You'd almost think that someone had stapled several
resumes together and put them in Raul Ruiz's file: magna cum laude at UCLA; three graduate degrees from Harvard (a medical degree and masters in public policy and in public health); doctoring to poor people on three continents and at home in the poor reaches of the Coachella Valley, where his adoptive parents were migrant workers; an Army award for helping Haiti earthquake victims. And he plays trumpet and dances baile folklorico. Now he has exchanged one big white building, a hospital, for another one — the U.S. Capitol. A stripling of 40, Ruiz is a member of Congress, having defeated incumbent Republican Mary Bono Mack, and was named by Politico as a freshman most likely to succeed.
People will try to pigeonhole you: Democrat, Latino, migrant-worker parents. How are you not only that?
I'm an ER doctor, period. I look at a problem with a certain lens: very action-oriented, very results-oriented. When patients come to the emergency department, they're wearing a [hospital] gown whether they're affluent or indigent. And pain feels the same whether you live in the rich area or the poor neighborhoods. My role is to alleviate that suffering and improve the lives of my patients, and that's the way I perceive policy.
You're a freshman but not new to politics. You have a public policy degree from the Kennedy School at Harvard, and, of course, you were high school student body president
That's when I drew my reelection posters by hand!
When I was in medical school, I knew I wanted to go home and effect change. Being a physician would allow me to be an advocate for the community beyond the exam room. I was trying to decide between a public health degree and a public policy degree, and one of my deans told me to get the course catalogs and highlight the classes that were most interesting. At that time the Kennedy School [of Government] clearly won. Learning how to solve complex problems really was in tune with what I wanted to get accomplished.
Some people regard medicine as separate from policy.
I don't. The measurement of good policy is the well-being of the community. I saw the human faces of failed policies, and they weren't smiling. You take care of a patient who's gasping for air because of congestive heart failure and fluid in their lungs, and they're in such a severe state because they haven't taken their diuretics and they tell you they can't afford it. That's where you can clearly see the link.
I started an internship program with high school and undergrads who want to be doctors in underserved areas. What started with nine students out of a Starbucks is now 115 students under the UC Riverside school of medicine. Oftentimes my students would come to me in tears because they were concerned that they wouldn't be able to pay for school and had to take a semester off, work in the fields or with their parents to save money for school, so their dreams were deferred. You start realizing how real policy is in their lives. The people we serve are not a spreadsheet.
I don't suppose everyone could do what you did, which was go door to door with a contract asking people to invest in your education?
One of my mentees started doing the same thing, writing a contract and telling people, "I'm coming back" [after graduation]. We talk about following through [on] your commitment with discipline and dedication.
You came back from Harvard to the only not-for-profit hospital in the Coachella Valley. Is that the right model for medical care?
There are a lot of different models that we have to look at. Overall, we need to go back to a simplified vision of our healthcare system. Every system has an output and oftentimes we lose sight that the output for a healthcare system is to produce a healthy and productive population. And the way we measure how well a system functions is by how effective and efficient it is. We determine how effective it is by looking at how healthy the population is, and efficiency is determined by the amount of resources it takes to produce that output, [including] time and personnel.
Your district epitomizes the gap between rich and poor that was discussed during the campaign. Is this a public-policy responsibility?
We value the pursuit of excellence with personal responsibility. Oftentimes we end there. We forget the other value that makes America the greatest country on Earth: That is the value of service with social responsibility, service to our community and our country. The recipe to revive the American dream is to hold these two values in parallel. So when you see a growing crisis in the disparities of not only income but education and healthcare, we need to demonstrate our commitment to the value of service with social responsibility.
I'm talking about the hunger like I had, being a poor boy who grew up in a trailer wanting to better the lives of his family and community. There were angels in my life who helped me get to that next step. We are all connected; my success wasn't mine — it was my community's that believed in me; it was my parents', who sacrificed their comfort so we could have an education.
Your newly drawn 36th District just nudged into the majority-Democratic voter column. One supporter says your election is a tipping point for the Coachella Valley
I think it is. I think we've reached the critical threshold of an inclusive district for everyone to have a voice and come to the table and work together. We have a certain knack in the desert; we learn how to thrive in inhospitable environments.
Speaking of inhospitable environments, how do you propose getting along in a partisan Congress?
The beauty of coming in fresh is that I have no political baggage. I'm not here to be partisan. Whoever has that great idea that's going to improve the lives of the people I serve, I'm willing to cooperate and collaborate.
