Ranjit Gill is causing quite a stir.
The 24-year-old Gill – the term young Republican is apt here – is running in the newly crafted 9th Congressional District that stretches from Antioch on the west, across the Delta past Stockton toward the foothills in the east. It’s a mix of cities, farms and open spaces, with Democrats enjoying a 9-point registration edge.
But the Democrats’ margin here is sharply less than the 14 percent advantage they have statewide and decline-to-state voters are at 15 percent, which is one reason national GOP strategists, with still more than a year to go before election day, have already pumped advertising and other resources into the race to back Gill, known as “Ricky.” It is among the most closely watched races in the country.
Another reason is Gill’s fundraising prowess: Through the end of September he raised more than $755,000, more than third-term incumbent Jerry McNerny, a canny campaigner who stunned political observers when he knocked off long-time Congressman Richard Pombo in 2006 in a bitter campaign.
The upshot is the potential for a tight race. Many political observers in California expect a Democrat to retain the seat as Democrats turn out in heavy numbers to vote in the presidential election. But the retooled district includes more agricultural, interior and rural areas than its predecessor, which may prove helpful to Gill who was born in Lodi and raised on a farm. Both his parents are doctors – obstetricians.
To Gill, the area is under-represented, “neither a state or federal legislator lives there. It comprises some of the most under-represented people in America.”
“They are bearing the brunt of the economic crises,” he added. “I attribute that to the leadership vacuum.”
Gill launched his campaign in May, and is following a heavy schedule. Currently a law student at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall, he is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton University. He also served as a student representative on the state Board of Education, appointed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He helped out in the offices of the Sacramento Kings and the Oakland Athletics, and during his college years he served as an intern to former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. He’ll turn 25 in May just before the June primary, the minimum age requirement set by the U.S. Constitution.
The impressive academic credentials, mixed with smarts and a wealthy, supportive family clearly is to his political advantage.
Gill’s family is close-knit – his brother is managing his campaign from an RV park - and well known in the area, giving Gill a substantial fundraising base. Moreover, the demographics of the district changed with the latest redistricting. The new boundaries were drawn with ethnic balance in mind, and whites – although long dominant in the power structure – comprise a minority.
But his lack of real-world experience is just as clearly a drawback.
“He’s got almost no resume. Maybe he should go for the school board, or have some kids and then volunteer for their school projects and be a part of the community,” said veteran political strategist Andrew Acosta, who has handled Democrats and numerous campaigns, statewide and local. “Mommy and daddy are buying Ricky Gill a congressional seat.”
Gill rejects the contention that his fundraising is driven by family members and friends, saying his campaign has received donations from a broad swath of the community.
McNerny, a renewable energy expert with a doctorate in mathematics who attended West Point, has impressive credentials as well – and a track record of competing in, and winning, tough races. Thus far, he has raised about $689,000 and has a well-established base. After he defeated Pombo, the conservative rancher attempted to make a political comeback in the 10th District but was rebuffed; a special election there sent former Lt. Gov. John Garamendi to Congress.
McNerny also has timing: He won reelection in 2008 after spending nearly $3 million on the campaign and enjoyed a Democratic surge aided, at least in part, by Barack Obama’s place on the ballot. "The congressman has always had a broad support base in the district," noted McNerney campaign spokesperson Lauren Smith.
Gill notes that the redrawn district for 2012 excludes wealthy enclaves such as Pleasanton, Danville and San Ramon but includes a greater proportion of the farm-belt and a portion of eastern Contra Costa County.
But political experts believe McNerney benefited substantially from the latest redistricting. The eastern communities were removed, but the new district includes a strong portion of Democratic voters in Stockton and eastern Contra Costa County. The result, said redistricting expert Paul Mitchell, is a boost for McNerney.
“Actually, it’s a much better district for him,” said Mitchell, citing a UCLA study that showed McNerney received strong gains in the redrawn district. Reports show that Mitchell’s firm Redistricting Partners, was hired as consultant on redistricting issues and received $20,000.
“He gets these two Democratic bases, and these are huge wins for McNerney,” Mitchell said. “The combination of the two doesn’t help any challenger.”
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