Young challenger taps family ties in Congress bid


April 8, 2012

STOCKTON, Calif.—Standing between aged leather barber chairs, the youngest rising star in California Republican politics took a deep breath before addressing the group of farmers and retirees, telling them why a 24-year-old, Ivy League-educated law student should represent their needs in Washington.

April 8, 2012

STOCKTON, Calif.—Standing between aged leather barber chairs, the youngest rising star in California Republican politics took a deep breath before addressing the group of farmers and retirees, telling them why a 24-year-old, Ivy League-educated law student should represent their needs in Washington.

Ricky Gill acknowledged that he finished high school just seven years ago and won't turn 25 – the minimum age to serve in the U.S. House—until next month. Yet his campaign in a competitive swing district in California's Central Valley is winning support from the Republican establishment in and out of state and is raking in wads of campaign cash. That is thanks in large part to the connections of his parents, both physicians, in California's growing Indian-American community.

In less than a year, Gill has received endorsements from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who also is Indian-American, while amassing nearly $840,000 through 2011 alone. That's a remarkable total for a first-time candidate and puts him on a fundraising par with his Democratic opponent, incumbent Rep. Jerry McNerney.

Fundraising totals for the first quarter of this year are due this week.

"This community needs someone who lives like you do, who knows these streets," Gill told the group of Stockton neighbors, growers and retirees. "I've had to fight for things in my life, and now I want to fight for you."

National Republicans consider Gill one of their top hopes for defeating a Democratic incumbent in this year's congressional elections. He is a proven fundraiser, and the party likes his potential for reaching out to minority voters. The party also likes how the 9th Congressional District has shifted under the 2010 redistricting. While the district has actually become more Democratic on paper, GOP officials say more of it is in the Central Valley than the one McNerney had been representing, a change Republicans say will benefit someone with Gill's agricultural roots.

The McNerney campaign has tried to counter Gill's up-by-the-boot-straps narrative by casting him as an inexperienced child of privilege in a district where unemployment in some areas topped 20 percent during the recession.

"He's never been in the real world, so people that are out here struggling in this particular district are going to wonder how someone like that can represent their interest if he's clearly not from that sort of background," said McNerney, an engineer from Pleasanton. He has a doctorate in math and was a wind-energy consultant before winning the congressional seat in 2006.

After graduating high school in Lodi, Gill attended Princeton University and then the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, both on full academic scholarships. He is scheduled to graduate from Berkeley next month.

On his federal financial disclosure forms, Gill listed assets totaling between $1.3 million and $5.6 million. The form also showed that he made $10,000 in income in 2010, when he was a law student. Even so, he has been able to lend his campaign $143,000.

The report is the latest available; updated disclosure forms will be available in June.

Gill said the money for the personal loan came from savings he amassed working as a director for his family's farming and RV businesses. His campaign spokesman, Colin Hunter, said the report doesn't include income earned prior to 2010, or in subsequent years.

As a candidate, Gill has advocated for less government spending. He opposes federal earmarks, which lawmakers use to fund projects in their districts, and he would vote to overturn the health care law that Congress passed under President Barack Obama and replace it with a "market-based solution."

McNerney strongly disagrees. He said the health care law is not perfect but that repealing it would hurt the elderly and those who cannot afford to buy insurance under the current system.

Gill is the son of two doctors of Punjabi descent, Param and Jasbir Gill, and grew up immersed in Sikh traditions. On the campaign trail, he does not dwell on his heritage, preferring instead to call himself "a non-traditional candidate" and emphasizing his education in Catholic and other Christian schools.

Gill's first name is Ranjit, but he prefers to be called Ricky, a nickname his brothers, Chaman and Vick, gave him as a toddler in honor of one of their favorite professional wrestlers, Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat.

He set up his campaign headquarters inside the family's RV park and anchored much of his fundraising strategy to his connections within California's growing Indian-American community. If he wins, he would become only the third politician of Indian descent elected to Congress and the second from California. The first, Dalip Saund, served the 29th Congressional District between 1957 and 1963.

"We'd like to be a living rebuttal to the idea that the Republican Party can't be a party for all," Gill said, as he walked alongside the zinfandel wine grapes his family grows, primarily near Lodi and Stockton. "That's part of our promise."

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, California has the largest population of Indian-Americans in the country with nearly 530,000 of the 2.8 million nationwide. Data show the community is well-educated and wealthier than the overall population.

Sanjay Puri, chairman of the U.S. India Political Action Committee, said the success of Haley and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has prompted more candidates of Indian descent to run for office.

"People are saying, 'Hey, if we have a good track record and we're really passionate about what we can do, there's an opportunity here,'" he said.

Gill's campaign donor list is filled with doctors, farmers and business leaders from the Central Valley's Indian-American community. More than 90 percent of his donations have come from within the state.

Karm Bains, 38, was among about 40 farmers who attended a June fundraiser for Gill in Yuba City, north of Sacramento. Bains contributed $2,500, as did his father. He said many farmers support Gill because they believe he will fight for their interests on such issues as pesticide regulation and workman's compensation.

"There's a price to farming in this great state," Bains said. "If you listen to him, you automatically fall in love with him. He'll be your candidate."

Harjot Singh Khalsa, who owns the Fremont-based Punjabi Radio USA, said some of his listeners also have rallied around Gill because they hope he will voice their concerns, including the rise in hate crimes against Sikhs since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"He understands the many problems the Punjabi community has in the Central Valley and is going to take up their issues," Khalsa said.

Gill's parents delivered babies together for years, both in the private practice they co-founded and in area clinics.

His mother's family has a well-established farm in Delano, where his grandfather still lives. His father grew up in Uganda and went to medical school in Ireland before settling in the valley. Since retiring, his father has grown cherries and wine grapes on the family's 1,000 farming acres.

He also has given politically, including $2,000 to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign during the 2003 recall election, according to secretary of state records.

The next year, Schwarzenegger appointed Ricky Gill to serve as the only student representative on the California Board of Education. Gill's father gave a $5,000 donation to Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign in 2006.

If he unseats McNerney, Gill likely will be the youngest member of Congress. The youngest today is 30-year-old Illinois Republican Rep. Aaron Schock.

"I'm sort of an unconventional candidate, to put it mildly, so people really need to meet me," Gill said. "I think they understand that leadership is about experience, but it's also about vision."

Courtesy: marinij