BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Raul Garcia, in a red T-shirt, blue jeans and a black L.A. Raiders cap, met his interviewer at Yokuts Park, a green oasis in Bakersfield, at the southern tip of California’s Central Valley.
He has no office. He can’t meet too early or too late because he starts his overnight shift driving truckloads of tomatoes from area farms at 5 p.m. and is done at 5 a.m. the next day, every day of the week in season. And another thing: He needs an interpreter because he doesn’t speak English well.
Who is Raul Garcia?
He’s the dark horse, the David taking on Goliath, in California’s 23rd Congressional District race. Garcia, who doesn’t have a high school diploma, won a write-in campaign against Republican incumbent Kevin McCarthy, the new House majority leader, who has won election to four terms.
McCarthy got 58,334 votes, or more than 99 percent, in his primary. Garcia got 313 —just over 0.5 percent of McCarthy’s tally but enough to become the Democratic challenger.
In this agricultural haven, where thousands of farm laborers harvest almonds, grapes, lettuce, tomatoes and other crops that land on more than half of Americans’ tables, Garcia’s foray into politics is playing out as a potential Mr. Garcia Goes to Washington tale.
“While we wait for you, Congressman McCarthy, who should be harvesting America’s food?” asked Garcia, through Michelle Teran, a campaign volunteer who interprets for him.
That’s a campaign slogan that strikes a chord in a district that’s more than a third Latino, especially coming from someone who entered the country from Mexicali, Mexico, without documentation in 1988 at the age of 17 and has worked on farms ever since.
Many farm workers are living in the U.S. without authorization. That’s why McCarthy’s rejection of comprehensive immigration reform that would provide residents here illegally a way to become citizens is a sore point with Latino voters. And here, many say Garcia, 46, speaks for them, winning him an endorsement from the United Farm Workers.
“He feels that the current leadership is not doing their job on immigration reform,” Teran said. “The Latino vote is the biggest, and a lot of people are frustrated.”
Jairo Ramos, 26, has been a key volunteer in Garcia’s campaign.
“He told me his background story, and I could relate,” said Ramos, who arrived in the U.S. with his mother at age 2 from Guanajuato, Mexico, and now works for an apartment management company. He was granted protection under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Ramos can’t vote, but he has worked the phones next to Garcia to galvanize those who can. Many, he said, didn’t even know they had an option other than McCarthy.
“I got more and more motivated because he wants to help the farm workers, the people he works with side by side,” said Ramos, whose mother worked in fields and factories. “McCarthy is not doing his job, basically. McCarthy knows English and is educated, but that doesn’t mean he’s there for the people.”
McCarthy’s aides did not respond to requests for comment. Last month they issued a statement to The Associated Press that simply read, “I will continue to fight for our community and give our hardworking families a strong voice in Washington.”
Every year on Constitution Day, McCarthy’s district office distributes copies of the Constitution. This year Garcia decided to walk across Yokuts Park and pick up one of the key symbols of American democracy from his opponent’s office.
The volunteer who was passing them out, along with cookies, had no idea who Garcia was.
Garcia has been a U.S. citizen for 10 years, after being granted amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, but has never been to Washington, D.C., not even as a tourist. He has working with a tutor to learn English. He’s listening to English-language tapes. He’s scrounging up funds to pay for political ads. He plans to go to the Kern County Fair next week to meet voters.
He has no qualms admitting that some of his friends think he’s crazy. He knows his chances of winning are close to nil. Many political consultants don’t even know who he is — another sign that a Garcia victory may be a dream deferred.
“If Congress isn’t doing their job, I will run again,” he vowed.
“It’s going to be twice as difficult if you don’t know English,” Ramos said. “But the language isn’t that important. He can learn it … If we can get the message across and let people know that somebody out there wants a chance, if we can send that message and put a dent in McCarthy, you know what? We’re standing up to you. We may not win right now, but we’re going to keep on trying.”