Lessons from a doctor congressman’s freshman year

Rep. Raul Ruiz hoped to change Congress. But his most enduring impact may turn out to be as an inspiration to youths back home.

Lessons from a doctor congressman's first year

Column One

Lessons from a doctor congressman's first year

Rep. Raul Ruiz, right, talks with fellow California Rep. Mike Honda as they descend the House steps in Washington. Ruiz, a physician from Palm Desert, just served his freshman year in Congress after defeating incumbent Rep. Mary Bono Mack. (Bill Clark / Roll Call)

Rep. Raul Ruiz hoped to change Congress. But his most enduring impact may turn out to be as an inspiration to youths back home.

Jan. 6, 2013

Rep. Raul Ruiz was settling in on another flight home to the Southern California desert when the flight crew put out an urgent call for passengers with medical expertise.

Ruiz hurried down the aisle to find an elderly man collapsed in his seat. The Democratic congressman, an emergency room physician before voters sent him to Washington, struggled to find a pulse on his unconscious patient, measured his blood sugar and readied a defibrillator.

The man, a diabetic, had normal glucose levels, but a companion warned that he had already suffered one stroke and was on a pacemaker. After reviving for a time, the man fainted again, and Ruiz recommended an emergency landing. By the time the American Airlines jet touched down in Raleigh, N.C., less than an hour later on that October day, the patient had been stabilized.

The portrait of the doctor-turned-lawmaker-turned-doctor might encapsulate Ruiz's first year as a congressman. He arrived last January with one of the hottest stories of the freshman class: the political naif from just this side of nowhere who knocked off a seven-term incumbent. But his biggest splash came on a day flying away from the Capitol and practicing his old trade.

Living up to a promising biography is no small task in Washington, where newcomers often think they have the cure for what ails the government, only to face problems that appear terminal. The rookie Ruiz confronted the additional challenge of serving in the minority party in a House renowned for both partisanship and ineffectiveness.

And his most notable votes -- staking out the middle ground and defying the Democratic party line on a pair of modifications to the Affordable Care Act -- weren't going to make him a hero on the right or the left.

It's no wonder that he focused much of his energy on a district that stretches from Hemet and Palm Springs to the Arizona border. His deepest emotional attachments remain there too.

Ruiz and his mother, Blanca Ruiz, in a date palm grove near their home in Coachella in 2012. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Ruiz speaks frequently to his mother, who recently returned for a season sorting oranges and lemons in a Coachella Valley packing house. He makes nightly phone calls to his fiancee, who works back home as an emergency room nurse. And young would-be doctors, whom he mentors, can't get enough of the story of the prodigal Dr. Ruiz.

He grew up in modest circumstances in Coachella, the son of two farmworkers. The bed that he and his older brother shared in the family trailer converted during the day into the kitchen table.

His mother told the children they should try to help others who had less and that becoming a doctor would be one of the best ways to do that. Raul raised about $2,000 of his college tuition by going door-to-door, telling donors he would come back one day to serve his poor hometown.

And, after earning three graduate degrees at Harvard and working with the poor in the developing world, he did. But Ruiz eventually decided he wanted to have a broader impact. So he set his sights on Congress and a seat held by Mary Bono Mack, for 14 years the Republican incumbent.

Bono Mack, the widow of entertainer Sonny Bono, had been secure for years in a faithfully Republican region and had $500,000 more on her side in their showdown. The Republicans depicted Ruiz as a radical leftist, in the thrall of Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi. He talked about bringing a doctor's common sense to government. In the end, buoyed in part by the growing numbers of Latino voters, the onetime long shot won by almost six percentage points.

At his swearing-in, as his mother fastened the congressional pin on her son, Ruiz lauded her years of hard labor and sacrifice in the fields. Her eyes filled with tears. Overcome with emotion, Ruiz couldn't finish his speech.

