Growing Latino Base in Coachella Valley Means Strong Challenge for Republican Seat

Representative Mary Bono Mack and Democratic candidate Dr. Raul Ruiz
Representative Mary Bono Mack and Democratic candidate Dr. Raul Ruiz

Representative Mary Bono Mack may have a fight on her hands as she tries to keep her House seat in the new 36th Congressional District.

Challenger Raul Ruiz, an emergency room physician and health care reform activist from Palm Desert, raised $51,999 in the first two weeks of his campaign, which he announced September 17. According to the Palm Springs Desert Sun, $45,999 of that sum was raised from individual donors, with the remainder coming from a PAC run by Senator Barbara Boxer, a Palm Desert resident.

Bono Mack, who's been fundraising continuously, brought in $145,739 during the third quarter of 2011, which works out to less than half what Ruiz's campaign raised on a dollars per week basis. If Ruiz's fundraisers maintain this momentum, the Democratic challenger may be able to accumulate a sizable warchest before Election Day 2012.

Ruiz, a 39-year-old Coachella Valley native and political newbie, is a full-time emergency room physician at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. The son of two Coachella Valley agricultural workers, Ruiz left the valley in 1990 to attend medical school at UCLA and Harvard, at which latter school he earned three masters' degrees in addition to his MD. His schooling was paid for, in part, by monetary support from his Coachella neighbors, whom he promised he would repay by returning to the valley as a doctor working to alleviate the east valley's shortage of health care. In the interim Ruiz volunteered in medical mercy projects in Mexico and worked as a first responder in Haiti after the earthquake in January 2010. Before declaring his candidacy, in his role as Senior Associate Dean of the UC Riverside School of Medicine, Ruiz campaigned to establish medical schools in the desert to train and encourage new generations of local medical professionals in an underserved community.

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In short, Ruiz is formidably charismatic, a necessary trait for a candidate going up against an entrenched incumbent in a conservative-leaning district. Bono Mack's donations in Q3 2011 came primarily from large corporations in the pharmaceutical, telecom and energy industries, as well as the healthcare industry -- which may well step up its contributions to keep her populist healthcare reformer opponent out of the House of Representatives. The California 36th Congressional District -- substantially similar to the pre-redistricting 45th -- went for 2010 Republican candidates Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina by 50.2% and 52.1%, respectively, but for Democratic Senators Feinstein and Boxer and President Obama by similar margins in recent years.

What's more, the district is becoming increasingly Latino. The 45th was 38% Latino in the 2010 Census, and that trend has only gained steam in the year since. A voter registration campaign targeting Latino residents by Ruiz supporters over the next year could prove Bono Mack's undoing.

It's far too soon to tell, of course, what November 2012 will bring. As the spouse of far-right Florida Representative Connie Mack, Bono Mack has some insulation from serious challenges from her right, though her keeping her real-life residence in Florida is a perennial source of irritation among Coachella Valley voters. She does have a challenger from the Republican side, local author George Newberry, but he is unlikely to gain much traction. In the meantime, Ruiz's main rival for the Democratic candidacy, California Assemblyperson V. Manuel Perez, endorsed Ruiz last week. The two are longtime friends.

Whatever the outcome of the 2012 election, it seems inevitable that the 36th will go to a Latino Democrat before redistricting rolls around again in 2021. In the meantime, look for Bono Mack to put the same fundraising skills to work that brought in $2.42 million in her 2010 race against Palm Springs mayor Steve Pougnet.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He lives in Palm Springs.

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