UCI Podcast: Running for city council as a 24-year-old PhD student

Dylan Green describes the challenges of seeking local elected office, and why more scientists should do so
Tuesday, January 12, 2021
Aaron Orlowski
UCI News

On this episode of the UCI Podcast, UCI PhD student Dylan Green discusses his bid for Irvine City Council, and why he thinks more scientists should pursue elected office.

Picture Credit:
Courtesy of Dylan Green

In this episode:

Dylan Green, second year UCI PhD student studying observational cosmology

UCI Department of Physics & Astronomy

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Transcript

AARON ORLOWSKI, HOST

This fall, 24-year-old UCI PhD student Dylan Green was not only studying physics and machine learning, he was running for Irvine City Council. Though he didn’t win, Dylan saw firsthand that disagreements in politics don’t have to be so divisive. What does it take to seek local elected office? And why should more scientists and young people get involved?

From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Aaron Orlowski. And you’re listening to the UCI Podcast. Today, I’m speaking with Dylan Green, who earned his bachelor’s degree at UCI and is now a second year PhD student in the Department of Physics & Astronomy.

Dylan, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.

DYLAN GREEN

Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here. I’m looking forward to it.

ORLOWSKI

Well, so you’re studying physics and this past election, you also ran for Irvine City Council. Politics and physics might not seem like things that go together. So why did you decide to run?

GREEN

Yeah, perhaps it doesn’t seem like the most obvious of intersections between different fields. I think that one of the main reasons I decided to run is — and not many people know this, but not only did I do my undergraduate degree here at UCI, but I’ve also actually attended basically all of my schooling here. I’ve been here since elementary school. And so because of that, I’ve spent a lot of time in the local community. I’ve become quite involved in following local politics, also national politics. And I think just a general consequence of following national politics closely is that you start to wonder, well, you know, what’s happening in my city? And that’s what happened to me. I started following national politics in 2016 when Bernie Sanders was running. And then I kind of went, hey, what’s going on here in Irvine? And that’s when I started to really look into it. And of course, usually when you look into these things, you find things that you don’t necessarily agree with or like, so you decide to stand up and do it for yourself.

ORLOWSKI

So let’s look a little bit at the process here. So one of the first steps is that you had to file some paperwork with the Irvine City Clerk. What was that like? What happened there?

GREEN

So I didn’t realize the amount of paperwork I was going to have to fill out originally just to get on the ballot, actually. So basically what happened was I emailed the city clerk and I just said, what do you have to do to run for city council? And she said, well, come in, let’s make a day, come into the city hall one day and I’ll walk you through everything you need to fill out and everything you need to return to me by the deadline. And so I went in, obviously for COVID safety, we had to set this meeting up in advance and make sure that the conference room was sanitized and everything. And so she handed me this — first, she handed me this, this two-inch thick binder, the 2020 candidate handbook. And I was like, okay, here we go.

And then she handed me a file. And the file had — I think it was six papers I had to sign and return. And in addition to that was also sort of like a petition to get on the ballot. So I needed to get 30 signatures from people in Irvine, people who lived and were registered to vote in Irvine on that piece of paper. And then when I brought it back, the minimum that needed to check out with the Orange County Registrar was 20, which is why they gave me a sheet with 30 spaces. And the clerk highly recommended I get all 30 spaces filled in, even though the minimum was 20. I left that meeting. She was like, this is not a commitment. Taking these papers doesn’t mean that you’re going to have to return them or anything. So I took the papers and I went home and I thought about, and I’m like, okay, well, if I can get 30 people to sign this paper, then I’ll go through with it. And lo and behold, I did.

ORLOWSKI

And then, so what happens next after you get those signatures and file those first papers?

GREEN

So once I returned all the paperwork, I went in — the city clerk was there with the assistant city clerk because they needed to verify all the paperwork, all my signatures and everything. And then the very first campaign decision I had to make, basically, was I was sitting in the office, and — when you register to vote right before the ballot comes, you get a little booklet of ballot information, and printed in that booklet is candidate statements and information, all the propositions. And the first decision I had to make was, do I want my candidate statement printed in that booklet or not? And if I do, then I have to pay the — as I found out $1,300 or so — fee to get it printed. So that was the very first decision I had to make. And due to campaign finance law, there’s a special exception that allows you to pay that fee out of pocket. And the reason why that’s important is because the very next thing I had to do upon filing all the paperwork was set up a campaign bank account because all campaign purchases had to come from a campaign bank account. So basically, I left the city clerk’s office, the next day I started calling banks in Irvine, trying to find one who would be willing to set up a bank account for me. I think I went through three different banks before I finally found one who, when I filed the paperwork, got everything done, like the next day, got it all set up and that still took about a month. So the first thing I learned was to do that before filing the paperwork instead of after.

