WASHINGTON — On Memorial Day weekend 2015, three storms converged over Texas and Oklahoma. The clouds that gathered over drought-stricken Central Texas promised rain, but no one expected the record-breaking rainfall and catastrophic flooding that hammered the region.
The storms dumped up to 10 inches inches of rain and brought tornadoes and historic flooding. Near San Marcos, the Blanco River surged to 2 feet above flood stage, sending water raging into the city, ripping homes from their foundations and causing nearly $3 billion in damage. More than two dozen people died in Texas alone. Emergency personnel had to rescue hundreds more.
In the wake of the catastrophe, The Texas Observer declared it the “climate disaster” that had finally hit home. But Rep. Lamar Smith — the Texas Republican whose persistent opposition to climate science ironically landed him the top seat in the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology — made no mention of climate change’s role in the disaster and instead praised fellow Texans for their resilience and spirit.
His congressional district, which includes parts of Austin and San Antonio, was among the hardest-hit areas. For Smith, the storm’s lesson was that weather forecasting needed to improve, saying, “We must do everything we can to save lives and protect property from severe weather events.” But not only did Smith continue to ignore the role climate change may have played in the storms, he also has spent the last five years as chair of the committee trying to defund climate research and harassing federal climate scientists whom he has accused of playing “fast and loose” with data.
Smith, who lives in San Antonio, has sprinted to defend the fossil fuel industry ― namely Exxon Mobil Corp. ― from probes into their own records on climate change and has used his power on the science committee to push his own anti-science agenda, stacking hearings with coal and chemical lobbyists and climate skeptics. Smith’s office did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
“It was really alarming to watch as people like Lamar Smith were not responding with alarm or with concern but were trying to stop that message from getting out,” Crowe said. “And that I felt was hugely dangerous and really worrying.”
Crowe also pointed to the fact that Smith has received more than $700,000 from the oil and gas industry since 1989.
“Lamar Smith has shown us exactly what it looks like when our worst fears about corporate power in politics come true,” Crowe said. “Here we have a member of Congress who’s being told by every reputable expert in the field that if he does not change his policies that his communities are headed for disaster, and he is ignoring them. And it just so happens that it’s very lucrative for him as a campaigner to do so.”
Crowe’s campaign comes amid a groundswell of support for scientists and climate advocates running for office, a response to the Trump administration’s assault on research funding and scientific integrity. The nonprofit 314 Action political action committee, launched last year, recently kicked off a fresh effort to fund and support scientists and give them a crash course in political campaigning, similar to EMILY’s List support for female Democratic candidates who back abortion rights. Climate Hawks Vote, a political action group founded in 2013, will lead a training program April 30 — the day after the People’s Climate March — in Washington, D.C., to support climate leaders interested in running for office. And Lead Locally, an environmental group launched earlier this month, is recruiting candidates for local government who will fight against fossil fuel interests.
Crowe has roughly six years’ experience working on Capitol Hill, including as a staffer for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and most recently as communications director for Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), so he understands the challenges of congressional life. And while he didn’t envision running for public office himself, he said he couldn’t sit back and watch the Texas representative ignore his constituents, dismiss science and threaten future generations.
Crowe grew up in Sunray, a small town in the Texas panhandle, and graduated from Texas Tech University with a degree in political science. A year and a half ago, he and his wife, also a Texas native, moved back to Austin, which they previously called home for more than five years, to raise their young son. Crowe is now the communications director for The SAFE Alliance, a nonprofit in Austin working to end child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence.
A self-declared “nerd for science,” Crowe said he has become increasingly worried about climate change in the last few years, as global temperature records topple. In 2015, he created a YouTube channel called Carbon Freeze, which featured videos about the urgency of the climate threat and Lamar Smith’s denialism.
Crowe has never cared for Smith, but he says the “final straw” was the congressman’s early support for President Donald Trump, along with the thought of what a Smith-Trump agenda could mean for his son’s future.
“The future gets really concrete when it’s looking at you from the crib,” he said. “By the time my son graduates high school, if Lamar Smith has his way, we will blow the carbon budget for staying below temperatures that would trigger catastrophic climate change. And I can’t let that happen without trying to get him out of office.”
