Maxine Dexter, an intensive care physician, remembers exactly where she was sitting the Thursday morning her political ambitions were born. She was looking out her bedroom window toward northwest Portland — the snow-capped peak of Mount Adams winking at her from across the valley. She clutched a coffee her husband had brought upstairs in her favorite mug, the one that read: “Well yes, I’m overqualified.”
She turned on NPR. Christine Blasey Ford was testifying in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, describing what she alleged he did to her when they were teenagers. Dr. Blasey’s language was empirical, precise. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” the research psychologist recalled.
Dr. Dexter, inhaled sharply. As a clinician, and as a sexual assault survivor, she would have used those exact words to describe her own experience. She began to fill with rage listening to the questions being put to Dr. Blasey. Three hours later she called a friend involved with Emerge Oregon, a program that recruits and trains Democratic women to enter politics. “I want to run for office,” Dr. Dexter announced.
Now the pulmonologist is moonlighting as a Democratic candidate for Oregon’s state legislature — while spending her days treating Covid-19 patients in the I.C.U.
In 2018 the country saw a “STEM wave” of scientists running for office, and Congress welcomed nine new members with degrees in science, technology, engineering and medicine — two Republicans and seven Democrats. Five were women. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association, said she has seen a steady uptick in physicians running for office over the course of her career.
Some candidates said they decided to enter a new arena because they viewed the Trump administration as hostile to their old one: scientific expertise. A president who said there are “scientists on both sides of the issue” on climate change was cause for alarm.
As the pandemic turns a spotlight on health care workers, — nightly applause in New York, murals going up around the country, free plane tickets and other signs of appreciation — many doctors-turned-candidates say it is a prime time to try and convert those cheers into votes.
“Americans are looking to physicians as honest brokers that are going to keep them safe right now,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, president of 314 Action, a political action committee that aims to see more scientists in politics. “They’re tuning in to briefings to hear from Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx and Dr. Redfield,” she added, referring to the White House coronavirus briefings. “It’s doctor doctor doctor.”
The rising tide of STEM, Ms. Naughton said, has come at the same time as the pink wave of women running for office. Ms. Naughton herself, a chemist, ran and lost two previous primaries. “Part of what people are looking for is not the status quo. Women and physicians represent change.”
Ms. Naughton also said for female candidates facing perennial voter biases on competence or confidence, leaning on the credibility of a medical degree provides a helpful boost. (Dr. Dexter said she used to sometimes forgo her “Dr.” title and white coat, until her husband implored her to stop, saying: “Wear your white coat. The sexism is real.”)
The pandemic has given front-line physicians like Dr. Dexter a clear view of the life-or-death stakes of government decision making, whether on social distancing or contact tracing. At work, Dr. Dexter has seen how even healthy, young patients can rapidly devolve, some spending enough time on a ventilator to cause lifelong physical damage.
“People who aren’t in health care wouldn’t necessarily understand what we’re seeing in the same way,” Dr. Dexter said. The recoveries that she has witnessed in the I.C.U. have given her added inspiration, she said, as she stares down a May 19 primary, with recent endorsements from The Portland Tribune and former Gov. Barbara Roberts of Oregon.
She has found that her medical work unexpectedly prepared her for campaigning. “I knock on the doors of strangers every day,” she said, “when I knock on the door of an exam room and need to establish trust.” (Since the pandemic hit, her door knocking has turned to phone and Zoom calls.) If she wins, she plans to decrease her clinical work by 50 percent and take a steep pay cut; Oregon state legislators make under $25,000 a year.
In Texas, Dr. Christine Eady Mann is looking to make a similar leap. She spends half her week practicing as a family care provider, where she sees firsthand the fallout of testing delays and medical supply shortages; the rest of her time is devoted to a race for Republican Representative John Carter’s seat, with a Democratic runoff in July. “There’s a vast difference between having someone who actually understands the science and data, versus someone who’s just read about it from a policy book their staff put together,” Dr. Mann said.
The physician also feels that her clinical skills would serve her well in the delicate work of political communication. “My day job is talking people into getting colonoscopies,” Dr. Mann said. “You find ways to convince people that what you’re telling them is a good idea. It’s an excellent fit for policy.”
Dr. Mann’s frustration with the government’s coronavirus response began to mount as her clinic struggled to access personal protective equipment. She has been relying on the same single-use masks repeatedly, disinfecting them between shifts and hoping for the best. She struggled to get face shields, too, so a sympathetic patient manufactured them locally using a 3-D printer.
Dr. Mann has used social media to call for action from local officials, filming a video for NowThis condemning the lack of public health information coming from the government. She envisions a government that might have responded to the pandemic entirely differently if it had more scientific voices to debunk misinformation.
She has also begun mobilizing other physicians to consider the leap to politics. She is helping to launch Doctors in Politics, a coalition of medical workers running for office . The group has recruited 10 members across eight states. Though the group is officially nonpartisan, nine of those candidates are Democrats and one is independent.
Republican doctors are also running this year, including one high-profile congressional candidate in Texas: Ronny Jackson, who formerly served as Donald Trump’s physician and who often speaks about his medical experience in the context of public policy. In a tweet this month he said he knows “as a medical doctor” that abortion is “definitely not essential.”
Dr. Lisa Reynolds, a Democrat and pediatrician in Oregon running for a seat in the state house, said her early experience treating Covid-19 patients showed her the need for more testing and social distancing at the start of the outbreak. “I’m certain we were seeing kids with Covid in early March and we had zero testing then,” Dr. Reynolds said. “There were a few times I left work and thought this could’ve been the day I caught Covid.”
Dr. Reynolds worried, too, for the health of patients not affected by Covid-19. She established safe hours when parents could come in to vaccinate their young children, ensuring the current coronavirus outbreak doesn’t trigger an outbreak of whooping cough, or another preventable illness, in later months.
As Dr. Reynolds scrambled to change her routine to accommodate panicking families, she wondered why she wasn’t seeing the same proactive approach from state and local officials. “If I were a legislator I would be camping outside the governor’s office saying I don’t think we’re moving fast enough on this,” she said.
Hiral Tipirneni, a former emergency physician and member of the Doctors in Politics coalition, is running for Congress in a district in the northeast valley of Phoenix this year, after a loss in 2018. She said health care workers have always been the first to see the fatal consequences of flawed policies, whether on public health or the economy. But it wasn’t until now, amid the coronavirus crisis, that they found themselves with far-reaching platforms and captive audiences.
She recalled once treating a young woman with an infected wound on her sternum. Months before, the woman had noticed a small lump on her breast, but hadn’t sought treatment because she wasn’t insured. It grew so quickly and aggressively that it ate through her chest wall. Once in the E.R., there was nothing the doctors could do to save her.
It was then that Dr. Tipirneni began to realize the stories she encountered in her work could provide important evidence in policymaking discussions, whether on employment, insurance or disease. She later told her family she thought more women doctors should run for office. Then, she recalled: “My daughter looked me in the eye and said, ‘Well Mom, if not you then who?’”