This story is the latest in our series “The Rising,” where we look at up-and-coming politicians around the country.
The possible Republican nominee in California’s 9th district is not even old enough to serve — yet. He will turn 25 a month before the primary, just in time to run.
Gill’s parents, immigrants from India and Uganda, are both obstetricians who run a vineyard and an RV park. The candidate has lived in San Joaquin County his whole life, volunteering at homeless shelters, tutoring schoolkids, playing basketball. He’s finishing law school at Berkeley now, after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton.
“I’m in this race because I want to be an advocate for a community that has been neglected,” Gill told The Fix. “If you were to visualize the 9th congressional district on a map, theres not a single state or federal legislator who lives within the confines of this new district.”
McNerney, a well-liked engineer on his third term who just scraped by in 2010, would have to move to stay in his district.
Gill has raised a huge amount of money — $446,484 from his mid-May announcement to the end of June. It’s the third-highest total in the country for a non-incumbent.
Much of that cash came from the Sikh community — where his parents are politically active — but also from small-business owners and residents of all stripes.
The impressive fundraising got Gill on the National Republican Congressional Committee’s ‘On the Radar’ list, and the party has been attacking McNerney with robocalls and ads.
Gill is downplaying his party affiliation — no surprise given the district’s Democratic tilt expected to materialize after redistricting.
The new bipartisan map will make the new 9th district about five points more Democratic — McNerney’s old 11th district was Republican-leaning, and he still survived the 2010 bloodbath. President Obama won the new 9th district by 15 percentage points in 2008.
Democrats will do everything they can to emphasize the R after Gill’s name.
“We notice that nowhere in Mr. Gill's glossy campaign video does he mention he's running as a Republican,” said California Democratic Party spokesman Tenoch Flores.
But that’s not the whole story. Redistricting will give the seat more agricultural voters and Hispanic Democrats while cutting out suburban liberals — voters the Gill campaign argues are more likely to switch sides.
Gill knows he’s not playing to hard-core conservatives. His campaign is focused on education, immigration and agriculture, where public opinion isn’t divided on traditionally partisan lines.
He declined to endorse the House GOP’s 2012 budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which would turn Medicare into a voucher program by 2021, supports a balanced budget amendment and would have “reluctantly” voted for the debt-ceiling deal. On the health-care law, he talks about improving coordination and record-keeping, not repeal.
Another thing Gill has going for him — his eerie maturity.
“It’s kind of scary sometimes,” said former California Rep. Norman Shumway (R). Gill’s parents were active supporters of the Republican lawmaker; he has known the candidate for years. “It’s very humbling to talk with him. He’s just a highly unusual fellow, and very bright and very precocious.”
Gill spoke at the state Republican convention when he was 17, the same year he was picked as the sole student representative on the state California Board of Education by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).
“He was right there having real tough conversations with folks who have been in the policy business for decades, defending the state’s standards to folks who had lower expectations of our young people,” said Johnathan Williams, another board member.
“As an undergrad he was a force of nature,” said Professor David Lewis, who taught Gill at Princeton. “One of the most prepared, self-aware students I have encountered in my teaching career. Just very mature for someone who was 18, and very well-connected.”
Phenom or not, Gill still faces an uphill battle just on the numbers. McNerney may not live in the San Joaquin Valley yet, but the bulk of his voters already do. And some Republicans are worried that Gill’s age could be an issue.
“We’re waiting to see what the message is from a 25-year-old,” said one California Republican.
On the other hand, Tuesday’s special election in New York suggest that this kind of district, in the right environment, could go red.
“The political graveyards are full of bright young ambitious 24-year-olds running against incumbent congressmen,” said Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “But given how angry voters are this year at Washington and at Congress, Gill could pull this off.”
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