SAN DIEGO -- Around the holidays, the Virgen de Guadalupe Church in the town of Mecca is adorned with colorful garlands and a big stage where a five-man band plays Mexican Ranchero music.
Dr. Raul Ruiz walked around the church grounds with his entourage, volunteers who handed out blue “Raul Ruiz for Congress” pins. A middle-aged woman spotted him in the crowd and approached him. "My son is just like you," she told him. "He has big dreams."
Because she doesn't have papers, she asked her name not be used. She said she relates to Dr. Ruiz’s life story.
“The story is that when he finished high school, Dr. Ruiz didn't have any money, so he went from business to business here in Coachella, asking people for help to get to college," she said. "And that inspired me to do the same thing for my son.”
She said her family has its hopes set on a leader like Dr. Ruiz, who understands the Latino and immigrant community. Yet she, alongside many others interviewed for this story at the Virgen de Guadalupe Church, are here illegally, and therefore won’t be able to vote for Dr. Ruiz in 2012.
Ruiz is in the very early stages of what will be a difficult campaign, but he has been starting to get noticed by people like University of California San Diego political science professor Marisa Abrajano. She said she will keep a close eye on Ruiz's effort to get out the Latino vote.
“The one challenge he faces is Coachella Valley is not a community that has been traditionally mobilized politically," said Abrajano. "But even amongst those who are eligible citizens, they are going to have to be registered before next year’s elections, and after that they are going to have to be mobilized.”
Over half of the Coachella Valley is Latino, and much like the rest of the country, that population has been growing steadily in recent years. So have the disparities between Latinos and whites here — a majority of Latinos lack health insurance, and are living below the poverty line.
As the first Latino to run for Congress in his district, 39 year-old Ruiz represents the young, educated potential of his community. And as he begins to raise funds for his congressional campaign, Ruiz knows to capitalize on his American Dream story.
Just hours after his visit to the church, Ruiz put on a suit and headed to a fundraising party at the home of a wealthy couple in Palm Springs.
He mingled with Democratic party activists, and shared some thoughts about his plans if he gets into office.
He is campaigning for immigration, fiscal, and healthcare reform, and is fully aware of the divisive nature of these issues. But at this fundraising party, he found nothing but support for his political agenda.
“The demographics are changing and we are not keeping up with it," said Palm Springs resident, Keith Harwood. "We need somebody that can really represent the people here--and not just the business interests, although we are all business people. Everybody here is either former or present business people.”
This is one of Ruiz’s first fundraising efforts; he still has to open an office and hire staff. He will need to face off eight-term incumbent Mary Bono Mack, who has wealthy backers in Los Angeles and Texas.
“Initially, as a non politician, going out fundraising can be quite daunting," said Ruiz as the Palm Springs fundraising house party was winding down. "But then I started realizing that I’m asking the community to invest in the vision; I’m asking them to invest in themselves.”
But this will be no easy feat. A majority of young Latinos were successfully mobilized for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. But that was then. Today, Democrats face greater voter apathy and an even tougher economic climate.