Long before he aspired to be in Congress, Democrat Pete Aguilar’s dream was to be like his father who worked for the local utility.
“My mother tells the story that she made me a little uniform just like his and I think she has baby books that she shows ...He worked for the local gas company for 37 years,” Aguilar said.
But he didn't fill his father's shoes. Instead, at age 26 he set his own path and became the youngest city council member in the California city of Redlands’ 126-year history when five council members, Democrat and Republican, picked him out of 11 candidates to fill an open seat. He was elected to the seat a year later, his first election. Then his colleagues appointed him mayor in 2010 and again in 2012.
Today Aguilar’s going after another vacancy, the U.S. House seat for California’s 31st Congressional District. The incumbent, Republican Rep. Gary Miller was in for a bruising race as the Democrats' No. 1 target. He chose to retire. Aguilar, a Democrat, and his opponent Republican Paul Chabot will face off in November.
Aguilar's story conjures images of former San Antonio mayor and now Housing Secretary Julian Castro. Castro also was 26 when he was elected to San Antonio's city council, and made city history as the youngest council member. Aguilar said he's interacted more with Castro's twin brother, Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, who has publicly supported him and headlined an event for him with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
With Aguilar achieving such quick success, it would be easy to assume he was the geeky, high achiever as a youth.
But Aguilar, 35, calls his older brother the “braniac” of the family’s two children. His mother would consider him the more likely to get in trouble and talk his way out of it, he said. His wife, whom he’s known since high school, was the smarter, more mature one in college, he said, and he describes himself as a late bloomer.
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“I was just a little cautious, insecure. I didn’t want to mess things up. I definitely found my footing later,” Aguilar said.
The late-arriving confidence hasn’t always carried him to his goal. Aguilar also ran for Congress in 2012, but lost in the open primary.
President Barack Obama won 57 percent of the district's vote in the 2012 elections. It is considered the most Democratic district held by a Republican.
Aguilar’s challenge, like others across the country, will be to rev up the Latino vote - about 44 percent of eligible voters in the district - and still hang on to his crossover appeal that helped him become a council member.
Aguilar worked after college for former California Gov. Gray Davis in Riverside, when the area was still "pretty red," he said. "I'd have to go into a room and there likely weren't many supporters and I'd have to articulate the governor's position," Aguilar said. The experience taught him to be a good listener, to understand other viewpoints and find a solution, he said.
As is the case for many Mexican-Americans in the Southwest, Aguilar’s roots in California trace back to at least his great grandparents. Like so many other Latinos with deep roots in the U.S., he’s fuzzy on the family history, which he is still digging out. He knows the family went from Mexico to Kingman, California, through the railroad industry.
He is learning Spanish and is trying to raise his children to be bilingual. Speaking Spanish had segregated his parents, he said. “My parents and grandparents worked hard to teach us our culture and heritage, but they specifically kept us from learning Spanish. It’s a decision they’d probably like to have back now,” he said.
But he said he’s not that different from many Latinos in the district and region, many who have been in the area for many generations.
Republican Paul Chabot, who got the most votes in the primary, thinks the long history of Latinos in the area will work more for him than for Aguilar. “The Latino population here in the Inland Empire, although it is next to Los Angeles, they are worlds apart. Latinos here are Democrats, but they are moderate, Blue Dog, pro family and pro life,” he said.
Chabot, 40, is a military veteran and has worked for years as a deputy reserve sheriff in the area. He said his position on securing the border resonates more with the area’s Latinos.
“I was born colorblind and raised colorblind and I don’t see the controversy of race ever becoming an issue in our area,” said Chabot, who was not the establishment GOP favorite, but has since begun to get national party support.
Among Chabot's main campaign issues are reforming Obamacare - which he has said hurts businesses and families - as well as cutting taxes and reforming schools and the military while running on a "leaner budget," as he states in his campaign's website.
The district is in an area known as the Inland Empire, which leads the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas in poverty. The city of San Bernardino, with a population of about 2 million that is 51 percent Latino, has the nation’s second highest poverty rate behind Detroit.
Aguilar has promoted building infrastructure to attract jobs, increasing Title I funding for the local schools and making more college grant money available through the federal Pell grant program.
“The city of San Bernardino is really why I’m doing this,” said Aguilar. “Times are tough and we need advocates who can work to bring investments to our community."