by Scott Shafer
Visitors to Washington this weekend might need some help finding their way around the Capitol -- and they're in good company. California’s 53-member Congressional delegation includes 14 freshmen: rookies still getting moved into their offices.
We sat down with some of them this week, including two who are physicians. Dr. Raul Ruiz surprised many by knocking off incumbent Republican Mary Bono-Mack in the 36th Congressional District running east from Palm Springs. Dr. Ruiz is the son of farmworkers who at the age of 17, knocked on neighbors’ doors asking for money to help pay for his college education.
Dr. Raul Ruiz (L) talks with host Scott Shafer.
SCOTT SHAFER: What made you want to come here? I mean, you could've done anything you wanted. You were an ER doc, you've got, as we keep reading, three degrees from Harvard. You're a special person, you could have had a lot of paths. Why did you choose this one?
RAUL RUIZ: Well, my whole life mission was to make life better for my community and where I grew up. And I saw that this country, and specifically this district with all the problems that we had, was going in the wrong direction. Things were just getting worse. And my father told me never to complain unless I was going to be part of the solution. So I ran for Congress so that I could affect population health, and affect a population's well-being through policy.
SHAFER: When you're an ER doc and someone comes in with a heart attack or a stroke or a car accident or a gunshot, you do what you have to do, and you don't have to get approval, you don't need to go to committee, you don't need to lobby your colleagues, you just do it. Very different set of circumstances here in Congress. So how do you deal with that, what do you see as the difference? Do you have to change the way you do things from the way you did things in the hospital?
RUIZ: You're right, as an ER doctor I'm used to making critical decisions in critical moments, and working as a team. And one of the things we don't do, is we don't ask the patients which party they belong to. We see a problem and we fix it together, and we fix it to the best of the ability for that patient; patients are number one in the hospital. In Congress, people should be number one. The residents of my district are my number-one priority, and I will be as vigorous in advocating for them as I was as a physician advocating for patients. And patience is something that I will need to learn to develop, because as an ER doc, in the hospital, when I see a critical patient I tend to want things very fast, for obvious reasons. Here, I'm going to push the envelope, and get things done.
California’s First Congressional District in the northeastern corner of the state includes the cities of Redding and Chico. It runs north to the Oregon Border and East to Nevada. Fourth-generation rice farmer Doug LaMalfa is the new representative there. The former Republican state senator is one of nine former state legislators among the freshman delegation.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa
SCOTT SHAFER: Talk about the differences, not just between your hometown and here, but Sacramento, California and the District. You’ve only been here a few weeks, but what’s the difference? What do you notice?
DOUG LAMALFA: Well as you would expect, the process is quite a bit different: the rules of the House, the way the bills are brought up and voted upon, does taken some learning to walk through that. It was more clear actually, how things worked in the state legislature with the rules of the House and how the measure would be brought up. That said, it’s a whole different experience being in a group of 435, voting as a body that way. Then I guess on a bigger level you have the decisions that we make are obviously of a national scope and even in many cases an international scope.
SHAFER: You are in the majority, unlike Sacramento, where if you were there now, you’d really be in the minority because Dems have a supermajority in both houses. What’s the difference there? It’s not a big majority, but you’re in charge.
LAMALFA: Yes, it is. People were joking with me, like ‘Boy you hit the escape hatch button just in time, didn’t you?’ It’s a majority in this house, yes. But when you look at it in context of how the overall government works here, you have two houses and the executive branch with the presidency, and it’s not such a wide majority that we’re just going to be able to steamroll anything through here, like what it does feel like in California.
SHAFER: What are your hopes for this first term? What do you want to go home at the end of this term and say you’ve done or not done?
LAMALFA: Well a lot of people would say, with what’s coming down in the next 90 days, it's just survival (laughs). But we come in with huge challenges here, and as the Speaker and others have told us, we’re going to make decisions of major substance coming up. And I’m just looking forward to what the future holds here and being able to partly at least, tackle these issues as they come along. It doesn’t happen overnight, but we do the best we can and humanly possible everyday, and that’s all we ask of anybody around here, is, do what you can.
Rep. Ami Bera
The other physician in California’s freshmen class is Democrat Ami Bera. After losing to incumbent Republican Dan Lungren in 2010, Dr. Bera tried again last year and won, narrowly.
SCOTT SHAFER: Tell me, you've been here on the Hill now, working as a congressman for a few weeks, what have you learned already?
AMI BERA: You know, the highlight really has been getting to know my fellow freshmen in this, the 113th Congress. They're a remarkable group of individuals, both Democrats and Republicans. I think we all come here knowing that we have a mandate to figure out how to work together and get things done. When I look at the Democratic freshmen, the 48 others that joined me, it's a remarkably diverse group. And when I look at our entire Democratic caucus, this is the most diverse caucus ever. We're majority women and minorities in the caucus, and when you look at Congress overall, you do see this changing face of America.
SHAFER: And I think you're the third Indian American who's been elected to Congress, if that's correct. I think it is. What does it mean to you as someone who is a first-generation Indian American?
BERA: As the son of parents who immigrated here from India in the 1950's, I'm a lifelong Californian. My parents came here to really build a life, so getting sworn in, looking at my father up in the gallery, it means a lot.
SHAFER: What did you learn during orientation about some of the Republicans, especially from California. There's a few, maybe three?
BERA: Yes, there's a handful. And what I learned is that we all recognize the incredible honor that was just bestowed upon us to represent our country in the House of Representatives. We also recognize the immense responsibility. We may have differences of opinion, we may have different ideas of how we go about addressing the debt, the deficit, how we address issues like keeping our community safe, reducing gun violence. But we have the same goal. And if we can get to that level of respect, then we can at least have a civil dialogue.
SHAFER: On Monday, the president will be sworn in. You'll be there. Will your family be there with you?
BERA: My wife and daughter will be there with me, yes.
SHAFER: What would you like the president to say to the country? What do you think the country needs to hear?
BERA: We need to hear a vision of how we move forward. We're all ready for that leadership and waiting for that vision of what the future looks like. I want to see that Kennedy-type moment, when he said 'we're going to put a man on the moon,' and then we rallied around it and made it happen. So tell us where we want to be in four years, in eight years, and inspire us. We're ready to do the work to get there.