Rallying volunteers at his campaign headquarters in Elk Grove, California, Congressman Amerish “Ami” Bera sounds like any other So Cal bro. The lifelong Californian speaks with the laid-back lilt of a surfer, so common in his native Los Angeles County.
A surfer, though, he is not. In fact, Bera is a prominent Sacramento-area doctor, the only Indian-American in Congress and, this fall, fighting to keep his suburban 7th District seat in one of the nation’s most competitive races.
His challenger is businessman and former Congressman Doug Ose, who’s getting an assist from Karl Rove’s political action committee. They’re using Bera’s medical background to tie him to the failures of Obamacare, which is unpopular in this suburban district, and playing up his ties to Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic Party leaders. The drag of an unpopular president isn’t helping.
“Let them bring it,” Bera said of the Republicans.
“This really is about how we’re going to care for our seniors and make sure they have the Social Security and Medicare they need,” Bera told volunteers, “but also how we make sure those programs are available … for our children and grandchildren.”
While it’s far from clear whether the 49-year-old Bera will win another term, you shouldn’t feel too bad for the guy. Young, charismatic and well-connected, he will certainly have other leadership opportunities, regardless.
If Bera doesn’t hold his seat, “I’m sure he’ll then decide on some other path to serve the public,” says California Assemblyman Richard Pan, a fellow Democrat and doctor whose district overlaps with Bera’s. And if he does return to Congress, well, his unique background, powerhouse fundraising and close ties to Democratic leaders bode well for his profile in Washington.
Bera “has quickly become a go-to member when it comes to getting things done in Congress,” says Rep. Joe Crowley, a New York Democrat and senior party leader, whom Bera calls a mentor. They’ve worked together on the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, among other initiatives.
Before entering politics, Bera was the dean of admissions for the medical school at the University of California, Davis. He says he saw being a public servant as an extension of his medical career. Bera himself is a product of the UC system, receiving both his bachelor’s and medical degrees from UC Irvine in Orange County.
“You’ll often hear me talk about, on the stump, going to four years of undergrad, four years of med school … and graduating with less than $10,000 worth of student debt, which is pretty remarkable,” Bera says. “For far too many of the next generation of kids, they’re priced out of being able to reach their goals.”
Bera and his wife moved to the Sacramento area in 1995. He practiced internal medicine; she pursued her own medical degree at UC Davis. By the time the Democrats approached him in 2009, he’d racked up a good number of leadership opportunities: at the Mercy health care system first, and then as chief medical officer for Sacramento County, advising the county board of supervisors and helping manage the local public health system, and then at UC Davis’ medical school.
The D.C. Democrats thought Bera’s profile could win over voters in the inland Northern California district — a mix of young families, white- and blue-collar workers, seniors, and agricultural and tech interests that cleaves between Democrats and Republicans. As a doctor, Bera was an antidote to the professional politician so out of favor in recent years.
And his Indian-American roots augured well for his campaign warchest, according to one party aide with knowledge of leaders’ thinking in 2010. The second generation of Indian-Americans is a growing force in political fundraising, particularly for candidates from its own community.
Bera’s medical background has proven a double-edged sword.
Sure enough, Bera proved a fundraising juggernaut, outraising the Republican incumbent, Dan Lungren, by almost $1 million. He still lost. But two years later, with President Barack Obama on the ticket, Bera rewarded his backers’ instincts and narrowly won a rematch against Lungren, again outraising him significantly.
Bera’s roots have led him to U.S.-Asia policy, where his engagement has gotten foreign diplomats’ attention. It’s a smart move for someone looking to carve out a niche: Asia policy is critical for the United States in the years ahead, but there’s a dearth of congressional leadership on the issue.
Bera’s medical background has proven a double-edged sword, though. Doctors and medical organizations are some of the biggest donors to his campaign. But Republicans have lashed the doctor to Democrats’ controversial health care overhaul. “Congressman Ami Bera is a loyal foot soldier when the President calls on him to oppose Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare,” Ose complained earlier this year.
Now Rove’s group, Crossroads GPS, is getting into the act, running television ads knocking Bera for voting against Republicans’ Obamacare repeals. It’s all part of a strategy to paint Bera as a big-spending liberal, out of step with his more moderate district.
But Bera insists he’s a centrist. He’s part of the Hill’s “Problem Solvers,” a bipartisan coalition that’s premised, Bera says, on “the simple concept of saying let’s just meet on a regular basis, let’s have breakfast and get to know one another.” Centrism has a strategic element, of course: It’s a necessary stance for a junior member in the minority party to get anything done at all. And given the dividedness of Bera’s district, it’s just good politics.
The Problem Solvers brought him together with, among others, Rep. Chris Gibson, an upstate New York Republican and retired army colonel. The congressmen began work on a bill to help unclog the Department of Veterans Affairs’ notoriously backlogged medical claims system. They determined that one reason for the backlog is that the Department of Defense and the VA use different systems to store medical records.
Gibson’s proposal, which Bera co-sponsored: “By 2017, the Department of Defense and the VA have to have the same medical records system that’s housed on a secure server on the cloud,” enabling records to move between organizations seamlessly. The bill was attached to a larger piece of defense legislation and passed into law last year.
“So there are things that we can do if we work together, and I think that’s been the rule in my office,” Bera says.
Bera’s proven that he can play the game. Now the question is whether he can stay in long enough to make it count.