Pritesh Gandhi had spent months courting abortion-rights and gun safety groups, hoping to win their endorsements in his congressional primary runoff.
But in late April, when his campaign adviser sent him a text to say a prominent group was ready to talk, Gandhi couldn’t immediately take the call.
Covered head to toe in personal protective gear while working at the People’s Community Clinic in East Austin, Gandhi responded with a selfie and a message saying he was tied up but would be available shortly. A primary care physician, he was spending the afternoon collecting nasal swabs from low-income patients to test for the new coronavirus.
Gandhi, who is in the Democratic primary runoff for the 10th Congressional District, is among a group of health care workers from both parties running for office in 2020, when moonlighting as a political candidate during a global pandemic has required a special kind of stamina. When those workers filed paperwork to run for office — weeks before the virus was on the radar of the World Health Organization, let alone American voters — many thought they’d make issues like Medicaid expansion or the Affordable Care Act central to their campaign.
Now, COVID-19 is dominating their bids — and their day jobs.
For Gandhi, who is also an affiliate faculty member at Dell Medical School in the Department of Population Health, the pandemic has given front-line health care workers like himself a view of the high stakes of government decision making. At work, he said, he interacts with everyone from healthy patients to those showing minor symptoms of the virus to those awaiting what could be a deadly fate in the ICU.
Although his first priority is tending to his patients — People’s Community Clinic counts about 20,000 uninsured and underinsured Central Texas patients — Gandhi said that his medical work has unexpectedly prepared him for the oftentimes grueling work of campaigning.
“We are doing all this juggling because the stakes are just too high,” he said. “The effort we’re putting into this campaign is because ultimately I need to look my patients in the eye every single day and know in my heart of hearts I’ve done whatever I can do to fight for them and their families.”
In Gandhi’s case, that means sometimes starting his days as early at 4:30 a.m. and ending them at midnight or later — a dramatic shift to his schedule that also carves out time to help his oldest daughter with her math homework or make dinner. During the day, he’s checking his patients’ labs and working in the clinic’s respiratory center.
At night, he pivots to campaigning.
Other candidates in health care report similar experiences, though this isn’t the first time candidates with medical or scientific backgrounds have entered the political arena.
Texas saw a wave of scientists-turned-politicians run for office during the 2018 midterms, and Congress welcomed nine new members into its ranks that year who had academic or professional experience in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Many of these first-time candidates entered politics in response to President Donald Trump, whose administration they viewed as hostile to scientific expertise, after he withdrew the nation from the Paris climate accord and attempted to gut Obamacare.
Now, during another public health crisis, they see an opportunity to stand out by touting their qualifications as the country confronts a global pandemic.
Christine Eady Mann, a family doctor in a Democratic primary runoff in the 31st Congressional District, said she divides her time in similar ways to Gandhi: She works full time — 35 hours a week — at the Northwest Diagnostic Clinic in Cedar Park while devoting another 30 hours to campaigning.
Two to three times a week, donning full personal protective gear, she tests possible COVID-19 patients before coming home at 5 p.m. After a shower, change of attire and quick dinner, she’ll pivot to campaigning: virtual town halls, phone-banking and texting potential donors and volunteers, and creating content for her website and Facebook pages.
“It’s rigorous, but it’s very similar to what I did when I was in residency,” she said. “You just do what you gotta do.”
Mann, who also advanced to the Democratic runoff for the seat in 2018 but ultimately lost to Air Force veteran MJ Hegar, said her disappointment in the federal response to the coronavirus reached a zenith immediately after the March 3 primary. Now it’s a part of her campaign.
Her clinic, she said, was receiving little to no guidance from county, state or federal officials about how to handle the risks associated with the virus. On top of that, there was a perpetually low supply of personal protective equipment, forcing her to use and reuse N95 masks — often disinfecting them in between. The clinic also had trouble accessing coronavirus test kits until a few weeks ago.
“We have seen a critical lack of adherence to science and scientific principles that have led to the deaths of more than 100,000 Americans,” Mann said. “I dare say that if we had people in elected office who understood how to look at data and how to decide what is valid and what is not and use that data to make decisions, we would be in a different place.”
Now she’s working to recruit other physicians to run for public office. Mann has consulted for and helped launch Doctors in Politics, a group aimed at supporting candidates running for Congress. (The group is backing both Gandhi and Mann this election cycle.)
