By Victoria Davis, Elizabeth Gamillo, Shandria Sutton
The fight over the makeup of Congress continues next week with primary elections on 7 August in four states. As part of our yearlong series on scientists running for Congress, here’s a look at three Democrats from districts in Washington, Michigan, and Missouri who are seeking the chance to face a Republican opponent in the 6 November general election.
Shannon Hader: Public health expert wants to treat body politic
Shannon Hader oozes experience in public health at many levels. She’s led the U.S. government’s $1.1-billion-a-year global fight against HIV and tuberculosis at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, after a previous stint leading CDC’s effort in Zimbabwe. She has turned around a troubled HIV/AIDS program run by Washington, D.C. She’s been a senior executive for a Washington, D.C.–based health care firm that supports CDC projects around the world. A pediatrician with a master’s degree in public health, she also recently spent a year as a congressional fellow.
Those posts have given her an inside look at the power of government to do good—and to do harm. In January, Hader decided to play a more visible role in trying to ensure the first outcome, declaring her candidacy for Congress in Washington’s eighth congressional district.
A Democrat, Hader says she was prompted to run by the actions of President Donald Trump “to undercut science and to dismantle programs that are important to our community health.” And she takes those attacks personally. “I believe that government can and should work for the people. And I’ve helped make it work,” says Hader, who resigned from CDC last fall, in advance of launching her campaign. “But I’ve also seen where it is broken and not working at all.”
The race to succeed the retiring incumbent, seven-term Republican Dave Reichert, is considered a toss-up by political analysts. “I would say that this is the best chance the Democrats have to win here in decades,” said Todd Schaefer, a professor of political science at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.
There are four strong contenders, three Democrats and one Republican. Washington’s top-two primary rules, in theory, could allow two Democrats to square off in November. But pundits expect Republican Dino Rossi, who has a lengthy resume of both winning and losing bids for state and national posts, to capture one spot. That leaves Hader, pediatrician Kim Schrier, and attorney Jason Rittereiser to battle it out in a district that covers both the exurbs east of Seattle and more rural areas across the Cascade Mountains, including Ellensburg.
All four candidates have built up impressive war chests. As of 30 June, Rossi led with nearly $3 million, twice what Schrier has raised. Rittereiser clocked in at $850,000, with Hader close behind, although $420,000 of her $825,000 total is from a personal loan.
The candidates have drawn backing from different sectors of the voting population. Hader has piled up endorsements from local Democratic organizations, while Rittereiser has the backing of several labor groups. Schrier has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List, a national advocacy group that backs women running for office who support abortion rights. She’s also received support and an official endorsement from 314 Action, a nonprofit that helps scientists run for office.
Among her public health peers, Hader is seen as someone who relishes a challenge and then delivers. “No one in their right mind would have wanted that job [at the D.C. Department of Health],” says Adam Tenner, a Washington, D.C.–based consultant who led a program to serve teenagers with AIDS in 2007, when Hader took the gig. “We were, from my perspective, the laughingstock of American cities when it came it epidemiology.” But Hader turned things around, he says, by “bringing in really thoughtful money, resources, and researchers to help us better understand our epidemic.”
Vaccination becomes an issue
In the waning days of a race in which one local political analyst described the three Democrats as having “only nuanced differences on issues,” Hader took a dramatic step to separate herself from Schrier with a mailer attacking the pediatrician’s stance on childhood vaccinations. The mailer cites a candidates’ forum in March in which Schrier disagreed with the statement: “The government should require children to be vaccinated for preventable diseases.” Hader’s ad declares that “a pediatrician should know better. A policymaker must know better.”
Schrier called out Hader for the mailer last week at another forum, labeling it “a big fat lie … [and] a piece of garbage.” Schrier says, “Giving vaccinations is one of the most important things that I do as a pediatrician,” adding that she’s a “100% supporter of vaccines and anything that makes the vaccinated population larger.”
But Hader hasn’t backed down. She says Schrier only recently removed a policy statement from her website that endorsed a Washington law that grants vaccine exemptions for school-age children on religious and philosophical grounds. “As someone who knows the importance of a policy,” Hader says, “I’m concerned by Schrier’s failing to positively assert what she is for.”
Straight talk is Hader’s forte, says Tom Kenyon, her former boss at CDC. “She is a very strong communicator,” says Kenyon, who led CDC’s Center for Global Health before becoming CEO of Project HOPE, a nonprofit based in Millwood, Virginia, that deploys medical volunteers to deal with emergency health crises around the world. “She listens, she processes information, and then she helps people come up with solutions.”