Dr. Raul Ruiz has the type of personal story that makes focus groups swoon: growing up lower-middle class in California’s Coachella Valley, he went door-to-door, asking his neighbors to help him pay his way to college, with the commitment that he’d return to practice medicine.
Ruiz only collected about two thousand dollars, but he still made good on his promise. After graduating Magna Cum Laude from UCLA, then Harvard Medical School, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard School of Public Health, Ruiz returned home to serve the same people who had put him on his path.
“It’s not about the money,” Ruiz tells me. “It’s about the social contract with my district.”
It’s an agreement that Ruiz hopes to extend to all of California’s Congressional District 36 by taking on Republican incumbent Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, who has been serving the district since 1998.
Ruiz has chosen a good year to run: redistricting has created a more favorable political environment for a Democratic challenger. With new lines drawn, the Republican voter registration advantage has decreased from 6 to 2 percent. Republicans now constitute 41% of registered voters, Democrats 39%.
For Ruiz in particular, who is the first Latino to run in this district, demographic changes present additional opportunity: the district is 47% Latino, though only 27% are registered to vote. A serious voter registration push by Ruiz’s team could make the Republican voter registration advantage a wash.
Nationally, Democrats see CA-36 as a pick-up opportunity: Obama carried this district by 3% in 2008 and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has identified Ruiz’s race as one of their top eight targets.
Ruiz believes that his community service and the skills necessary to negotiate competing interests in a medical setting have prepared him for anything Washington throws his way.
“It takes a thick skin to be in the emergency room,” Ruiz tells me. “I’m constantly negotiating with patients, nurses, patients’ families and other physicians. These are life and death situations.”
Ruiz hopes to bring that problem solving to Capitol Hill, with an emphasis on supporting small businesses, and addressing the disparities in education and health care access that plague his district.
“In congress, we need to put people first,” Ruiz says with the type of sincerity that Washington generally dashes in one congressional term. “As important, we need to hold one another accountable for the outcome.”
“I believe in personal responsibility,” Ruiz continues. “I believe in seeking excellence. My life has been one of trying to better myself so that I can serve my community.”
That’s a lesson Ruiz is committed to passing on to his many mentees. “I always tell them you can’t wait for opportunity to present itself; you have to create it.”
Redistricting has offered Ruiz a ripe opportunity to present a credible challenge to Bono Mack. Now, as throughout his life, it will be incumbent upon Ruiz to create the rest.