Emergency-room doctor Raul Ruiz, a Democrat, narrowly beat six-term incumbent Mary Bono Mack in a heated race for California’s redrawn 36th District. Ruiz effectively criticized the Republican’s stance on Medicare and overcame attacks about his arrest during a Thanksgiving protest while a student at Harvard Medical School.
The son of farmworkers, Ruiz was born and raised in the Coachella Valley. He dreamed of being a doctor from a very young age. A family friend paid for Ruiz to apply to the University of California (Los Angeles), but he needed money for tuition. Ruiz went door-to-door in his hometown of Coachella with a handmade contract, asking neighbors and local businesses to contribute to his college fund in exchange for his future medical service to the community. He raised almost $2,000.
After graduating from UCLA, Ruiz went to Harvard Medical School. As a student, he spent almost a year in Chiapas, Mexico, through a health and social justice organization, Partners in Health. The experience influenced Ruiz’s views on health care. “I came out of there realizing the tremendous nature of poverty and how real policies can actually affect human lives,” he later told The Desert Sun newspaper. After graduating from Harvard with three degrees, Ruiz returned to the Coachella Valley and served in the emergency room of a nonprofit hospital. He returned to Chiapas in 2008 to work with the government on implementing health-policy changes for the region. Two years later, Ruiz ventured to Haiti to help with recovery efforts after the catastrophic earthquake there.
Ruiz was Bono Mack’s first Hispanic opponent since she won the seat of her late husband, musician Sonny Bono, in 1998. Ruiz had a demographic advantage in a newly redrawn district, where almost 40 percent of voters are Latino. Ruiz and Bono Mack were the only two candidates for the district in the state’s new jungle primary, in which the top two finishers in an all-party primary advance to the general election. Bono Mack won the first round, 58 percent to 42 percent. But Ruiz got substantial support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the general election became a tight battle. Conservative super PACs supported Bono Mack, painting Ruiz as a minion of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and attacking his support of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
In the final weeks of the race, a local newspaper received an eight-page document from Bono Mack’s campaign that outlined a Thanksgiving protest in which Ruiz was arrested and charged with two misdemeanors while attending Harvard. Both were dropped in a deal that also discharged claims of police brutality. At issue was Ruiz’s participation in the National Day of Mourning, which takes place annually at Plymouth Rock to publicize the suffering of Native Americans since the Pilgrims’ arrival in 1620.
Bono Mack’s campaign cast Ruiz’s participation in the event as anti-American and as left-wing extremism, and it released a recording of a speech he gave at the protest. Ruiz countered by characterizing her efforts as desperate. Bono Mack also got backlash from tribal groups for calling Ruiz’s actions unpatriotic. The pro-Democratic House Majority PAC ran ads accusing Bono Mack and her husband, Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., of benefiting from tax exemptions in Florida.
Ruiz was endorsed by former President Clinton and The Desert Sun, which said that Bono Mack had gotten too comfortable in Congress.