Raul Ruiz win tells story of Election 2012
By: Kate Nocera
November 18, 2012 11:20 PM EST
If the growing sway of Latinos in American politics was the story of election 2012, Raul Ruiz’s triumph in California’s 36th Congressional District was a dramatic subplot.
The son of migrant farmworkers who scraped his way through UCLA and then Harvard Medical School, Ruiz dislodged Rep. Mary Bono Mack, a 14-year fixture of the Republican Conference who didn’t seem to fully appreciate the district’s fast-growing Hispanic population until it was too late.
Now Ruiz will join the Democratic Caucus, which Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi noted with pride last week will have more minorities and women combined than white men.
“More than anything, it’s a reflection of America,” Ruiz, 40, told POLITICO during freshman orientation last week. “It’s a reflection of changing times that people are electing folks they feel are competent and will represent the issues and values of the country as a whole.”
Political handicappers scoffed at Ruiz’s chances when the emergency room doctor launched his campaign: Bono Mack was too well-known in the district, and Ruiz had never run for office.
But Ruiz pounced on Bono Mack’s support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial Medicare reform plan. And he rallied the district’s growing Latino population — Hispanics make up more than a quarter of registered voters and 47 percent of the population overall — to help lift him to a narrow victory.
Ruiz also highlighted his deep roots in the district and undeniably impressive life story.
The son of poor farmworkers, he lived in a trailer for a time as a boy and left home at 17 for UCLA. To help pay for college, he went store to store asking business owners to invest in their community by investing in his education. He raised $2,000 — enough to pay for books for two years — promising he would eventually return to the area to give back.
Ruiz went on to earn three degrees from Harvard, including his M.D., before working as an ER doctor at a nonprofit hospital. He organized free health education for poorer communities, helped start a free clinic for the uninsured, launched a mentorship program for aspiring doctors and became a senior associate dean at UC-Riverside School of Medicine.
Then came his long-shot bid for Congress. Ruiz said it wasn’t enough for him to just treat patients in a hospital or clinic; he felt compelled to work on the “social determinants of health” — jobs, the economy, education and access to health care — which he felt Bono Mack wasn’t addressing.
Bono Mack replaced her famous husband, Sonny Bono, in Congress in 1998 after his death in a skiing accident. Though her politics are regarded as moderate, Ruiz effectively painted her as out of touch with a huge segment of the district.
The congresswoman acknowledged during the campaign her party’s shortcomings among Latinos. By 2020, Hispanics are expected to outnumber whites in California.
“We’re missing a big opportunity,” Bono Mack said in October, as reported by The Desert Sun. “Most Latinos understand that centralized government, big government institutions are not the way to go.”
But in the weeks before the election, Bono Mack had all but given up trying to court Latinos.
“I pledge that after November, I will try my hardest to speak to Latino voters,” Bono Mack said. “This election, I’m a little bit hamstrung. But I will do my best. Because I think that they deserve the attention that we need to give them.”
But it wasn’t just a lack of attention that caused her problems. Ruiz seized on a 2006 email that Bono Mack wrote to a radio personality in which she delighted at the host’s description of a heavily Latino part of the district as a “Third World toilet.”
“Even Mitt Romney would have been disgusted by that comment,” the Desert Sun quoted Ruiz as saying. Bono Mack’s campaign acknowledged the missive was “inappropriate” and said it didn’t reflect her true feelings, but the damage was done.
Ruiz described the 36th District as incredibly diverse, both racially and economically. Located just east of Los Angeles, it is still made up of a “minority of minorities,” he said. But he worked hard to convince voters across the spectrum — the district also includes ritzy Palm Springs — to vote for him.
“This was a big clash of values for the people in our district,” Ruiz said in an interview. “Too many of our seniors are barely making ends meet with the Social Security and Medicare, and her plan to change Medicare into a voucher system … was unacceptable. Her wanting to cut Pell Grants and Stafford loans for our students, in particular middle-class students who rely on those to go to school, was also unacceptable.”
Republicans suffered heavy losses in the Golden State. Democrats picked up four seats, giving them a 38-15 majority in Congress’s largest delegation.
As Ruiz learned to navigate the halls of Congress during last week’s freshman orientation — he got lost only once — the newcomer expressed hope for more bipartisan cooperation in a divided Congress. He’s also focusing on trying to get to know the other new members of his caucus.
“It feels like college all over again. I was asking where the cafeteria was, taking class pictures, trying to make new friends,” he said. “I know it’s going to take time.”
It’s still sinking in he’ll be a congressman come January.
“The idea that where I come from, from my humble beginnings, and now, I find myself in the Capitol around the most influential people in the country and being able to sit at the table and really serve my communities,” he said, “is very empowering.”
© 2012 POLITICO LLC