Ranjit (Ricky) Gill may be this year’s most unconventional Republican candidate for Congress.
Born and raised in Lodi, Calif., near Stockton, he is challenging three-term Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney in the state’s highly agricultural 11th District, where the unemployment rate is about double the national average. Gill’s mother is from India; his father grew up in Uganda, but fled Idi Amin’s regime and earned his medical degree in Ireland. Both obstetricians, their medical practice has delivered close to 75,000 babies (a political gold mine) by Gill’s count. And they have somehow still found time to grow 1,000 acres of wine grapes.
An Indian-American, Gill may be the perfect GOP candidate for a district where non-whites are now 50 percent of all residents and Vietnamese and Filipino-Americans are numerous. He has an easy-to-pronounce name—his family chose to call him “Ricky” instead of “Randy” to avoid comparisons to pro wrestler “Macho Man” Randy Savage—not to mention moderate stances on social issues such as immigration. To top it off, he is a fundraising dynamo: he took in $420,000 in his first quarter of raising money, the third-best total among non-incumbent Republicans running for the House.
So where was Gill when hapless San Joaquin Valley Republicans needed him in 2010?
Believe it or not, he was 22 then, three years too young to be a member of Congress. Now finishing up his law degree at the University of California (Berkeley), Gill may be the closest thing the National Republican Congressional Committee has had to a true political prodigy since Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois launched his campaign at age 26 in 2008. But there one major difference: Don’t expect to see Gill’s abs on the cover of GQ or Men’s Health anytime soon.
A recent graduate of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Gill is fluent in both public policy and Spanish (the new district is likely to be close to 40 percent Hispanic). And at 24, his resume is already longer than those of most candidates twice his age. At 17, he was then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appointee to serve as the full-voting student member of California’s Board of Education, and his college breaks included jobs with the Sacramento Kings; the Oakland Athletics; and then-Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a Princeton alum.
So how does a law student find the time to run for Congress and raise jaw-dropping sums of money? Gill, whose brother is helping to advise the campaign out of the Flag City RV Resort just north of Stockton, says he is on track to finish his law degree by December—a semester early—so that he can run full-time. And with countless friends and supporters, ranging from the Ivy League to the Indian-American community, Gill is on track to raise the millions of dollars he will need to keep pace with or even outspend McNerney.
Democrats brush off Gill as an overachiever who underestimates what he’s up against. Right now, the district is a highly competitive mix of liberal-leaning East Bay suburbanites and culturally conservative San Joaquin Valley voters. McNerney was able to squeak by in 2010 in part because the GOP nominee, credit card executive David Harmer, didn’t connect with the blue-collar Valley. And the California Citizens Redistricting Commission appears likely to add heavily Hispanic downtown Stockton to the district, making it five points more Democratic by registration.
But registration doesn’t tell the whole story, and Gill points out that redistricting could actually work to his advantage. If the district indeed adds Hispanic Democrats in Stockton and sheds some of its East Bay liberal voters, McNerney, a Ph.D. wind-energy expert from Pleasanton, will lose his Alameda County home base. Gill argues he’ll be more likely to make inroads with Hispanics, many of whom are culturally conservative, than white liberals.
If Gill doesn’t generate any major opposition-research red flags, Democrats ought to be very worried. Unlike most GOP candidates, who scurry to the right to get past their primaries, Gill acknowledges that it will take a “different kind of Republican” to win this marginal seat and says “the slash and burn type of strategy isn’t going to work.”
Gill won’t be easy to pigeonhole. He supports a balanced-budget amendment and has signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge, but he would stop short of a full repeal of the health care reform law and says that social issues like abortion and gay marriage are simply “not in my political vernacular.” On immigration, his emphasis is on attracting and keeping skilled workers like engineers and doctors, not rooting out undocumented workers.
These days, any hint of moderation tends to raise a warning flag in a primary, and one of Gill’s challenges will be to corral support on the right to avoid a major threat from a conservative contender in the state’s new top-two primary next June. But he may be the rare candidate whose scary precociousness and uniquely well-suited background can trump ideological labels in local Republican conversations. And in a general election, the assets Gill shares with President Obama—a compelling story and a ton of money—may be just what the GOP needs.
This article appears in the July 29, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.