ORLOWSKI

Well, so that’s a lot of I’s to dot and T’s to cross before you even get to the part of talking to voters or pitching yourself to voters at all. So how did you go about campaigning? I think I saw that you had some live-streamed pie-making sessions, where you talked about the issues in a really unique way. So what was your campaign approach?

GREEN

You know, going into 2020, I don’t think any of us expected to be stuck at home the entirety of the year. So when I was first planning, whether or not I was going to run, I envisioned the campaign to be very hands-on, talking to the voters knocking on people’s doors. Of course, that became pretty much untenable the way things went. So I had to kind of re-envision my campaign strategies. So a lot of my campaign strategy was based around name recognition. I think I recognized about halfway through the race that name recognition was important, not just for winning this race, but if I want it to run in the future and I didn’t win this race, that name recognition would be what propelled me forward. So I started setting up as many, or going to as many debates and town halls as I could. But I also, like you mentioned, did something kind of unique, I think. I did do weekly pie baking live streams. I called them Pie and Politics. And that just kind of stemmed from the fact that everybody’s been picking up hobbies in quarantine. Mine happened to be baking, baking pies specifically. And I thought, you know, I’m baking a pie every week anyway. And the easiest way to get name recognition is just to actually appear, online or in front of people. And so I thought, well what if I just combine those two? I bake a pie and then I talk about politics while I do it. And I figured that was a good idea because if I ever felt like I didn’t have something to talk about politically, or there was a break in the conversation, I could take the baking of the pie as an opportunity to take a break from the conversation to kind of reset, take a short little respite from the political talk, which can get tiring after a while. And in that aspect, I actually found that it worked quite well. I received a lot of positive feedback about that.

ORLOWSKI

Well, and so then one of the important things that campaigns usually do is they get, get ahold of a voter file. Were you able to do that? And then what is it and why was it useful for you?

GREEN

So this was something that I had someone working on my campaign kind of in a part-time capacity who has been an advisor on political campaigns before. And he told me that one of the things I wanted to do first and foremost was to get voter data. So basically what it is, you can go to the Orange County Registrar of Voters, and you can request information on everyone who’s registered to vote in Orange County. And you can narrow it down by city. You can narrow it down by in what elections they’ve voted. Basically I went to the Orange County Registrar and I said, look, I want voter data. And I want it for campaign purposes. You have to tell them what you’re going to do with the data. So that costs about $80 and 92 cents, I think it was. And what I got was I got a list of all the registered voters in Irvine and then anyone who provided their address and email. There’s a little box on your voter registration form, that I had completely forgotten about when I registered to vote, that basically says, yes, I’m okay with political organizations or social organizations contacting me about these topics. So I got a list of voters and then voters who checked that box, I got their address and their email. And the reason why that was important, for me, especially with no name recognition, was I was then able to take that list of emails and email those people, send campaign emails. So if you ever wondered, at the start of campaign season, why you suddenly start getting dozens of campaign emails, they probably got your voter data either from the Orange County Registrar or from another campaign.

ORLOWSKI

So as you’re going through this process, did you have a lot of help from friends or family to work on logistics or campaigning or other elements?

GREEN

Yeah, so my campaign was basically entirely friends and family, because I mean I didn’t have the support of a major party, which is a big source of campaign — shall we say — volunteer work. And because of that, I had to — I always feel bad asking people for help because I don’t want to inconvenience them — but I did have to go to a lot of people. I was like, hey, can you help me put up signs? Can you help me do this? A fellow physics students in my cohort agreed to step up and be my, on paper, assistant treasurer, although in reality, he was the main treasurer. And that I am greatly appreciative of. My dad basically took it on himself to take a bunch of the signs I’d ordered and go put them out on his own, even though I didn’t ask him to do that. So I appreciated that as well. And just a lot of my fellow students and family members came out to support me. My advisor, I asked him before I ran, I was like are you ok with me running? Because if not, then I won’t run and that’s fine. And he supported me as well. And that was great for the campaign as well. So basically my entire campaign was people I knew, people in the cohort, and my family. A lot of people sat in the car and just listened to me ramble about the history of Irvine while we drove around to put up signs, because I couldn’t put up signs. Like, it was just annoying to get out of the car, take a sign out of the back and put it up. It was just easier if I had someone in the passenger seat to jump out and put the sign up. And so a lot of people listened to me ramble for hours on end while we put up signs that — I can’t thank them enough for listening to me, drone on about that.

