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Raul Ruiz's Political Prescription

By Jack Feuer

Published Jan 1, 2014 8:00 AM

The son of migrant workers, Congressman Raul Ruiz ’94 was dubbed by Politico as a freshman lawmaker most likely to succeed. The 41-year-old California Democrat from the Coachella Valley is a member of No Labels, a group of almost 100 Republicans and Democrats dedicated to ending partisan gridlock. Ruiz was the first Latino to receive three graduate degrees from Harvard University: an M.D. from the Harvard Medical School and master’s degrees from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard School of Public Health.

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Photo courtesy of Lise Metzger

Q: You had an innovative way to finance the beginning of your higher education.

A: Both my parents were farm workers. Education was something my family always said was the building block for achieving our dreams. [But] my father didn't know how I would pay for school. I told him I would help.

I earned minimum wage stacking boxes. And I put on the one suit I owned, one of those really itchy suits. I bought it two sizes too large so I could grow into it. I wore this itchy navy blue suit through the Coachella Valley and I would go to local business owners and hand them a contract offering them an opportunity to invest in their community by investing in my education. They would give me $20 or $40 and I raised $2,000, which paid for two years of books back then.

Seventeen years later, I came back home to fulfill that promise. And the very first places I went to do my community work were the farm-worker trailer parks.

Q: And that journey began in Westwood.

A: UCLA was the launching pad for my ideals, and [my] career and scientific approach to problem-solving. I had the best of both worlds. I underwent a rigorous physiological science major and also appreciated North Campus through a specialization in Chicano studies. The amount of support that the Academic Advancement Program gave me was incredible and a benchmark for other universities to follow to help first-generation college students like me achieve their full potential.

An affordable, high-quality education is what allowed me to progress in my path to service to others, and it is vital that we continue to provide those opportunities to students around Southern California and the nation. Our universities and institutions have community responsibilities to serve and advance the wellness of our society to apply knowledge and engagement to serve others. I’m proud that UCLA was the first model of that in my academic and professional development.

Q: You describe yourself as a pragmatic optimist.

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Congressman Ruiz addresses his constituents at an event in the Coachella Valley.
Photo courtesy of Equality California Flickr

A: I’m an optimist who understands that we will achieve our goals and our vision through hard work and implementation of our ideals. It’s synonymous with saying that hope without strategy is just hope, and vision without implementation is just vision. It’s why I joined No Labels. We need a new approach in Congress. One that makes sure that we are pragmatic problem-solvers who put people above partisanship and solutions above ideology. That will be the antidote for the hyper-partisan political games that cause gridlock.

Everybody says there needs to be more collaboration and bipartisanship in Congress, [but] it’s not going to happen overnight. There has to be a mechanism to implement in order to achieve that outcome. It’s proven successful already — I’ve introduced two bills with Republican colleagues that will improve the lives of our veterans, one with Chris Gibson of New York and one with Paul Cook, the representative for San Bernardino.

Q: You’re an esteemed and accomplished doctor. Why go into politics?

A: I saw unemployed patients in emergency rooms gasping for air because they couldn’t afford medicine or who went days without eating in order to pay for medicine, and students I mentored deferring their dream of attending university because they had to work in fields or restaurants [to earn money for tuition].

In the fields, my father taught me never to complain unless I was part of the solution. I decided to run to improve the wellness of the people I serve. I’m a physician first and foremost and will always serve my constituents with the same dedication a physician has in serving patients. My congressional office is another toolbox that I have to fulfill the mission that I’ve always had as a physician, to improve the lives of the people I serve.

Q: But your work as a doctor goes way beyond D.C.

A: I have participated in providing free care to the indigent with a group of dentists and doctors called The Flying Doctors of America, who go to El Salvador and Nicaragua [among many other nations] and the eastern Coachella Valley, which is one of their only U.S. stops. They say the conditions there, the extreme levels of medical under-service, are similar to what they see in developing countries. And after the Haiti earthquake, I was the founding medical director for a relief organization at the largest displaced camp in Port-au-Prince. There were 60,000 people living on a golf course under sheets and sticks.

Q: In recognition of your work in Haiti, you received one of the highest honors the U.S. Army can bestow on a civilian.

A: Four of us were awarded the Commander’s Award for Public Service by the 82nd Airborne.

Q: But wait, there’s more: You’re also a trumpet player.

A: Unfortunately, my trumpet is stored away in a closet. I haven’t played in a long, long time.