WASHINGTON -- At the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's Awards Gala on Sept. 14, former astronaut Jose Hernandez found himself backstage chatting with President Barack Obama. Hernandez was there to receive the organization's highest honor and Obama was there to give a speech on immigration reform.
"We had a chance to meet in the back, and apparently he had been briefed about the fact that I was contemplating [a run for Congress]," Hernandez said. "Both he and [the First Lady] sort of urged me, and said, 'You ought to do it. The country needs you. We'd be honored if you took on this task. We know you've served our country very well, and we thank you for your service, but this is a great opportunity to serve your country in a different form.'"
Hernandez is now following through on that conversation and launching his bid for Congress in California's newly drawn 10th district on Tuesday. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who currently represents the 19th district, has already said he will be running in the new district as well.
Hernandez, who will run as a Democrat, said he thinks that many of today's politicians are out of touch with the concerns of their constituents.
"I like to tell folks, 'It's not a rocket science,'" he said. "But I am a rocket scientist. I think it's pretty common-sense stuff, and it's just that one has to execute the common-sense portion and put aside partisan politics."
Hernandez was born in California to parents who had immigrated from Mexico. They were migrant farmworkers and Hernandez helped them in the fields as he was growing up. He learned English at age 12 and eventually went to college.
"They were master motivators," Hernandez said of his parents during a speech at Pacific Union College last month. “After a long day of work, my dad would look each of us in the eye and say, ‘You have the privilege of living your future now. If you don't want to go to school, you can come back and work with me in the fields seven days a week.'"
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Hernandez praised California's newly passed DREAM Act, which allows some undocumented students to receive state-funded financial aid to attend college.
"I think the DREAM Act -- in any sense of the word -- is something that is very, very necessary," he said. "We have kids here who were brought, when they were young, into the United States, and have grown up here all their lives. This is all they know. For us to say, 'Hey, they belong back in their native country' -- well, it's not really their country, because this is the culture that they've known."
Hernandez plans to focus on bringing jobs and investment to his district, where he will live and send his children to public school.
"We have a couple of wars going on that are costing us [billions]," he stated. "Not all of that is being spent on salary for our troops; a big portion is being spent on infrastructure in those countries. I'm saying, enough is enough. That's the type of money that should be spent on infrastructure of our own highways, of our own electrical grid, of everything that needs to be done here in the United States. And that translates to jobs."
Hernandez added that he believes being an astronaut is excellent training for serving in Congress.
"When we go to space, we depend on a lot of people to make us successful, and so, that's the same thing with respect to Congress," he said. "Congress needs to realize there are a lot of people depending on them to be successful. And they're just losing sight of that."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee threw its support behind Hernandez Tuesday.
"Jose Hernandez's life reminds us that anything is possible in America and that excites folks who want their representative to fight for them," said Amber Moon, the DCCC's western regional press secretary. "While Jose Hernandez will stand up for middle income families, Jeff Denham's radical agenda fails to create jobs and would end Medicare and cut Social Security so he can protect tax breaks for billionaires and Big Oil."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Hernandez's parents were undocumented immigrants from Mexico, when in fact, they immigrated to the United States legally. We sincerely regret the error.