Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Evers Is the Pro-Science Candidate

Why has that description become so controversial?

By - Jun 28th, 2021 04:43 pm
Gov. Tony Evers. File photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Gov. Tony Evers. File photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Last week Gov. Tony Evers received the endorsement of a nerdy sounding group called the 314 Action Fund, whose name uses the first three numbers of pi. The group “aims to elect scientists and candidates with STEM backgrounds to office… who will use science and facts to address our most pressing issues,” its website notes.

Evers hailed the endorsement, noting that “As a former public school science teacher myself, and as someone who listens to facts and evidence when I am making decisions about the future of our great state, I know how important it is to have science-minded leaders in office.”

Not long ago this wouldn’t have been news. The idea of a governor making decisions based on science, facts and evidence would have elicited yawns. But nowadays it’s a controversial statement, so controversial that science supporters across the nation are donating to a group, formed in 2016, to push for science-based policy making. 

In 2018, the 314 Action Fund helped elect eight new members of the House who were scientists, doctors, nurses or dentists. All were Democrats, which helped the party take over leadership of the House. 

As a result, the Democrats replaced Texas Republican Lamar Smith who had headed the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology for six years, though he had no scientific background. “Under him, the committee investigated the debunked idea that global warming had ‘paused,’ subpoenaed organizations whose research affirmed the reality of climate change, and promoted rules that reduced the number of scientists and increased the number of industry representatives on E.P.A.,“ the New York Times reported. “The new chairwoman, Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat and former psychiatric nurse, is the first person with a scientific background to hold that position since the 1990s.”

In the days of President George W. Bush, many Republicans answered questions about climate change with a dodge, noting “I’m not a scientist.” But the party has become increasingly hostile to science, calling climate change a hoax, and opposing masks and vaccines to fight COVID-19. 

Perhaps the most anti-science politician in America is Wisconsin’s Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, who still supports the use of hydroxychloroquine to fight COVID-19 (even Donald Trump gave up on that) and other quack solutions, and has discouraged people from getting vaccines. On climate change he has argued that humans are not the cause of it and can do nothing to fight it. 

Last week Evers called Johnson “reckless and irresponsible” after the Senator announced plans to hold a news conference featuring a handful of people who had adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccines rather than promoting the overwhelming majority of more than 150 million Americans who had no side effects and avoided sickness and death.

Evers has also been at odds with Republican legislators, led by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who did everything possible to oppose the governor’s stay-at-home order and mask mandate during the pandemic.  The result, as Urban Milwaukee’s Data Wonk documented, was more sickness and deaths in Wisconsin. The GOP’s rejection of science was killing its constituents.

Shaughnessy Naughton, the founder of the 314 Action Group, was “a chemist and cancer researcher turned small-business owner who twice ran for Congress and lost (both times to Democratic primary opponents),” the Washington Post reported. “In the 2014 primary race in Pennsylvania, she found herself up against a candidate backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. ‘I was locked out of a lot of traditional Democratic donors,’ Naughton said.”

So she decided to create a fund to help scientists get elected. In the 2020 election cycle, the group’s  press release notes, “it spent over $11.5 million, including in Wisconsin.” That included funding to help registered nurse and Democrat Sara Rodriguez flip a Republican seat (including Elm Grove and parts of Brookfield and Wauwatosa) in the state Legislature.

While 314 Action Group has backed some independents and candidates in non-partisan local races, in partisan races it backs only Democrats, because the party supports action on man-made climate change. “The two-party platforms are drastically different on that issue,” Naughton told the Post. “We felt we had to pick a team.”

That led to criticism from in an essay for the American Council on Science and Health, which called this “a grave strategic blunder. Science is becoming increasingly politicized, and efforts should be undertaken to depoliticize it. If Republicans believe that scientists are politically opposed to them — a belief that 314 Action is reinforcing — then that will undermine any efforts to win over Republicans to scientists’ causes. In a country split roughly 50/50, scientists must be able to work with whoever is in power, be it a Republican or a Democrat.”

But Republicans are increasingly demonizing scientists, opposing vaccines, and causing grief for those administering them. Naughton’s group has clearly given up on persuasion and feels only an election beatdown will change GOP behavior. Which made Evers, a Democrat and science teacher, an obvious choice to endorse. 

Evers may face Rebecca Kleefisch, who served as Lt. Governor under Scott Walker, who famously removed any discussion of climate change from the DNR website and gutted the agency’s scientific staff. Kleefisch took no stand on Evers’ mask mandate or stay-at-home order, but attended a political rally during the height of the pandemic with 200 people where few if any wore masks, as Mary Spicuzza reported.

But hard-core Trumpites in Wisconsin see Kleefisch as too moderate, I’m told. She has declared she favors “evidence-based” policy solutions and described herself as “a little bit of a nerd,” not the sort of language likely to gladden hard-core anti-vaxxer Republicans.

It’s far from clear if any other Republican (Kevin Nicholson? Bill McCoshen? Reince Priebus?) will jump into the race. But it’s a safe bet that none of them will support efforts to fight climate change. In a nation that was first to put a man of the moon, one of its two major parties now sees science as suspect and scientists as the enemy.

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

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