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Data Scientist Rebekah Jones Kicks Off Congressional Campaign In Pensacola

 Data scientist and congressional candidate Rebekah Jones talks with locals at a private campaign party Thursday, Aug. 19.
Jennie McKeon
Data scientist and congressional candidate Rebekah Jones talks with locals at a private campaign party Thursday, Aug. 19.

Former Health Department data analyst Rebekah Jones kicked off her campaign for Florida’s 1st Congressional District last week with a small, private gathering inside her Pensacola Beach rental home.

About a dozen people attended the event Thursday which included a buffet-style dinner and homemade cupcakes from Jones. The candidate didn’t make a stump speech, but sat on the back porch of the rental home and answered questions and talked about her platform.

“I saw my role strictly as a scientist and I tried very hard to stick to that until December when (Florida Gov. Ron) DeSantis sent police to my house,” she said. Then I realized as apolitical as I was trying to be, the world and the place I lived in was not going to let that happen. If the politics was not going to get out of science, it was time for the scientists to get into politics.”

Jones made headlines last year after she was fired from her role as a data scientist for Florida Department of Health where she helped create the state’s COVID dashboard. She said she lost her job for refusing to manipulate data to show more-favorable numbers while the state was going through a surge in cases. DeSantis said she was fired for insubordination.

In December 2020, Jones shared a video of Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents entering her home with guns drawn, carrying out a warrant as part of an investigation into a chat message on an emergency-alert platform urging people to speak out about the state’s COVID strategies.

“It's time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead," the message said. "You know this is wrong. You don't have to be a part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it's too late."

Jones has become a national figure since then, speaking to numerous news outlets and launching her own COVID-19 dashboard. Last year, she was named the Forbes Technology Person of the Year for stepping up to “fill the vacuum left by governments during COVID-19.”

She received legally protected whistleblower status in June, but is still facing criminal charges for allegedly illegally accessing the FDOH computer system. That same month, her Twitter account was suspended for repeatedly sharing a Miami Herald article. She currently has a GoFundMe page to help cover legal fees. A note on the page tells campaign donors to go to her official campaign website.

Jones said she didn’t always have her sights set on politics, but with incumbent U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz's seat up for re-election in 2022, she saw an opportunity to deliver facts “through a scientific lens” and not “politicize the truth.”

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“While I was in the state emergency operations center building a data portal to dispel misinformation, people like Gaetz were advocating against mask wearing, mocking it even,” she said, referring to Gaetz wearing a gas mask on the House floor last year during a vote on emergency spending in response to the pandemic.

As Florida faces a surge in cases and a lack of not just hospital beds, but ICU beds, Jones said she believes different leadership would’ve put the state in a better spot.

“If we had followed the science, Florida would not be dragging down the country into a relapse,” she said. “We should be over this. Nobody wants to wear masks anymore; Florida and Texas really did this to the rest of the country.”

Jones originally planned to run as an Independent, but new election rules require her to run as a Democrat — the party she’s registered with. It will be an uphill battle to victory in the majority-conservative district. And Jones still needs about 2,500 signatures to qualify. So far, no other Democrats are running in the primary.

Pensacola resident James Scaminaci said he appreciates Jones’ scientific background and he was ready to support her campaign.

“We need a congressperson who can look at hard data and make hard choices and not act like a clown,” he said.

COVID was the dominant topic between Jones and her guests, but she also talked about statewide issues, such as climate change and voters’ rights.

“Why are we allowing states to individually decide who can vote for president?” she said sitting across from Jamil Davis, lead organizer for Black Voters Matter. “Stealing a crab trap is a class-three felony … (that person) can never vote again.”

Davis said it’s still too early to throw full support behind a candidate, but he will be keeping a “close eye” on her campaign.

“I like that she’s a strong advocate for voter rights and voter empowerment,” he said. “I like that she looked me right in the face and said ‘if HR1 comes across again and I’m in office, I’m voting for it.’ That’s a huge deal for me. She already knew about the issues in Wedgewood (the contaminated community in Escambia County). If you’re running in this district, you should know what’s going on.”

With a deep political divide in local and national politics, Jones said she believes the past year has readied her for 2022.

“Ron DeSantis defamed me to the vice president of the United States before I had spoken to a single reporter on the record,” she said. “I think I’ve learned thick skin by now.”

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Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as the digital content producer and reporter. After graduating from University of West Florida in 2009 with a B.A. in Communication Arts/Journalism, she worked for print publications across Northwest Florida including InWeekly, The Destin Log and Northwest Florida Daily News. In 2016, she was named Features Writer of the Year by Gatehouse Media. Born in Pennsylvania, she admits to being a "Yankee who drinks sweet tea." She dislikes cold weather and is happy to trade a white Christmas for 75-degree weather anytime. She's a proud volunteer of Gulf Coast Kid's House and Save Our Cats and Kittens (SOCKS) in Fort Walton Beach. When she's not reading or listening to podcasts, she enjoys photography, 80s movies, re-watching "The Office" and looking at pictures of your cats.