By Brenda Rincon, Coachella Unincorporated
INDIO, Calif. – Two days before the highly anticipated 36th Congressional District debate, the campaign office of Democratic challenger Raul Ruiz is brimming with energy.
Volunteers at fold-up tables make call after to call from their cell phones, crossing off names as they make their way down long lists of registered voters.
“Por favor vote por el Dr. Ruiz,” says volunteer Esther Matadama in Spanish. “Do you need to know where your polling place is?”
Campaign volunteer Greg Rodriguez later announces that this group of 30 volunteers – ranging from teenagers to senior citizens – made a collective 1,700 phone calls that afternoon.
Outside, another group of volunteers is setting up for that evening’s pre-debate rally. Tables are being loaded with tacos and cheeseburgers. American flags and Dr. Raul Ruiz for Congress banners are being hung. A local musician entertains the volunteers as they work.
A diverse mix of residents soon joins the volunteers: elected officials, families with children, high school students, retirees, union members, LGBT activists, small business owners, educators, and the candidate’s friends and family. A mariachi in full regalia arrives.
Their common goal: to energize the homegrown candidate for his debate against longtime incumbent Rep. Mary Bono Mack.
The debate between Ruiz and Bono Mack will be broadcast live today on KMIR Channel 6 at 7 p.m., with a roundtable discussion airing at 6:30 p.m.
Local Boy Does Good
By now, Ruiz’s local-boy-does-good story is known throughout the Eastern Coachella Valley and beyond. He is the son of farm workers 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.
On this October evening, about 150 supporters from throughout the district gather in the parking lot of Ruiz’s Highway 111 campaign office, waiting for their candidate.
Some, like Josie Ott of Mecca, have been waiting many years for this moment.
“I think that people for a long time have been looking for someone to support us. Dr. Ruiz was born here. He went off and went to school, and he worked very hard to become a doctor and everybody is proud of him,” says the retired social worker. “Mary Bono Mack has been around for quite a while and hasn’t done much for the Hispanic community. She hasn’t done much for anybody, actually.”
Ruiz, who at times appears younger than his 40 years, has also drawn many young people to his campaign.
“I think he’s a perfect example of being successful and coming back to give back to the valley,” says Andrea Navarro, a student at Indio High School. “He is a great person.”
But it is not just Eastern Coachella Valley residents who are showing up to support the doctor.
“Dr. Ruiz stands for a lot of things that I, as an independent, not a Democrat, believe in. We need a change to represent the people of Coachella Valley,” says Burte Owens, a retired small business owner from La Quinta. “The main thing is one in every five children in this country goes to bed hungry and goes to school hungry, and this is crazy. It’s time for a change. We need equity in this country.”
His frustration goes beyond the incumbent Congresswoman, echoing the sentiments of those who believe the country is at a standstill due to political gridlock.
“We need to work together as a country, but when you have one party’s sole objective to remove the president of the United States or have him serve as a one-term president, that is crazy. These people don’t work for the people of America, they work for themselves.”
High Hopes for Debate
Like everyone in attendance, Maria Zamora, a teacher from Indio, is looking forward to Friday’s debate.
“This is the very first time that I have really felt that Mary Bono is very worried, she’s finally going to be coming out to a debate,” says Zamora. “She usually just puts up her signs and walks away and gets it. She takes the votes for granted, and this time she seems to be working out there in community trying to get out her voice…Mary Bono looks very worried, if you notice her pictures. She looks worried.”
Ramiro Zamora, also a teacher, has high hopes for Ruiz’s debate.
“My hope is that there is honesty, that Mary Bono runs on her record, and that she’s honest about what she’s voted for,” he says, “and that Dr. Ruiz also lets us know what he stands for, and what she stands for, so that voters can make a clear and decisive decision.”
Oscar Armijo, an accountant from Palm Desert, is disappointed the public isn’t being allowed to attend the debate.
“I think that it’s wrong. I think the public should have access to hear the people that are going to represent them. I think that it allows people to get a better feeling about the candidates and learn more about their positions. I am not sure why that is not happening, but I’m pretty sure that is not what Raul was hoping for,” says Armijo. “We have a right as taxpayers, as members of this community, to hear from our representatives. They should not be afraid of us. We are not the enemy. They are working for us.”