ORLOWSKI

So you did not eventually win the race, but it sounds like you spent a lot of really quality time with family and friends. Was that something — was that one of the benefits for you going through this whole process, was having that network strengthened?

GREEN

Oh, absolutely. Yeah, like you said, I didn’t win the race, but I put together, I think, for me, a very surprisingly good showing. And I couldn’t have done that without the support of all my friends and family members. And I definitely think that my bonds with them have strengthened. I realized I had a lot of support in places that maybe I didn’t necessarily realize I had a lot of support before. A lot of people reached out and threw their support behind the campaign or offered to help who maybe I haven’t talked to as much as I should have, or perhaps we’ve fallen out of touch. So it was nice also to reconnect with a lot of people from my past who reached out and offered to help with the campaign.

ORLOWSKI

This was a long process with many, many lessons along the way, but what would you say was perhaps one of the most surprising things that you learned while going through this process of registering your candidate to see and then campaigning?

GREEN

Well, the very first thing that was surprising, although perhaps should not have been, was how expensive it was going to be. But you know, again, perhaps that shouldn’t have been surprising, perhaps I should have expected that, but I found it very surprising. What I also found quite surprising, again, perhaps maybe it should not have been, but which I found pleasantly surprising, was just how kind and gracious all the other candidates were. And the entire process — I mean, the people I was running against, obviously we disagreed on things here and there, we disagreed on our entire platform, but I think that everybody I met in the course of the campaign, whether it be friends, whether it be constituents, whether it be other candidates, were all extremely nice and extremely friendly. When the fire broke out, a lot of the other candidates, myself included, were posting updates offering to help people. And that kind of sense of community was something that I was really glad to discover and become a part of. And I think, in a way, my ties to the community have been strengthened and that I think is a, is a good thing. And I’m appreciative of that as well.

ORLOWSKI

It’s really good to hear that the local politics and the dynamics in that race were so cordial, especially as we watch some of the inflammatory rhetoric and just the divisiveness that happens at the national level. It’s good to know that at least locally, we can sort of agree to disagree, and compete against each other, but then still be nice to each other along the way.

GREEN

Yeah, definitely. And I remember we had this debate, I think it was actually hosted by ASUCI if I remember correctly, near the end of the campaign. And that was like the most cordial debate I’ve been to because we were all just thanking each other. We were like, oh, I agree with, you know, Larry Agran or Tammy Kim, whoever it may be. And it was just the nicest debate I’ve ever been to. It was barely actually a debate because we were all being so kind to each other. And I enjoyed that, Personally, I love that.

ORLOWSKI

Maybe it doesn’t light people up on social media because they don’t get so angry, but maybe that’s a good thing.

GREEN

Agreed.

ORLOWSKI

Well, so we’ve talked a lot about your campaign, but you are a PhD student here at UCI in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. So what are you studying?

GREEN

So I currently do observational cosmology, which basically means I study the history of the universe through observation. I work for Professor David Kirkby in the physics and astronomy department. And part of that comes with being on two different scientific collaborations, one of which is a spectroscopic instrument, and one of which is a photometric instrument. And so as part of that research, I do a lot of machine learning work. My specific field of research at the moment is using machine learning to look for these tiny little charge particles called cosmic rays. So basically these cosmic rays will hit your CCD, which is your imaging sensor. So they’ll hit the CCD and they’ll corrupt a bunch of pixels. So when we run analysis on the data that we get out of the CCD, we want to ignore the pixels that the cosmic rays have infected. So my work tries to build an automatic method to find these cosmic rays. So we can just automatically ignore those pixels. And I’m specifically trying to use — the buzzword in the business, so to speak — convolutional neural networks, deep learning. So that’s kind of my research right now. I also do a lot of work just on some algorithm stuff. I’m currently working with David on numerical integration tasks. So I find it very interesting.

