Elaine DiMasi Touts Scientific Chops in House Run

Elaine DiMasi, a former project manager at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is seeking the Democratic nomination to run in New York's First Congressional District. Karen Curtiss

“At this point, I think I am the only Ph.D. scientist of any kind” in Congress, Representative Bill Foster of Illinois told Public Radio International in January. “We have some political scientists, I think a mathematician, but it feels sort of lonely.” 

Elaine DiMasi, who spent 21 years as a physicist and project manager at Brookhaven National Laboratory, would like to join Mr. Foster in Congress. One of six candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to challenge Representative Lee Zeldin to represent New York’s First Congressional District, Ms. DiMasi said this week that physicists like Mr. Foster and the former Representatives Vern Ehlers and Rush Holt Jr. were sorely needed in government.

“There are people there who will not look at all the facts before making their decisions,” Ms. DiMasi said of Congress. “I spend time finding out what the problems we have to solve are.” 

Ms. DiMasi said that she was not affiliated with the Democrats, or any party, until recently. “That changed when Bernie Sanders entered the race in 2016,” she said, “and I registered as a Democrat instead of a blank.” President Trump’s election coincided, she said, with her completion of a five-year project management role at Brookhaven. “I could see the writing on the wall, what this administration was going to do,” she said, recalling some climate scientists’ rush to copy and preserve federal climate data before the Trump administration, which has proven hostile to climate science, took office.

The candidate grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, graduated from Penn State University, and earned a doctorate from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. After graduate school, she came to Long Island.

Ms. DiMasi has made renewable energy a central theme of her campaign. “It’s such a focus because I can see the urgency to take a specific action that dovetails so well with the skills and knowledge already here on Long Island,” she said. “We need something we build on Long Island and export to other regions. That’s how this district can have an economic base, a tax base. All other businesses need a foundation like that.”

The district has Brookhaven National Lab and several universities, which Ms. DiMasi called “a technology incubator, but not quite the runway of a technology corridor to get new discoveries, new prototypes to market.” Factor in the South Fork’s demand for electricity and the state’s Clean Energy Standard, which requires that 50 percent of electricity come from renewable sources by 2030, and an emerging renewable energy industry is a good fit for the First District, she said. 

“Let’s have something Long Island is about, that makes sense with our sensibilities. We need to not be polluting our oceans — we know the inevitability of an oil spill.”

Mr. Zeldin, she said, “does not seem to have any new ideas, and does not seem to understand what it takes to protect the environment or invigorate the economy.” The congressman opposes the Trump administration’s plan to open the outer continental shelf to oil exploration and drilling off Long Island, but “the right answer is to take all of America’s outer continental shelf off the plan,” she said. “It’s all one ocean. But that’s shown throughout Lee Zeldin’s whole tenure there: He will talk about cleaning up an estuary or saving Plum Island, but will vote with the administration to defund the E.P.A.” The League of Conservation voters awarded Mr. Zeldin a score of 9 percent for 2017. 

On other issues, Mr. Zeldin is “quite out of touch with civil liberties and the state of equality we’ve come to expect,” Ms. DiMasi said. “He’s on record opposing marriage equality, defeating a measure that would allow women’s reproductive health to be taken care of properly by medical insurance.” (As a state senator in 2011, Mr. Zeldin voted against legalizing same-sex marriage, and last year voted for the American Health Care Act, which would partially repeal the Affordable Care Act.) 

“He’s tone-deaf to the gun violence issue,” Ms. DiMasi continued. “I don’t see any acknowledgment of the damaging fear of a student who can’t go to school without worrying about this.” But young people can look to the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, who have launched a movement to demand gun control in the wake of the mass shooting at their school, and see that change is possible, she said. 

“I tell the young not to give up, to vote. Social change is impossible to detect when you’re in the middle of it. There’s not a slow ramp, it’s a sea change, where suddenly everybody’s not ignoring this anymore. . . . Young people need to hear us saying, ‘Keep your optimism, keep working.’ We can be looking back 50 years from now saying we did everything right: offshore wind, gun laws, health care the way it should be.”

Ms. DiMasi demurred on impeachment of the president, should she be part of a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives next year. “The bigger enemy is all the big money, the way lobbyists have a stranglehold on Congress,” she said. “When lobbyists are writing laws, and Congress is spending three-quarters of its time on the phone asking for money, they can’t read the laws the lobbyists wrote. This is dangerous.” 

Instead, Congress needs the pragmatic, evidence-based approach of a scientist, Ms. DiMasi said. “Without people trained to look at the results of research, we’ll never know, and there will be never-ending arguments,” she said. “Neither government nor science should be in the business of never-ending arguments.” 

This, she said, sets her apart from her competitors in the race for the nomination. “I’m making a pitch that doesn’t have to change in the general election, talking about energy, the environment, work force development, what we can do. I will go to the general with the exact same platform — I don’t have to pivot to the center.”

“I’m not defined by being a Democrat,” she said. “I’m defined by being a problem solver.”

This is part of a series of profiles of Democrats vying to challenge Lee Zeldin in the lead-up to the June 26 Democratic primary.