An “Energizing” Rally
It is finally time for the candidate to take his spot, front and center. State Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez (D-Coachella), Ruiz’s former Coachella Valley High School and Harvard University classmate, makes the introduction.
“I don’t think there is anything bad that Mary Bono can say about our doctor,” says an exuberant Perez, who is running for his third term in the Assembly. “It’s an easy choice this November.”
Ruiz takes the stage and reminisces for moment about Perez, his longtime friend and supporter, saying, “We used to daydream about the day when we would be done with our studies and we would return to serve this community together. And here we are 17 years later.”
And then the candidate launches into full campaign mode, exclaiming, “This campaign is about believing that every one of you are the captains of your own destiny, the architects of your life, and believing that once we come together as one people, one community with high hopes and aspirations, that we will achieve excellence with personal responsibility in order to serve others with social responsibility, that we will put America on that great path toward prosperity for everyone.”
He goes on, “That’s the difference between Congresswoman Bono Mack and myself…when we pursue our excellence with personal responsibility, we don’t close the doors and slam them on the rest who want to pursue their excellence, we open more doors so others can follow.”
There is a topic that has not been broached, an “October surprise” that has caught the campaign off-guard. Ruiz does not address the issue directly, but he concludes his speech with carefully crafted words.
“A very important lesson, value, I learned growing up is that we need to honor our seniors, that we need to protect and stand with our elders. I did that when I was a young man in college and I will do that today for all of our seniors,” he says intensely to the cheering audience.
“You did me a big service today,” he tells them. “You just energized me.”
Making the Most of an October Surprise
In 1997, while Ruiz was a Harvard medical student, he was arrested during a Thanksgiving protest for Native American rights. The charges were later dropped amid accusations of police brutality. Local media outlets reported that the information was provided to them by Bono Mack’s camp.
The Desert Sun quoted Marc Troast, Bono Mack’s political director: “He participated in radical anti-American activities. This is pretty big stuff that is pretty telling about who Raul Ruiz is. I think this truly backs up his links to left-wing liberals.”
Ruiz told the newspaper he was trying to protect a fellow protestor, a senior citizen, from the police.
Of the 75 comments posted by online readers, an overwhelming majority was in support of Ruiz.
Gale Broeker, a retired archaeologist from Palm Desert, does not have a problem with the information revealed in the exposé.
“He’s the American dream,” says Broeker. “He was a long-haired hippie protesting for Native American rights, hallelujah!”
The candidate’s mother, Blanca Ruiz, does not wish to address the topic directly, but does allude to the press reports.
“Justice and truth will move us forward. And the bad things people say, I don’t know what to say about that,” she says in Spanish. “Raul has always been very active and he has always…fought against injustices. He has always fought for those in need. He always wants to lend a hand to whoever needs help. And he wants to help the people. I have a lot faith in my son.”
After the debate, Ruiz is asked whether this October surprise has distracted him from his debate preparations.
“It’s not a distraction. I think it’s a shame that she wants to portray me as anti-American for standing up for an elder and making sure he wasn’t beaten, when I took the beating myself,” says Ruiz. “She wants to distract from the issues of today by bringing up things that happened many years ago.”
The Doctor at Work
Instead of focusing on the negative press, Ruiz says he has been busy preparing for the debate.
“I am really thinking about all of the issues that are important for the residents of this district,” he says. “I’m also studying her votes, which have been contrary to the interests of the majority of the people of this district.”
Ruiz says protecting Medicare, providing students with access to higher education, and creating jobs for the middle class are among the key issues in the community.
“I really want to demonstrate that there is a clear choice in this debate, that Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack has really lost touch with the values and with the important issues that matter the most to the people of this district.”
The debate between Ruiz and Bono Mack will be broadcast live today on KMIR Channel 6 at 7 p.m., with a roundtable discussion airing at 6:30 p.m. Coachella Unincorporated reporters Tony Aguilar, Ivan Delgado, and Aurora Saldivar will be attending. The debate is closed to the public.