Rohrabacher, who represents the 48th District in Southern California, has been in Congress since 1988. Democrats there see 2018 as a vulnerable year for the incumbent. Although Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district, Hillary Clinton swung it in the 2016 election. And Rohrabacher has come under scrutiny for his support of a closer relationship with Russia. In May, the chair of Orange County Democrats told The Washington Post that challengers were “coming out the woodwork” to oppose him. Five candidates besides Keirstead have declared they are running for the seat.
Keirstead emerged from academic and entrepreneurial fields. He pioneered a technique to purify stem cells — “You can’t go putting toenails into the spinal cord,” he said — and applied this method to spinal-cord injuries and diseases such as cancer and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. In 2014, he sold a stem-cell company in a deal reportedly worth more than $100 million. (He will not fund his own campaign, he told the Los Angeles Times.) Keirstead has the support of 314 Action, a nonprofit group that encourages scientists to seek public office.
The Post spoke by phone with the first-time candidate. The following is lightly edited for space and clarity.
TWP: Your opponent, who is a member of the House Science Committee, told Science magazine in 2012 that he “loved science.” How would you compare your approaches to science?
Keirstead: I’m delighted that Dana Rohrabacher loves science. That’s fabulous. But I’m also very convinced that he doesn’t understand science. There’s a real big difference. If you love science, that’s one thing. If you don’t understand it, you can’t effect change, and you make wrong decisions.
Dana Rohrabacher does not understand global warming. He actually attributed it to the flatulence of dinosaurs, in a serious manner, a while back. [Rohrabacher has said this was a joke to make fun of scientists who study cow methane.]
His inaction and lack of understanding has tremendous detriment on the scientific community. Likewise is the funding to health care and how to fix the health-care system that [former president Barack] Obama put in place. That was not a perfect system by any means; it’s got problems. But it has also bettered our system. It needs to be worked with in order to further better our system.
TWP: Has your career in stem-cell research influenced your politics?
Keirstead: I was front and center in the national and international debate on stem cells. I was the first scientist in the world to have developed a treatment for spinal-cord injury using stem cells. The dramatic nature of the recovery we saw in rodents, going from paralyzed to walking, drew a great deal of attention and really put me at the center of this issue as it was just coming to light in the public forums.
I did a lot of advising of senators and congressmen all throughout those years and periodically since that time. . . . I was one of the key scientific advisers to Proposition 71 that turned into the $3 billion California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a not-for-profit that distributes $300 million every year for regenerative medicine in a broad sense.
That was a very good example of how medical breakthroughs and discoveries and advancement are not at odds with economic development. You do not have to cut medical budgets to stimulate the economy. Any scientist and medical doctor will tell you: “Give me some time, and I will generate a treatment.” And most of the time they are right. What happens with that treatment is small companies are born, people stop dying, quality of life improves.
I see what the government’s doing right now as very much opposite that. Frankly, when I look at the deficits of Congress, I see why. When I look at who is in the administration, the types of individuals that we have in Congress, I see very hard-working people doing what they feel is a terrific job. But there is just not the broad and deep field experience in the medical and health-care sectors.
TWP: Was it this perceived deficit that motivated you to run for Congress?
Keirstead: First and foremost, I see it as a continuation of my lifelong pursuits of trying to help people.
I see Congress as a larger stage to effect positive change. If I could have some positive influence in Congress, I could aid [those] that are trying to do good in the world but are having difficulty.
Let me give you an example: I’m now expanding into brain cancer. I’m running a Phase 2 clinical trial with my team. I will not be able to do that if these policy changes of Trump’s are instituted and a small company like mine is faced with double user fees. It’s not in the budget. I can’t ask an investor for another half of a million dollars for an administrative fee.
I see the administration putting insurmountable challenges in front of small businesses. I’m about generating treatments to help people, putting medicines in people’s homes. And I’m looking to the future and seeing that tap shut off.