An autism crusader runs for U.S. Senate

Elizabeth Emken has no small feat ahead of her: She wants to be a United States senator and the only thing standing in her way is Democratic incumbent Dianne Feinstein.

In a race that started with 23 contenders seeking to challenge Feinstein’s seat in November, Emken, a Republican, came out ahead, securing 12.8 percent of the vote in the top-two primary election on June 5.

Now only Emken and Feinstein remain in the running for the November general election, placing Emken in a dramatically uphill battle against a well-financed, well-known and well-liked incumbent who has held the Senate seat for 20 years.

But the undaunted Emken, while trailing 30-to-1 in fundraising, feels up to the challenge of facing the venerable Feinstein, one of California’s most popular politicians.

“I think it’s exactly the right year. We have 40-plus year politicians who are being shown the door and when they are replaced they are replaced by the next generation,” she said.

Emken’s background is in business.

After graduating from UCLA in 1984 with degrees in political science and economics, she moved to Northern California and began working at IBM. Her work involved cost-based analyses to streamline operations and save money, a process which she sees as directly applicable to working in Congress. “There should be some sort of measurement to compare productivity and help drive funding decisions. I don’t see any controls like that in place. We need to be far more analytical,” she said.

Two years ago, she ran in the 11th Congressional District to knock off Democratic incumbent Jerry McNerney, but failed to get past the GOP primary, finishing last in a field of four.

This year, she finished far behind Feinstein, who captured more than 49 percent of the vote in the Senate race, but she polled well ahead of her nearest challenger, GOP contender Dan Hughes.

Emken, 49, wants each federal agency to justify its reauthorization by submitting a report to Congress detailing its productivity and performance, using basic measureable objectives to eliminate government waste and spending.

Emken’s second area of expertise is autism activism, which she became involved in after her now 19-year-old son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

“I like to say that I chose my first career in economics and finance, and my second career was a draft,” she said. “I found out that there was very little going on with finding out about autism. I wanted to make sure we were looking for the cause of it.”

She began her time as an autism advocate at Cure Autism Now and later joined Autism Speaks, a prominent advocacy organization for research, awareness and outreach programs. Emken has been deeply involved in several pieces of government legislation addressing autism, including the Advancement in Pediatric Autism Research Act, which became the lead title for the Children’s Health Act of 2000.

Her involvement in autism legislation is part of what Emken says led to her decision to run for office. “I had a citizen moment and decided to throw my hat in the ring,” she said. Though she supports autism research,” adding that she would not seek to expand government spending on the issue, but would instead work to do a better job with the resources already available.

Emken thinks that her career in business, along with her background in autism advocacy makes her a strong candidate for legislator. “My dual career creates what you want for someone in government. You don’t typically see someone like me that has both backgrounds,” she said. Though she says she would seek to cut down government spending, she does not want that to fall on the backs of those that need help, like her son.

“California needs to become economically competitive again, but with an eye for the truly vulnerable,” she said.

In addition to her autistic son, Emken has two daughters and lives with her husband and children in Danville. She spends her time attending her children’s events, including dances for her daughters and baseball games for her son.

While Emken admits her political life has been short, she believes she has the background in business and families that California needs. She casts an especially critical eye on Feinstein’s recent years as senator and doesn’t see her as part of any solution for California or the federal government’s current problems.

“We have a Congress that is completely immobilized. It has gone three years without producing a budget. I don’t know a company in America that would let its CEOs do nothing for three years. They would say, you know what, it’s time to try a new CEO,” Emken said.

Emken defines herself as a problem-solver.

“I am committed to working, not just to occupying a ceremonial seat. I think I have good solutions and I am absolutely committed to working on behalf of all Californians by making the tough decisions,” she said.

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