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.
Published April 3, 2017
LOS ANGELES — 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.”