Former Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate; suspended campaign in April.
Biomedical research scientist focusing on behavioral neuroscience among other disciplines; lecturer at the University of Colorado.
Has worked as a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, Denver Health and the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Colorado Politics: A lot of our readers probably know you only as a former U.S. Senate candidate. Before we get into that race and your decision to leave it, tell us who you are as a scientist and how that played a role in your decision to run for office in the first place.
Trish Zornio: My scientific background is primarily in clinical and translational research. I work mostly with interdisciplinary teams and a focus in pediatric neurology. Specifically, that means I work both in clinical and laboratory studies, sometimes doing bench work, other times working with patients and care teams. I’ve also developed a niche of building laboratories from the ground-up, which is how I began traveling more to D.C. in efforts to relate progress and funding needs for the next generation of biology and medicine.
In combination it absolutely played a role in my interest to run for federal office. My interest became especially strong in 2015. At the time I was assisting with the development of a new multimillion-dollar national research program through the National Human Genomes Research Institute (NHGRI), a collaboration between institutions such as Stanford, Harvard and Vanderbilt Universities. It was a pilot program aimed at solving rare and undiagnosed diseases leveraging personalized medicine approaches not yet available in standard practice. Due to the forward nature of the study, we’d consistently run up against gaps in modern policy. For example, the 2008 law for genetic protection from discrimination (GINA) was insufficient and introduced additional risks to patients in the study, requiring disclosure that limited care options for those who deemed the risk too great.
As lawmaking is generally reactionary, in research we’re often among the first to face the problems. However, in a 21st century society, science and technology will outpace our ability to legislate in reactionary capacity — it simply advances too quickly. This will require more scientific experts in policy making, in combination with lawyers and business persons, so as to legislate pre-emptively on data privacy, genetics, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, biologic threats, grid security and more before they become an issue.
CP: Of all the things that can go wrong for a campaign, your Senate bid — like just about every other candidacy this spring — ran into probably the last obstacle anyone could have anticipated: a global pandemic. It not only took everyone’s eyes off of politics but also stymied the campaigns themselves by marooning voters in their homes. That played perhaps the decisive role in derailing your effort, but what would your chances have been in any event against high-profile, well-financed contenders from the political establishment like John Hickenlooper and Andrew Romanoff?
Zornio: Indeed, while I had known we were at increased risk of infectious outbreaks, I had certainly hoped to make it into office and help employ preventative policy well before it would happen. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way, and without a doubt the campaign was impacted. It was already an uphill climb when Gov. John Hickenlooper got in the race, and I’d already faced the challenge of pausing my campaign for two months last year to help my mother who’d been hit by a car and had her leg amputated. But COVID-19 grounded us completely. Events were cancelled; we lost hundreds of caucus-goers to physical distancing; assemblies went virtual without rousing speeches; press coverage halted; we couldn’t even knock on doors — all at the most critical moment, going into the primary. This made existing name recognition and finances even more important than ever. Still, exiting the race early after years of efforts wasn’t easy; I’d worked really hard. But, I ran a campaign based on facts and data and I knew I needed to be objective. On the first quarter reports for 2020 (during COVID), it became exceptionally clear none of the candidates other than John were well financed for the new times, and Gardner still had more total than all Democrats combined. Even the former speaker of the House, Andrew Romanoff, was no longer well-financed, either. With only about $500,000 cash on hand, he’s multiple millions behind both Hickenlooper and Gardner, coupled with having already lost two federal races.
While there were opportunities to “go viral” or catch steam prior, for me, given these changing times, I knew it was best if we all started working together prior to June 30, consolidating funds and efforts, to give Democrats the best chance during COVID-19 to defeat Gardner. These all certainly factored into my withdrawing early and ultimately endorsing Hickenlooper. Today, John is without a doubt the only Democrat with formidable status able to give Gardner a run for his money (literally) — but that meant my exiting the race as well.
CP: During your campaign, you released a plan to address the spread of COVID-19 that included steps like a federally mandated stay-at-home order. Do you feel the measures taken by state and local governments, particularly in Colorado, have fallen short in stemming the spread of the virus?
Zornio: Candidly, I hadn’t intended to write a pandemic response plan, but weeks were going by and the federal government (supported by my hoped-for opponent Cory Gardner) was still failing miserably. I felt the general public needed to understand the response happening federally wasn’t normal, and this is where the narrative should change: The question shouldn’t be whether or not we should have stayed home longer; the question should be whether or not we should have ever needed to stay at home at all had the Trump administration not failed us on the initial pandemic response.
Without a doubt, the primary failure of COVID-19 response falls on the Trump administration, not on any individual state or governor. From Trump’s disbanding of the pandemic response experts as early as 2017, to defunding virology and other research teams by 80% at the CDC, to not employing the 69-page White House pandemic response handbook prepared by experts from lessons learned after the SARS, MERS, and Ebola outbreaks — he failed us. The Senate did, too, by refusing to continue funding for the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), failing to hold Trump accountable, and essentially the entire GOP calling a virus that has now killed over 100,000 Americans a “Chinese hoax” which delayed action for weeks. By the time the President finally decided to acknowledge the virus existed, he continued to err with testing failures, and failed to employ the Defense Production Act in full, plus he still continues to send mixed messages on masks and staying home, leading to citizen confusion (rightfully so). All of these errors made by the federal administration have absolutely cost American lives and livelihoods, and moreover they fuel a vast and unhealthy political divide.
CP: What first inspired you to take up science as your profession, and what more needs to be done to foster greater interest in a science career among girls and young women — or is that transformation already underway?
Zornio: Some interest is likely innate, but a lot is probably due to my childhood. In addition to having a father who held local office for 18 years, he is an engineer with a motto that seems to say, “It isn’t fun until you know how it works!” Alas, I spent most of my childhood learning to ask “Why?” Scientific thinking really does start early on. “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why do you get bubbles when water boils?” By the time I was in seventh grade, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon, but my middle school guidance counselor told me being a doctor wasn’t for girls like me (I was an A student), so he told me to pick something else. I did, and I was so embarrassed that I never told anyone I had wanted to be a doctor or scientist again until college.
The reality remains that gender gaps are often detectable in children as young as 2-3 years old. Transformation is underway, but truly addressing this inequity will take decades of efforts. We need to invest in equitable early-childhood education (ages 0-5), K-12 and higher ed, and work toward overall cultural shifts, but notably it will require men who currently hold leadership roles to actively make gender equity a priority across all realms of society. Also, enforcement of harassment and discrimination laws. Laws are just pieces of paper without enforcement.
CP: When you suspended your campaign in April, you issued a statement saying it was “only the beginning” and that your campaign “laid the groundwork for championing the next generation of women and scientists in our highest levels of government…” You also said, “…Over the next many weeks I look forward to finding new ways to build strong coalitions toward a better and brighter future for us all." That sounds a lot like you’ve left the door open to another run for office.
Zornio: Given the global pandemic, at this time I do not have plans to run for another office. Like so many Coloradans my job and finances have also been impacted and I’ll need to focus on paying the bills for a while. A future run is not off the table, but for now I will be focused on joining many current leaders like U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, Colorado state Sen. Kerry Donovan, and of course my early opponents like former U.S. Attorney John Walsh and U.S. Ambassador Dan Baer in securing a win for Gov. Hickenlooper and the Democrats against Gardner in November.