A Chemist Aims to Beat a Trump-Loving Republican on Long Island

Democratic House candidate Nancy Goroff in the lab.

Democratic House candidate Nancy Goroff in the lab.
Photo: Goroff for Congress

That “I believe in science” and “I believe in using facts and evidence to solve problems” are rallying cries for a political campaign says a lot about 2020. Yet that’s the pitch of Nancy Goroff, a chemist at Stony Brook University who is the Democratic nominee taking on Rep. Lee Zeldin in a Long Island district.

That appeal to science-based decision-making speaks to the hellscape of modern America that Republicans have created. The Trump administration is the culmination of those efforts, having spent nearly four years sidelining science to disastrous consequences. That includes the acute crisis of a pandemic that has left the U.S. with the highest death toll in the world and one of the highest per capita death rates of any developing country. Hell, the president came down with it after holding a superspreader event. Then there’s the long-simmering deregulatory campaign to fry the climate, exemplified in this week’s vice presidential debate when Mike Pence blithely lying that the Trump administration will “continue to listen to the science” despite all evidence to the contrary.

From denying the threat of climate change to politicizing basic public health measures, the GOP is establishing itself as not only the party untethered to facts but a danger to the health and safety of Americans,” Shaughnessy Naughton, the president of 314 Action, a PAC backing Goroff and other scientists running for office, said in an emailed statement.

While the presidential race will be the biggest referendum on the role of science in policy, the down-ballot races will each be a microcosm of that fight. And the race between Goroff and Zeldin to represent New York’s First Congressional District shines a particularly bright light on the stark differences between the parties. Goroff has been active at the science and policy nexus, serving on the advisory board of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog for science abuses in policymaking that’s been particularly busy in the Trump era. Zeldin has helped create the environment for those abuses.

“I decided that this is a moment in history where I need to really step forward and put my full effort into this,” Goroff said on a video call. “It wasn’t enough just to support candidates I cared about and support issues I cared about. I just needed to work full time on it.”

While Goroff hasn’t endorsed the Green New Deal, her platform aligns pretty good with, well, science. If she wins, it points to what could be real areas of debate in a House Democratic caucus that includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a growing number of progressives. But honestly, it’d be a welcome change compared to what Zeldin and the Republican party have put forward.

Goroff left her position at Stony Brook, where her lab is focused on organic chemistry, to compete in the Democratic primary. She won that tightly contested contest, which included real estate investor who took on Zeldin in 2018 and lost. Now, Goroff will face the congressman who has held the seat since 2014.

The district flipped from Obama to Trump in 2016, and Zeldin carried it by 16.4% that year, a margin larger than Trump’s victory in the county. In 2018, the gap narrowed considerably, with Zeldin winning by 4.1% in what was a blue wave that saw the House flip to Democrats. Now, Goroff is fighting to flip what’s considered a lean Republican seat by the Cook Political Report, giving Democrats an even larger majority in the House. She’s garnered the endorsement of former President Barack Obama, which could help her cause.

Zeldin has opened that door for her simple pitch to trust the science to be effective. He jumped on the hydroxychloroquine-as-coronavirus-cure bandwagon in July, weeks after the FDA pulled its emergency use authorization and the World Health Organization ended its trial usage because it hadn’t proven to be effective. And despite being a member of the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan groups of representatives that’s done about bupkis to advance climate legislation, he has a lifetime score of 13% from the League of Conservation Voters. Among his greatest hits are voting against a carbon tax, the barest minimum of climate solutions, and for an amendment to block the government from considering the impacts of climate change in agency rulemaking.

It’s not just the contrast with Zeldin that could make Goroff’s message of science-based leadership appealing on Long Island. The district is also home to Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook, two major scientific institutions, and is ground zero for climate change with miles of coastline still bearing the scars of Hurricane Sandy. The district needs real climate solutions to deal with rising seas, and the research institutions there could very well play a role in delivering at least some of them. Groups supporting science-based decision-making have lined up with Goroff, including 314 Action, a PAC that works to get scientists elected. The group has put more than $2 million into running TV and digital ads supporting Goroff and has made climate change a central part of its pitch for why Congress needs her.

“I really see my role as a scientist in Congress, that what I would want to be is a resource for every member of Congress to make sure that Democrats and Republicans have access to the best information available,” she said.

In comparison to Zeldin, Goroff has called for the U.S. to reach carbon neutrality by 2035, a target more aggressive than that of former Vice President Joe Biden. She also said she’s supportive of market mechanisms to lower carbon emissions, such as cap-and-trade programs that allow companies to sell and buy a shrinking number of pollution permits as a way to reduce emissions.

“I do think we need to put in some kinds of incentives to let the markets do their magic when people have financial incentives to move quickly,” she said, noting vehicles as one area where incentivizing the development of electric vehicles over gas guzzlers could be a good place to start.

Yet market-based approaches to climate change have increasingly fallen out of favor with the progressive wing of the Democratic party. The Green New Deal, for example, makes no mention of it, and presidential climate plans largely set aside any calls for a carbon market of some sort. That Goroff supports it shows a potential area where the Democratic caucus could tussle over climate policy in a new Congress. But honestly, if Democrats take the White House, Senate, and the House, having a substantive debate over the role of markets in the adoption of electric vehicles would be a breath of fresh air after the decades of Republican pollution.

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