But triumphal moments don't linger on Capitol Hill. At one of his first meetings on the Natural Resources Committee, Ruiz listened in dismay as Democrats and Republicans savaged one another. Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles), a friend who spent years in the California Assembly and Los Angeles City Council, told him: "Dude, you haven't seen anything yet."

I will always be a physician, first and foremost. That's who I am. That's what feeds my soul."

— Rep. Raul Ruiz

In Washington, Ruiz has kept every appearance of remaining the hometown boy. Short and a bit round, he could pass for younger than his 41 years. He bounces on his toes when talking to visitors. At the annual baseball game against House Republicans, he wore his old Coachella Valley High School uniform and played a sharp second base.

Ruiz has a tendency to say things, apparently without guile, that would make more rugged political players roll their eyes. Take, for instance, his anecdote about sharing his congressional lapel pin with students.

"I tell them to think of a happy thought or about their dreams and to just to close their eyes and hold it," the congressman said.

Many of his House colleagues still recognize him as "the doctor," and he patiently responds to their requests for free medical advice. A senior member leaned in close to Ruiz as the two hurried to a vote recently, whispering about whether he needed a new medication for an eye condition.

Being the doctor gives him a profile. "I will always be a physician, first and foremost," Ruiz said. "That's who I am. That's what feeds my soul."

Ruiz speaks during a 2012 campaign rally in Palm Desert. (Bill Clark / Roll Call)

And what of being a member of what political scientist Norman Ornstein called "the do-nothingest Congress in our lifetime"? Ruiz was determined to make his own way: moving incrementally, working across the partisan aisle when possible and embracing the old saw that all politics is local.

At home, Ruiz has deployed his staff to resolve constituent problems with the healthcare law. He held several forums with military veterans to discuss problems securing benefits. One initial piece of legislation, still pending in committee, would require the Defense Department to more rapidly share records with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

His most controversial vote supported a Republican proposal that would have delayed for a year the requirement that Americans purchase healthcare. Ruiz said the postponement made sense because President Obama already had authorized a similar delay for businesses providing employees with insurance. The congressman also voted for a GOP bill that would have allowed new customers to buy less robust health policies than dictated by the Affordable Care Act. (Both proposals failed to advance in the Senate.)

"Did it cause an uproar? You bet it did," Elle Kurpiewski, manager of the Coachella Valley Democratic headquarters, said of Ruiz's votes, though she said many party members were won over once they heard Ruiz's explanation.

Real, hard-working people see it is improving their lives already."

— Rep. Raul Ruiz on Obamacare

Ruiz, nonetheless, asserted continued support for his party's central domestic initiative. "Real, hard-working people see it is improving their lives already," he said.

Ruiz's expected opponent in November's election rejects those explanations. State Assemblyman Brian Nestande (R-Palm Desert) accused the congressman of "trying to jump back and forth" on Obamacare, adding: "That is not intellectually honest."

Ruiz has won over some voters in his first year, but his most ardent backers may come from his life as a physician, in particular about 150 high school and college students who belong to Future Physician Leaders and their families.

Ruiz and fiancee Monica Rivers started the group four years ago, with the doctor informally advising young people on how to get to medical school and help their community. The organization has mushroomed into a network of classes on medicine and leadership, a mentorship system for shadowing doctors and a research program on public health issues.

On a late summer night at the UC Riverside satellite in Palm Desert, formally dressed students showed off posters about their studies on diabetes, smoking and other challenges. Though soft-spoken and only 5-foot-7, the doctor towered over the event for students of modest backgrounds, who said they wanted to follow his path.

Hector Sanchez, a 19-year-old UCLA sophomore, grew up in the tiny desert community of Chiriaco Summit. He said his occasional meetings with Ruiz recharge his dream of becoming a doctor.

"I just want to be next to him as much as I can," the teenager said, "so it can rub off."

Contact the reporter

Follow James Rainey (@LATimesrainey) on Twitter

Follow @latgreatreads on Twitter