ORLOWSKI

So this is a very specialized topic and one that requires a ton of expertise and deep knowledge. Science and politics don’t always go together, but maybe they should. So why do you think that more scientists need to get involved in politics?

GREEN

I think more scientists should get involved in politics just mainly because science teaches you to think in such a different way than something like law or business. A lot of policymakers now and historically have been lawyers, have been business owners. And the kind of thinking that goes into that is very specialized for those fields, like it is in science, like it is in physics, for example. When you’re a scientist, you’re taught to think through a problem a certain way — hypothesis, experiment, conclusion. And so there’s a very clear process and that kind of thinking is something that I think is, in my opinion, lacking in politics as a whole. We have a lot of people who are policymakers who don’t have this kind of evidence-based approach to either life in general, but also specifically making policy. And that’s part of the reason why I ran, part of the reason why I think more scientists should run for office.

Not only that, just the ability to network between scientists and politicians is another big, I think, overlooked topic. A scientist in a political position can open up access to this network of other scientists to politicians. Say you have a policy coming up on the board about global warming and you want to talk to a scientist about whether or not this is a good policy, whether or not this is the best way to move forward in trying to combat global warming. If you have a scientist in a political sphere, they’re able to not only talk to you about that topic, but also provide you access to other scientists who might be able to talk on that topic more so than they are. In both of those, the different kinds of thinking and the networking are invaluable, I think in terms of politics. Also, I just think the political sphere should represent the public of America and a non-trivial amount of people in the public are scientists. A lot of them are also lawyers and business owners, like I said, but a lot of them are scientists. And I think we should represent that kind of subset of the population in our government.

ORLOWSKI

In addition, if a scientist is in a policymaking position and maybe they’re working on an issue that’s not exactly their expertise — they can still sort of translate what the experts in that field might say that could be relevant to a particular policy and be able to communicate more accurately between those two different groups, the policymakers and the scientists.

GREEN

Oh, absolutely. And, on that kind of train of thought, there are also scientists who are more specialized to kind of, shall I say, translate the technical language that a lot of scientists use. And I think that too is a benefit. A scientist might give this report or proposal to, let’s just say, Congress at the federal level, and then to have a scientist in Congress who can kind of break it down into less technical language is incredibly important, I think.

ORLOWSKI

Well, you pursued political office at a very young age compared to many people, at 24 years old. So what advice would you give to fellow students or recent graduates who are thinking about getting involved in politics and possibly running for office themselves?

GREEN

This is quite an interesting question because I sometimes wonder, what advice would I give myself a year ago, If I knew I was considering running? I think the first kind of main point of advice I can give is that if you want to get involved, then there is basically always a way that you can get involved to fit around your schedule. I think a lot of people perhaps are scared of getting involved or don’t want to, or feel like they can’t because they are so busy with schoolwork or they’re busy with their job. And one of the things that I think it is important to note is that at every level, I think, there’s someone who can make it work with your schedule. I ran for office, but that’s a big time commitment. But for example, I had a lot of positions on my campaign, a lot of people who helped, who were only able to help a couple of days a week. And that, I think, gave them a sort of entry into the sphere. Obviously my campaign, perhaps it’s not like if you want to get involved in the Democratic or Republican party, you want to try and get on one of those campaigns. But there’s always someone who can work with your time schedule. And if you want to get involved, I think that’s a great way to do it.

People who want to run for office, I would say absolutely run for office, if you have the ability to. Because the other piece of advice I would give is to recognize that it is quite a bit of a time sink and a money sink, if you want to have a legitimate shot at winning. Going back to the candidate statement that I paid $1,300 out of pocket to print — the reason why I ended up printing it in the end is because I recognized that without that I basically had no reasonable shot at winning. And so if you’re going to run, I think you should. I think people absolutely should run if they can. Because even if you don’t win, what’s important is that you can introduce your ideas into the conversation. You can get people talking about what you want to see in the world, in the city, in the country. You can get people talking about your platform. And that I think is one of the most valuable things is just conversation.

ORLOWSKI

Well, Dylan, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.

GREEN

Thank you very much for having me. I had a great time.