Patt Morrison Asks

Rep. Raul Ruiz, an Rx for D.C.

The freshman Democrat, who's also a doctor, is already being touted as a difference maker in the House.

Raul Ruiz

Raul Ruiz was named by Politico as a congressional freshman most likely to succeed. (Los Angeles Times / January 22, 2013)

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?

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