Dr. Ami Bera came to the nation’s capital this week for freshman orientation in the House of Representatives not yet knowing whether he’d actually won his seat.
Friday, he left Washington for his home district in California as a Democratic congressman-elect.
“We want to hit the ground running in January,” he said in an interview Friday. “There’s a lot of needs back in Sacramento.”
Bera narrowly won his rematch with Rep. Dan Lungren, a veteran Republican who first came to Congress from Long Beach in 1978, served two terms as state attorney general, then returned to Congress from a Sacramento-area district that was redrawn before this year’s election. Lungren, the chairman of the House committee that runs freshmen orientation, conceded the contest Friday.
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“It was a tough campaign and I accept the outcome,” Lungren, 66, said in a note to volunteers and supporters.
The day after the election, Bera led Lungren by fewer than 200 votes out of 176,000 cast. But there were tens of thousands of provisional and absentee ballots waiting to be counted. By this Thursday, Bera’s lead had grown to nearly 6,000, and the Associated Press declared him the winner.
Bera praised Lungren as “extremely professional” and said his rival had served his district admirably. But he also said he was ready to sit down with his constituents and business leaders to hear their issues and priorities, and then begin the task of hiring staff for his district and Washington offices.
“I think the Republicans got a message loud and clear last week,” he said. “The country expects us to start moving forward. The country expects us to begin negotiating from day one.”
Bera won partly because of a redistricting process that favored Democrats, but he also rode on a wave of demographic trends that helped Democrats. Women and minorities overwhelmingly voted for Democrats in California and across the country, boosting their numbers in the House and Senate and leaving Republicans to figure out what went wrong.
“What we saw nationally we saw in California on steroids: an electorate that was far more Democratic than we anticipated,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
President Barack Obama carried California by 20 percentage points, at margin that was never expected to be close. But in the first competitive House races in years in the state, Democrats won a total of four seats that previously were held by Republicans.
Strong Republican challengers in other districts failed to defeat incumbent Democrats, despite millions of dollars in television advertising paid for by outside groups with secret donors.
Redistricting helped give Bera the edge this year after he lost to Lungren in a 2010 midterm election that was tough for Democrats across the country. The new district Bera will represent is entirely within Sacramento County, where Democrats have a slight edge in voter registration and Bera is a well-known community figure.
Bera, 47, and his wife, Janine, live in Elk Grove with their daughter, Sydra. Bera, a physician, was the chief medical officer for Sacramento County and an associate dean for admissions at the University of California Davis School of Medicine.
He’s only the third Indian-American to win election to Congress and the only one of six Indian-American House candidates this year to prevail. Democrats fell far short of winning a majority in the House, but their caucus has a majority of women and minorities for the first time in history.
Bera called diversity the mark of the next Congress. He said the country was at its strongest “when we embrace that diversity and build off the best that we all bring,” adding, “That has historically been our strength as a nation.”
Bera said he hoped his California House colleagues would set aside their differences to fix big problems. He said the current Congress had accomplished very little in two years and that he doubted it would resolve the impasse over a combination of tax increases and spending cuts known as the “fiscal cliff.”
“I think they’ll probably push it into our Congress,” Bera said.
Referring to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, Calif., Bera noted that California has members in the senior leadership on both sides.
“As Californians, we should be able to set aside that partisanship,” he said. “We’re in a tenuous recovery in our state right now.”