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Science candidates: High-tech smarts aren't enough for defeated Obama aide

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Brian Forde brought a background in technology to his run for Congress.

Forde for Congress

For many first-time congressional candidates with science and technology backgrounds, fundraising can be a major obstacle. Not to Brian Forde, who was once a  senior technology adviser to former-President Barack Obama. Forde managed to outpace his Democrat rivals by raising some $1.5 million for his southern California House race, including more than $300,000 in contributions via cryptocurrencies.

But on 5 June Forde received only 6% of the vote, leaving him a distant fourth in the open, top-two primary to represent California’s 45th congressional district in Orange County. Democrat Katie Porter, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), edged out fellow UCI law professor Dave Min for the right to challenge incumbent Republican Mimi Walters in the November general election.

The 38-year-old Democrat stands by his message that Congress needs more technologists to do its job. Exhibit A, he says, are all the legislators who struggled to keep up with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he testified this spring. But the knowledge gained from a tech career that gave him the chance to brief Obama on the emerging world of cryptocurrencies—and then to create a digital currency initiative within the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge—wasn’t nearly enough to win a seat in Congress. Political smarts are even more important, he acknowledges.

Forde spoke with ScienceInsider both before and after his defeat, offering some advice to scientists weighing their own bids for elective office and reflecting on his own campaign.

Q: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

A: I would have started running earlier. [Porter and Min declared in April 2017, and Forde jumped in last summer.] As a first-time candidate, it’s like when you’re a child, and every month of growth is massive. Being naturally cautious, a scientist or technologist might be inclined to wait and not jump in until you have everything lined up. But you need to let go of that idea and realize that you’re going to learn a lot once you start running.

Q: How did you go about attracting support from a community that has traditionally stayed away from politics?

A: You have to give them a compelling reason why something they care about is under attack. And if it’s not, then what are you fighting for that they care about?

For example, I was running against a candidate who fundamentally doesn’t understand, or care to understand, cryptocurrency. [Min ran an ad that accused Forde of taking crypto donations from “Bitcoin speculators that oppose cracking down on drug deals and human trafficking.”] And while most people in that space haven’t been active politically, they were more than happy to contribute to my campaign because the alternative was having someone who clearly did not understand this emerging technology and who perpetuated lies about the technology.

Q: You’ve said Zuckerberg’s testimony was an embarrassing example of how poorly Congress understands tech. What will it take to close that gap?

A: I think that we are going to need more congressional hearings that look like the Zuckerberg hearing, in which Congress makes a fool of itself with regard to science and technology. Once we have more of these examples, it becomes part of a greater national narrative of what we need in Congress.

Q: How can scientists help?

A: The thing about technology is that before the ink is dry on a piece of legislation, the technology has already changed. So you need people who understand where it’s going and can see around corners. The problem is that if the only thing a member of Congress has heard about technology are 4-minute attacks from people who don’t know what they are talking about, it’s going to be very hard to have a productive conversation with that member in a way that helps Americans.

But here’s a thought: How many scientists have sent their member of Congress a one-pager, a blog post, or a research paper with a note that says, “Here’s a quick way to help you get up to speed on this issue, because I heard you say something that wasn’t quite accurate? Or would you like me to host a roundtable, bringing together people with expertise on this issue?”

Those types of efforts can massively impact the perspective of an elected official—or even a candidate. Of course, there’s still the question of whether the member or the candidate is willing to listen.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: It’s too soon to say. I haven’t even talked about it with my wife [Alison Grigonis, a lawyer who also worked in the Obama White House as a liaison between the president and his Cabinet]. But I’m effusively supportive of Katie [Porter] and have told every one of my supporters that I would appreciate if they would consider doing so, both in terms of financial support and in volunteer hours. And I’ll do anything she asks of me, because the most important thing is to flip this seat.

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