On a recent Friday in Palmdale, Jess Phoenix stood on the corner of a busy intersection wearing cowboy boots, jeans and a flannel shirt. She held a sign that read, "Puertorriqueños son Americanos." Puerto Ricans are Americans.
Alongside a group of around a dozen activists from progressive organization NextGen America and the local Green Party chapter, Phoenix chanted "Banks got bailed out, Puerto Rico got sold out," and yelled "Honk for Puerto Rico," following Hurricane Maria in September.
Jess Phoenix isn't your typical Congressional candidate. At 35 years old, she's young compared to the average U.S. representative, who is 57. She's a woman running for a Congress where the percentage of women hovers around 20 percent. And if she wins, she'll be one of just a small handful of trained scientists in Congress, which currently only has one Ph.D. scientist.
"We need many more scientists in office. Scientists and the science community need to be more involved in the whole political process. We can't not have a voice," Phoenix said. "That's the big takeaway I want people to have. . . we have people straight up denying basic science. And that is going to be very dangerous for us in coming year."
Phoenix is running for office in California's 25th Congressional District, which covers portions of northern Los Angeles County and Ventura County, including the cities of Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Lancaster. She's challenging Rep. Steve Knight, a Republican who became the area's congressional representative in 2015 after serving as a state senator, state assemblyman, and Palmdale city councilman.
While the 25th District has traditionally skewed Republican, it was one of few California districts in 2016 that both voted for Clinton for president and elected a Republican representative. According to Phoenix, this has caused tension in the community, with some believing Knight hasn't stood up to President Trump enough. That, combined with Knight's environmental record, prompted Phoenix to challenge him in the 2018 election.
"With climate change being the biggest crisis that we're going to see as a society in the next couple of decades, I decided I have to do this, there's an imperative here," Phoenix said. "I would rather be hanging out on volcanoes and out in the desert, but we need people to step up."
Knight has a lifetime score of zero on the League of Conservation Voters' environmental scorecard, meaning he is yet to make a "pro-environment vote." His seat is one that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hopes to flip in the 2018 midterm elections. However, Phoenix isn't the only Democrat challenging Knight — five others have filed to run, including Bryan Caforio, who previously ran against Knight in 2016.
Phoenix says that her district's passion for their surrounding landscapes and outdoor recreation translates into passion for environmental issues.
"People actually care about the environment here," Phoenix said. "Even though the district has historically been a little more conservative, people really love this place. We've got amazing hiking, dirt biking and fishing… There are mountains everywhere, beautiful lakes, we have the high desert. It is a really special place.
"When people here learn the government is overturning all these regulations, rolling back protections, and we're all going to be living in a more polluted, less beautiful place, I think people actually see that as a real threat."
The region's unique landscapes are what kept Phoenix in California after moving to the state a decade ago to get a master's degree in geology from California State University, Los Angeles. With two parents working in the FBI, Phoenix grew up all over the U.S., but she said that after arriving in 2007, "California was home."
Phoenix now lives in Acton, a small, unincorporated area in Antelope Valley with a population of just over 6,000 people, where she rescues ex-racehorses with her husband. Before declaring her candidacy for Congress, she worked heavily in the environmental education sector, and founded Blueprint Earth with her husband. The nonprofit provides hands-on research opportunities to college students, such as cataloging everything within a square mile of the Mojave Desert.
Additionally, Phoenix is no stranger to speaking out on science issues. She's gone on camera as a volcano scientist for networks like Discovery Channel, and gave a TEDx talk last year at the Claremont Colleges. So when she perceived that science was being threatened, she felt the need to take action.
"I saw that with Trump, his threats to the Environmental Protection Agency and science funding were going to be real… and the assaults on national parks and monuments were shocking. It was a combination of these things that made me realize scientists have been afraid of speaking up for far too long," Phoenix said. "[Scientists] have been scared of being politically vocal, because they don't want to jeopardize their funding. But we can't afford to do that anymore."
Phoenix isn't the only scientist going beyond simply speaking out on science issues, and jumping into the political arena this election season. She's one of a handful of scientists supported by 314 Action, a newly-formed nonprofit that assists STEM candidates running for office and advocates for science-based policy in response to climate change.
314 Action is supporting several other STEM candidates in California, including Dr. Mai Khanh Tran, a congressional candidate running against Republican incumbent Rep. Ed Royce in Orange County; and Dr. Hans Keirstead, a stem cell researcher running in the state's 48th Congressional District. Both Orange County candidates face Republican incumbents in districts which, like Phoenix's voted for Clinton in the 2016 election.
According to Phoenix, the transition from scientist to candidate can be difficult, and fundraising is one of the biggest challenges.
"It's a big transition, because most of the people that go into running [have] prepared the way for themselves a long time. They've spent a year or two getting ready, they've told people they're going to run, they have an extensive network of people who agree to contribute right away," she said. "For me, that's not the case, because I am running as a direct response to the threat that I see, so I'm having to build up that network of support."
But Phoenix believes that her scientific approach gives her an edge in problem-solving. Her background in fieldwork has presented her with a variety of challenges, including once fixing a blown-out tire with a piece of gum, a ballpoint pen and some duct tape.
"I love the training that science has given me in how to look at issues and deconstruct them and analyze problems," she said. "It is the scientific way of looking at all available evidence and analyzing it before you make decisions. That's probably one of my greatest strengths, being able to be objective, and also being able to change my mind."
Ultimately, Phoenix hopes that her candidacy helps everyone — not just scientists — feel more optimistic about the state of politics.
"I hope that people are not discouraged by the current state of politics, because I think there are a lot of people out there who want to work with people and not alienate the other side," she said. "It didn't used to be so polarized, and I think there are enough people that want to work together so that we can make changes in the long run."