CHICAGO -- Jason Westin is an oncologist and lymphoma researcher at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. But now he wants a seat in Congress — the one held by longtime Republican congressman John Abney Culberson. Westin will have plenty of competition; several other Democrats say they'll run for the right to face off against Culberson in a district that Hillary Clinton narrowly won in November.
Westin, 40, says he was bitten by the politics bug when, before medical school, he worked as an intern for former Florida senator Bob Graham (D). And now, he argues, with health care and science under assault in the nation's capital, it's important for scientists and physicians like him to get involved. He's one of several Democratic physicians who have their eyes on Congress. The father of three, he is married to a gynecologic oncologist at the same cancer center.
At the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, a five-day onc-fest that began here Friday, Westin explained his new career goal. (If he were elected, he would need to give up his practice but could be an adjunct faculty member at MD Anderson.) The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do you want to come to Washington — especially now, when the atmosphere is so toxic?
Things are falling apart so quickly we need to have non-career politicians to stop complaining and start doing something. I was frustrated with last year's campaign and on election night, my wife's birthday, we settled in to watch the returns while drinking champagne. As the night wore on, we ended up saying, “Why is this happening?”
During a soccer game one day, my 5-year-old daughter fell down but wasn't hurt. I told her she couldn't fix things by staying out of the game. I realized later that I would be a hypocrite if all I did was rant about the election on Facebook.
The group 314 Action — 314, as in pi — is recruiting scientists to run for office. With their help, I started hiring staff and filed three weeks ago.
What issues are important to you?
The proposed [National Institutes of Health] cuts are shortsighted. Labs will close, people will lose their jobs and move on to other fields.
And the American Health Care Act will do damage to my patients; every one of them has a preexisting condition. I'm moderate on most issues, but I believe strongly that health care is a right. To me, that's a core value.
Then there's the lack of respect for science — look at the recent decision on the climate pact! The idea that science and doctors are overruled by people who don't understand the issues and just want to use them as a political football … well, we have to fight that from the inside.
But why run for the House, which is controlled by Republicans?
Eighteen months is a lifetime away. With the president's popularity sliding, flipping the House is a realistic goal. For the Democrats, playing offense right now makes a lot of sense.
What was your most memorable experience as a Senate intern?
On my second day, Senator Graham took me on the subway to the Capitol and got me floor privileges for the whole summer. During breaks, I would go over and listen to debates.