In the Panhandle, Trump-backed Republican Ronny Jackson, who previously served as a White House physician, has advanced to the GOP runoff in the 13th Congressional District, where he’ll face Republican Josh Winegarner in July.
In a statement for this story, Jackson, a licensed physician and a board-certified emergency medicine physician, played up his background as a qualification for office and made a key campaign pitch out of working to lower health insurance costs.
“COVID-19 has demonstrated to us that our health care system has many vulnerabilities, some of which are now national security issues,” he said. “Whether it’s pharmaceutical manufacturing in China or the lack of resiliency and preparedness in our local hospital system, these are issues I fully understand.”
Jackson has appeared numerous times as a medical expert on Fox News since the pandemic arrived, boosting his visibility in one of the most conservative districts in the country.
Not that the physicians-turned-candidates are the only ones campaigning on the pandemic — or having their day jobs take on heightened relevance during the campaign.
Gandhi’s July opponent in the runoff, Mike Siegel, is a civil rights lawyer. During the coronavirus pandemic, Siegel said he’s educating his constituents on the rules for voting by mail. The state’s Republican leadership has resisted expanding mail-in voting during the pandemic; the state Democratic Party has sued to try to force their hand.
In mid-March, Siegel paired up with an Austin-area Texas House member to demand the state expand voting by mail to every Texan. He says he communicated with the Texas Democratic Party about the idea that people who are vulnerable to the coronavirus should be able to be considered disabled and qualify for mail-in ballots. That legal theory was part of the Texas Democratic Party’s lawsuit in state district court.
And now, after the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Siegel said he’s using his platform to talk about his background in fighting for racial justice — which, among other things, includes fighting housing discrimination against Black Austin residents as a city attorney.
“Now there’s a lot more space to talk about these issues,” said Siegel, who recently won the endorsements of both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. “Before, I thought a lot of Democratic politics was focused on health care and the environment, but the idea now is we’re talking about effective policing and public safety, which gives me the chance to talk about my background.”
Mann’s challenger, Donna Imam, is a computer engineer who has included the voices of medical experts in her campaign, including hosting virtual town halls with emergency care physicians. She’s also working to inform people and businesses on how to apply for loans and access other economic safety nets if they’ve lost their livelihoods during the pandemic.
In the 13th District, meanwhile, Jackson’s credentials have sometimes been used against him. When he first announced his bid for the seat in December, one of his primary opponents at the time used Jackson’s past as a physician to Trump’s predecessor to paint him as “President Obama’s Doctor” while noting Barack Obama’s past praise for Jackson. (Jackson was White House physician under Trump, Obama and George W. Bush.)
But as the coronavirus pandemic has upended Americans’ lives, it has also served as a cultural moment to lionize front-line health care workers. Around the country, public shows of appreciation have included free and discounted food and flights, murals, and the ability to shop special hours at some retail stores.
Now some doctors want to turn nightly cheers into votes.
“Health care is the most important issue to most Americans, and this crisis has exposed the perils of undermining expertise and science,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, who founded 314 Action in 2016. Named for the first three digits of pi, the national group backs scientists and doctors running for office.
“Health professionals are who Americans are looking to to help us through this crisis,” said Naughton, whose group has endorsed Gandhi.
If Gandhi and Mann advance to the general election, both would be underdogs. In Gandhi’s case, the 10th Congressional District is a longtime GOP seat represented by Austin Republican Michael McCaul. Siegel, Gandhi’s runoff opponent, came within 5 percentage points of flipping the seat in 2018. The 31st Congressional District, meanwhile, has a tight GOP grip, and whoever snags the party’s nomination would need to unseat U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, who was first elected in 2002 and won reelection by 3 percentage points in 2018.
Still, Naughton believes the ongoing attention to a public health crisis could prove favorable to candidates with backgrounds in science and medicine.
“These physicians running are in a unique position to talk about their experiences at a time when everyone is thinking about how to keep their families safe,” she said.
For some, including Gandhi, those on the front lines have a direct line of sight into the suffering everyday families experience, whether in the public health sector or economically. That alarm has only grown in light of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, from failures in state testing to a lack of Medicaid coverage to people with incomes near or below the poverty line.
“Because I see that failure, I feel compelled to fight for change,” Gandhi said.