For the first time in 17 years, the Palm Springs area is not represented in Washington by Mary Bono Mack.
She was the last Republican woman in California’s Congressional delegation until she was defeated in November by emergency room doctor Raul Ruiz after a race that drew national attention.
During last year’s often nasty campaign, Ruiz accused Bono Mack of being an “absent” representative who spent most of her time in Washington or Florida. During his first months in office, Ruiz has striven to be the omnipresent congressman.
“I’m coming home almost every weekend,” Ruiz told me. "It’s a long commute.”
Ruiz flew home on a recent weekend in part to do something he says he’s greatly missed since going to Capitol Hill: practicing medicine.
“I’m a physician first and foremost,” said Ruiz. “I will always be a physician”
Ruiz walked into a free medical clinic in Indio, wearing a stethoscope around his neck. Though unfailingly polite, he seemed slightly annoyed at his staff for arranging a series of local TV interviews that delayed him from seeing patients.
Once he finally got to work, he checked a woman’s blood pressure and dispensed with equal parts medical and political observation, asking her if she had any medical insurance (no) and if she would see a doctor more often if she was covered by Medicare (yes).
Telling the story of the 2012 election
After Ruiz’s victory, Politico declared that his win told nothing less than the story of the 2012 election – a story about the growing sway of Latinos in American politics.
Latinos are nearly half of the population in his district and a quarter of registered voters. During the campaign he appealed to them with Spanish-language ads.
They told his almost Hollywood-like story: Raised by poor farm workers; had to scrape together enough money to attend UCLA; earned three master’s degrees from Harvard University – in medicine, public health, and public policy – to become the first Latino to accomplish that achievement.
During the campaign, Ruiz repeatedly called Washington broken, because of political gridlock. He said now that he’s in DC, it’s worse than he expected.
“People are just playing politics with very important issues, so at times it’s very frustrating,” said Ruiz. “There are a lot of politics in policy we’re creating."
"But there’s also hope because we as an office are actively pursuing bipartisanship.”
Ruiz said he regularly dines with Republicans and he sees his appointment to the veterans affairs committee as a way to find common ground, but it could very well be his M.D. that helps make friends on the other side of the aisle.
“Republicans have come up to me to say, ‘Hey listen. My knee hurts. What do you think I should do?’” said Ruiz. “I’ll give them my recommendations.”
Among the Republicans who have sought a diagnosis: Speaker of the House John Boehner.
“When I got sworn in, I went to shake his hand and he sort of pulled his hand back and he said his hand was hurting and he had an injury,” remembered Ruiz. “I kind of chuckled and told him, ‘If you need to see a doctor, I’m there for you. I’ll take a look at your hands.’”
Helping 124 constituents, and counting
Ruiz recently introduced his first bill on the House floor, which provides incentives for global companies to create jobs.
As a freshman from the minority party, he’s mostly been focused on the nitty-gritty of constituent services – things like helping veterans get their medals or stepping in when someone has a problem with the IRS. Ruiz’s office boasts that he helped 124 constituents during his first 100 days in office.
“Our office, if we could summarize our mission, is to be a constituent-centered team that pursues excellence in public service in the lives of the people we serve,” said Ruiz.
Ruiz often still speaks like he’s on the campaign trail, which, in a way, he is. Republican Assemblyman Brian Nestande recently announced he intends to run against Ruiz next year.
It’s likely to be another tight race, in a district where less than 1 percentage point separates registered Democrats and Republicans.