and conversations at the federal government level. That's what it really is saying. Everybody may not be able to grow up to be president, but everyone can grow up to make a difference in the world if they are willing to make the effort. We all just have different opportunities and different ways that we can contribute. Mine right now happens to be running for Congress.

www.jess2018.com

www.facebook.com/jessphx/

www.twitter.com/jessphoenix2018

[This interview is part of our 2018 Election series where we talk to progressive candidates running for election this year. Also read our previous interview with John Fetterman, who's running for Lieutenant Governor of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.]

 

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