After the Sandy Hook massacre, you talked about "automatic weapons of war." Have you treated child gunshot victims?
One of the most difficult things as a physician is to tell a mother that her child died. Working in trauma centers, I've had to do that. The pain, the crying — in Spanish el llanto — you think about those when you come home after a late shift. The first thing in your head is, we've got to stop this. How can we use a public health approach to be the most effective as possible to reduce violence?
What are your plans for your two committees, natural resources and veterans affairs?
We have the Salton Sea; it's a looming public health disaster [but] another opportunity to be the economic engine not only for my district but for Southern California, with geothermal energy and tourism. Veterans' affairs is very special to me; we have so many veterans in the district. Whenever I take care of a World War II veteran, I am completely humbled.
Have you ever thought about what you'd be doing if you had stayed in Mexico with your widowed father, not been adopted by your American aunt and uncle?
Let me tell you a story. I was about 6 or 8 years old; my mother took me to run errands to a border city called Mexicali. My treat for going was that she would buy me my favorite food, a mango. They put on lime and chili powder — man, those are the best. I was looking forward to that mango all day. When we were done, my mother bought me this mango, and I was about to take a bite and this kid, maybe 4 or 5, comes up to me, barefoot, ripped jeans, dirty, with the hungriest eyes, and looked at my mango. My mother took the mango from me and gave it to him, and I stood there looking at him carrying my mango away and I learned a valuable lesson: that we've all got to help others who need help. We weren't well off, but we were well off enough to buy a mango and perhaps buy another one. Those become wired into your system and become the values that are fundamentally who you are. I've always wondered if I would have stayed in Mexico, how would my life have been? Would I have had the opportunities to go to school? Would I have had the lesson I learned through my parents that made me who I am?
Given your background and work, what's the right approach for immigration law reform?
I start with the point of view where it is a privilege to live in the United States, and we need to reward people's pursuit of excellence with personal responsibility. We definitely have our responsibility to secure our borders, to focus on preventing people who want to do harm from entering our country. We also have to make sure our agricultural industry is not destroyed by draconian measures to simply deport our workforce.
The path to citizenship is a path for those who are here to gain full citizenship through certain criteria, [demonstrating] that they have behaved well and worked hard. The idea of a permanent process for residency that I have heard talked around by a few here in D.C. — I think that proposal will create a permanent second-class citizenship. Our country has gone through a transformation that we do not accept second-class citizenship.
Does that mean what some would call amnesty?
No, amnesty is just "you're here, now you're in." I'm talking about an earned path to citizenship that would motivate, inspire and empower immigrant families to work hard and achieve their American dream.
The Mack campaign brought out the fact that as a student, you were arrested at a Thanksgiving protest over the treatment of Native Americans. Charges were dropped. The campaign also released audio of you reading a letter two years later from Mexican revolutionary Subcomandante Marcos in support of Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who was controversially convicted of killing two FBI agents.
That was one of the biggest disappointments with politics. Everybody told me that politics is dirty, but when it happens, it opens your eyes to how we have gone from the politics of ideas to the politics of personal destruction.
Yet this is what you were doing and saying publicly at the time.
I'm not against speaking publicly and having passion for something. One of the cardinal beauties of America is that we have the freedom to do so. [At] the National Day of Mourning [protests], I was passionately standing with Native Americans to talk about their story and to make sure their voices and history were incorporated in the fabric of America, and that's what I did. When you're young and passionate and in the moment, sometimes you say things or do things; you look back, [and] among friends you'd say, I can't believe that's how I looked or that's what I said. You appreciate your life history; it makes you who you are.
You held 90 town halls throughout the campaign. How do you keep in touch with constituents from 3,000 miles away?
I go home as much as possible. I shop in the same stores. I go to the same playgrounds when I take my nieces. I go to the same trailer parks that I started my community service out of. The people in my district will have my ear above everybody else.
Your mother must be over the moon.
I brought her here for my swearing in and she looked around [Congress] and looked at me with these big eyes and said: My goodness, I didn't think it was this big! Being sworn in and looking up at where my mother was, the images I had of her working so hard and all the sacrifices she made — to see her there with family and the leaders of our country was something I wish that more mothers from my community had.
Have any of your fellow members come up to you and said: Hey doc, I've got this pain — can you tell me what it is?
When I got sworn in and took pictures with Speaker [John A.] Boehner, his hand was hurting, and I said, "Hey, if you want me to take a look at it, I'm here for you, buddy." He just laughed.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.