Editor’s Note: As of Thursday night, the official count had Democrat Raul Ruiz leading Republican incumbent Mary Bono Mack in California’s 36th Congressional District by 2.82 percent -- 4,679 votes -- with all precincts reporting. With some absentee ballots still to be counted on Friday morning, Bono Mack had not yet conceded the race.
COACHELLA, Calif. – It is the morning after the election, but no one is talking about the president in this Riverside County town.
The only candidate people are talking about here is Raul Ruiz, the 40-year-old doctor, Democrat, and son of farmworkers from Coachella who on Wednesday pulled ahead of longtime Republican incumbent Mary Bono Mack by about 4,000 votes in the race for California’s 36th congressional district.
“People are talking more about Ruiz than Obama,” said Loretta Cota, a teacher from Coachella. “There was a lot more interest this election because everyone feels a connection to Raul because he grew up here. He wants to serve everyone -- farmworkers, immigrants, first-generation college educated students.”
“He’s one of us”
By now, Ruiz’s local-boy-does-good story is known throughout the Eastern Coachella Valley and beyond. He is the son of farmworkers who knocked on doors and asked businesses in his hometown of Coachella for financial support for college, promising them that one day he would return and give back to the community that gave so much to him. He went on to graduate from the University of California at Los Angeles and obtain three graduate degrees from Harvard University, including the Doctor of Medicine degree that enables him to work as an emergency room doctor at Eisenhower Medical Center.
“He understands suffering, and the need for a better life, prosperity, to live in a place where you are respected, supported, and helped,” Nancy Gonzalez, a farmworker from neighboring Indio, says in Spanish.
“He just genuinely cares about our valley,” adds Karla Cardenas, a campaign volunteer who graduated from Coachella Valley High School in 1990 with Ruiz. “He’s one of us, he grew up with us. I went to school with him. He was an example then, and he is an example now for our kids. We know his mom, we know that lady is going to hold him accountable to everything he says and promises that he will do for us.”
A Hard Fought Campaign
Residents of Coachella and other east valley towns became invested during the cutthroat battle for the 36th congressional district – a rural desert swath of Riverside County that, west to east, stretches from the town of Hemet to Blythe -- the moment Ruiz announced he was running against Bono Mack a little over a year ago. At the time, it seemed few outside Coachella were aware of his candidacy. But his hometown community mobilized behind him quickly, creating enough momentum that the Bono Mack camp took notice when pundits declared the race a toss-up in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
Political contributions to both sides soon poured in, and the race became a polarized, attack ad-heavy contest pitting the Republican incumbent with her support base in Palm Springs and the west valley, against the upstart son of farmworkers from the east valley.
Combined, Ruiz and Bono Mack received over $3.2 million – nearly evenly split -- from outside sources to fund their campaigns, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
Now, after a year of collective hard work and with the polls closed, reality is beginning to sink in for Ruiz’s supporters as the final absentee ballots are tallied: The Coachella Valley, if Ruiz’s lead holds as expected, will be represented in Congress by one of its own.
“It’s a feeling of overall excitement to finally have representation from someone who cares about the Coachella Valley,” said Cardenas. “We want to run outside and scream. I am so excited I can’t contain myself.”
A Voice for the East Valley
Representation, say Ruiz’s hometown supporters, is something they haven’t had during Bono Mack’s 14 years in office.
“Ruiz’s victory will mean putting a face to the person and knowing that you can always call him to the table and have meaningful conversations that will lead to progress, especially out in the east valley,” said Trinidad Arredondo, a local community worker. “In terms of [improving] housing, infrastructure, we need to have a member of Congress at the table.”
This is especially important for the unincorporated communities just outside of Coachella. They are home to many farmworker families, and others who make a living working low-paying service jobs in the hospitality industry that supports the economy of Palm Springs and surrounding resort towns on the west side. In stark contrast to the west side, the predominantly Latino unincorporated communities of the eastern Coachella Valley have long been plagued by poverty, environmental woes, shoddy infrastructure, illegal trailer parks, and the problematic – and foul smelling -- Salton Sea.
“This means proper representation for the Eastern Coachella Valley,” said Carmen Palomar, who lives in the unincorporated community of Mecca. “We have a big population of Latinos, and we would like to see one of our own be there, actually making decisions that would be appropriate to our people.”
Palomar’s efforts on behalf of the Ruiz campaign extended to working on voter registration drives.
“I’ve always been involved with my community, but with this campaign I wanted to do my due diligence to make sure this becomes a blue district,” she said.
Red to Blue
The 36th Congressional District has a population of just over 700,000 and had been regarded as a red district based on voter registration numbers – at the time of redistricting in 2011, 41.4 percent of all registered voters there were Republican, compared to just 39 percent Democrat and 15.2 percent who declined to state.
But the district is also an example of a wider demographic shift over the last decade that was captured by the 2010 Census and shows that California, and its rural inland valleys, are becoming increasingly Latino. While Latinos only made up 27.5 percent of registered voters in the 36th District as of 2011, they represented 46.6 percent of the total population and could soon overtake whites (51.9 percent) as the majority ethnic group there, if population trends continue.
It’s not a stretch to say that the grassroots support ignited by Ruiz within the Latino community, coupled with new-voter registrations spurred by his campaign, could have given Ruiz the edge he needed to eek out a narrow victory against the much better-known Bono Mack.
The personal connection that community members feel they have with Ruiz has led to growing expectations, even during the short number of hours that have passed since he took the lead.
“[A victory] would mean having someone who really cares for us in Congress, who is going to get the Coachella Valley up to par, who will visit the East Coachella Valley to start off with,” says Cardenas. “He is genuine. I know he will do everything in his power to help. He is not going to go be a Washington insider.”
Cardenas acknowledges that Ruiz will have a lot on his plate, but says, “He’s a smart guy. I have no doubt he will do an excellent job. He has done so much as a physician, I can imagine what he will do for us in Congress.”
Late on Tuesday night – at the time he was trailing by about 500 votes -- Ruiz took the stage before his supporters at the Riverside County Democratic Party election night event.
“You are the reason that we have a chance of winning; you are the reason a nation is watching us to see the final results,” he told the diverse crowd in attendance.
“And tonight we wait, but tomorrow, no matter what the results, the hard work begins. Tomorrow, we begin anew. Committed to creating jobs, protecting secure retirement for our seniors, and building a promising future for our youth.”
For the residents of the Eastern Coachella Valley, tomorrow can’t come soon enough.
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