By Christopher DeWan
A rumble shakes through the old deco auditorium in Newhall, CA, just a few miles from California’s infamous San Andreas fault—but Jess Phoenix takes it in stride. Phoenix, a career geologist who’s now running for Congress, is working her way through her first-ever stand-up comedy set, and the “rumble” is the sound of five-hundred people laughing.
“I don’t actually do standup comedy—you may be surprised…”
This evening was organized by comic-turned-political-activist Patton Oswalt, who has been actively supporting Phoenix in her campaign for California’s 25th Congressional district, a sprawling region at the north end of Los Angeles. The district has the only Congressional seat in Los Angeles county currently held by a Republican, Steve Knight. Phoenix is one of three Democratic candidates planning to challenge Knight, but her scientific expertise makes her a definite standout.
“It’s so exciting to know Jess and to see what she’s doing,” Oswalt says of Phoenix. “What else do I need to say except, she has stared down volcanoes! She can stare down this opponent and then fix the mess.”
From on stage, Phoenix is staring down a packed house and smiling her way through her pun-filled comedy set: “Geologists, we have our faults. We’re not very funny, but we rock.”
Phoenix is proud of her science background and thinks we need more scientists in Congress. (Out of 435 seats, only one is currently held by a scientist: Bill Foster, a Democrat in Illinois.) While Trump and his associates—including Knight—have defunded and undermined science, Phoenix touts what she calls “fact-based policy,” using a scientific methodology, backed by research and evidence, to come up with solutions for healthcare, economic recovery, climate change and gun control. In CA-25—an area recently ravaged by wildfires and ripe for greentech jobs—her message is appearing to get through.
“Science,” her green t-shirt reads, “is not a liberal conspiracy.”
She explains why scientists are well suited for solving our government’s problems. “In science, we learn as we go. One time I was on the side of the world’s largest volcano and we had a flat tire: bad news. Then the spare was flat! So we fixed the spare with duct tape, a ballpoint pen, and bubblegum.” That’s the sort of practical and non-partisan diligence Phoenix wants to bring to Congress.
Phoenix is one of more than sixty scientists currently running for national office, according to 314 Action, a PAC dedicated to pro-science advocacy, with 200 more running at the state level.
“Jess is part of a much bigger movement,” Oswalt explains after his own standup set. “There are so many inescapably bad things going on, but instead of fraying and collapsing into hopelessness, there have been all of these little points of light, of people going, ‘I’m going to try to fix this. I’m going to un-fuck this mess…'”
CA-25 may be a perfect battleground district for “fixing.” Stretching from the rural and increasingly diverse Antelope Valley in the east through the bedroom community of Santa Clarita and all the way west to the conservative enclave of Simi Valley—home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library—the district has an eclectic electorate, but one that’s skewing more and more Democratic. Though it hasn’t voted a Democrat to Congress since 1993, it went for Clinton over Trump, and in 2016, incumbent Steve Knight only defeated his novice opponent by half a dozen points.
And, as Oswalt points out, “There are Republican districts of +20 where someone like Jess went, ‘Oh screw it, I’m running,’ and they’re winning!—because people have had it.”
Phoenix ends her geology-themed comedy set by taking a quiet moment and then getting completely serious: “We want to get Steve Knight out.”
For all the jokes that the audience has heard throughout the evening, this is the line that brings the house down. She smiles and nods as the tremor works its way through the room. It’s the sort of groundswell that should have Knight quaking about his re-election.
Stay tuned for updates on the Jess Phoenix campaign and more stories on sustainability and planetary wellness!
Christopher DeWan is a writer, activist, amateur geology fanboy, and a delegate in California’s Democratic State Central Committee. He lives in Los Angeles. Learn more at http://christopherdewan.com.