Taking on a long-standing incumbent on a science-oriented platform may be challenging. But in places where the effects of climate change are already apparent and tangible, such a move has precedent. Take South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, for example. When the Florida International University biology professor ran against five-term incumbent Horace Feliu in 2004, he thought he stood little chance of winning. But when he began knocking on constituents’ doors, he found that pitching himself as an honest, fact-based thinker by trade was a competitive advantage.
“I said, ‘Look, I’m a scientist. My career is based on my reputation as an honest person. I’m not going to tell you a lie because, if I do, I don’t have a career,’” Stoddard told HuffPost by phone between classes in his office at the college. “And they elected me. They keep electing me.”
“I know Donald Trump got elected promising the moon and the stars, but I’ve always found people appreciate it when you tell them the truth,” he added. “The public is hungry for someone to tell us the truth and make evidence-based decisions.”
The biggest challenge for any scientist may be learning how to tailor a technical speech and tendency for jargon to suit political audiences.
“A scientist takes on every question and answer at face value, but in the political realm you have to be a little more sophisticated,” Stoddard said. “People will throw gotcha questions, and people will throw out questions to make you stumble. You have to take control of your message.”
That said, voters may appreciate a candidate who speaks bluntly about climate change when the top leaders in the U.S. government have refused to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming.
Crowe is not a scientist. But he does his best to stay on top of science news, is an advocate for science-based policy and finds Smith’s repeated attacks on the scientific community appalling. And he puts stock in the 97 percent of climate research that supports the finding that climate change is real and that humans are the primary cause — a figure Smith maintains is false.
“If 97 percent of doctors told you that you were going to die without a surgery, you would have that surgery, no problem,” Crowe said. “And you would be a very unwise person to say that those 97 percent of doctors are engaged in a conspiracy against you.”
Crowe believes Texans are coming to understand that Smith is advocating for something other than his constituents’ interests.
“I think that is everyone’s worst fear: that our democracy is sold to the highest bidders,” Crowe added. “And if we’re going to save ourselves from that, we have to vote people like that out of office.”
Unseating a 30-year incumbent in a historically Republican district won’t be easy. Crowe understands that, but his campaign has received an extraordinary response in just the first few weeks since he announced his candidacy, he said. He pointed to Smith’s percentage of the vote dipping below 60 in last year’s election, blue voters moving into a heavily gerrymandered district and the congressman losing the support of his conservative hometown newspaper last October as signs he has a fighting chance. (In November, Smith’s Democratic opponent, Tom Wakely, tallied 36 percent of the vote to Smith’s 57 percent.)
The future gets really concrete when it’s looking at you from the crib. Derrick Crowe, who is challenging Rep. Lamar Smith
“There’s a lot of indicators in this race to show that it’s winnable and that [Smith] has finally gone too far in this anti-climate change science crusade,” Crowe said.
Crowe isn’t alone in wanting to rid Congress of Smith. Also considering a run on the Democratic ticket is Joseph Kopser, an aerospace engineer and Army veteran from Austin. Kopser told PBS NewsHour this week that, although Smith is a “nice gentleman,” he “has a view toward science and technology that is not helpful in terms of where our economy is going.”
Smith is among a trio of Republicans that 314 Action is targeting for their anti-science views. Others include Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Smith’s fellow science committee member Steve Knight (R-Calif.). Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist and president of the environmental nonprofit Blueprint Earth, plans to challenge Knight next year. “If we want to step up and make sure science is not silenced,” Phoenix said in a recent interview with BuzzFeed, “we have to give it a voice.”
“We have two missions: One is we want to see more people with scientific and technical backgrounds elected, and two is we want to hold responsible elected officials that don’t base policy on sound science,” 314 Action founder Shaughnessy Naughton told HuffPost. “I would put Lamar Smith very high on that list.”
Last week, the group held an event at American University in Washington, D.C., to provide media training and campaign tips to would-be candidates. Dozens of scientists attended the conference, which took place two days before the March for Science — a rally to engage more scientists in politics and protest Trump’s policies.
“There’s so much revulsion at Trump’s priorities,” Naughton said. “That fight has made us more visible.”