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  • Harry E. Walker / McClatchy Tribune

    Harry E. Walker McClatchy Tribune California congressional can- didate Ricky Gill, 25, speaks Tuesday at the GOP convention.

  • Harry E. Walker / McClatchy Tribune

    Harry E. Walker McClatchy Tribune Ricky Gill, larger than life on a big screen at the convention, tells Republicans: XXXXX xxxxx"We (Central) Valley folks are tough, independent and faithful, and we are ready to rebuild our American dream."

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Congressional candidate Ricky Gill, 25, says he has formula for GOP wins

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014 - 2:56 pm

TAMPA, Fla. – If it works, Ricky Gill thinks his approach to running for Congress this year could serve as a model for winning Republican campaigns in California.

The 25-year-old, who grew up near Lodi, is benefiting from his family's Indian American roots and experiences building a farm and other businesses in the Central Valley in his bid to unseat Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney.

As he made his national debut Tuesday in a speech to the Republican National Convention, Gill's remarks touched on his parents' story of emigrating from India and Africa and the financial challenges facing the Valley, including Stockton's decision to file for bankruptcy. He called for a "new generation of leadership to chart the path" to prosperity.

"Like you, we Valley folks are tough, independent and faithful, and we are ready to rebuild our American dream," he said.

Gill's remarks ran less than two minutes and were delivered hours before New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie roused delegates with his keynote address in prime time. But the opportunity was the latest sign that party leaders consider Gill a politician with potential.

"I see him as very big rising star in the Republican Party," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, who has promoted Gill to the top tier of his "Young Guns" candidate development program.

Gill's bid to unseat McNerney in the 9th Congressional District has won praise from national GOP leaders, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and House Speaker John Boehner, whose aides arranged the convention speaking slot.

Republicans working to retain the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives are targeting the swing seat as a key pickup opportunity. They cite Gill's Indian American background and ties to agriculture through his family's farming business as key assets. It doesn't hurt that Gill is also a prolific fundraiser.

With the convention floor buzzing with Republican delegates from across the country, Gill used his time Tuesday to stress the San Joaquin County roots he believes will give him an edge in the newly redrawn district. The new district lacks parts of the East Bay and Valley now represented by McNerney, who changed his residency from Pleasanton to Stockton after redistricting.

"They don't get a fair shake, and they don't really have a congressman they can call their own," Gill said of the district's San Joaquin County base in an interview. "There's a lot of pride here that someone is able to break through nationally to cut through all the noise and give that community its place back in politics."

Even with geographic ties, the political landscape in this district could prove tough to conquer for Gill, who returned to his family home in an unincorporated area outside of Lodi at the end of last year after attending Princeton University and law school at the University of California, Berkeley.

Democrats have a seven-point registration advantage in the district, which covers turf that President Barack Obama carried in 2008. It's been more than a decade since a Republican beat an incumbent House Democrat in California.

Gill said he thinks his age, story and focus on issues such as education – he served on the state Board of Education as a high school student – will help him close that gap, even picking up support from Californians who cast a vote for Obama at the top of the ticket. He says the approach could work for Republicans in other districts.

"If this is the party that becomes the party of parental involvement in public education, of skilled immigration reform, of being friendly to entrepreneurs and farmers, of talking about the debt crisis in a real, significant way, you can appeal to younger voters, you can appeal to Asian, Hispanic voters, then suddenly you have a whole new open playing field," he said.

"I think our campaign is that paradigm. We're testing that proposition."

Appearing on the same stage as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, vice-presidential pick Paul Ryan and other party faithful could hurt those efforts, some watching the race say.

"It can turn it into being the Republican candidate rather than the bright, young new candidate, and I think he better be careful about that," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist who tracks campaigns as publisher of the California Target Book. Coming off as a "hard-core Republican," he said, could turn off the crossover voters Gill needs to win.

Democrats wasted no time trying to make that connection after Tuesday's speech. A spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blasted Gill for not using the time to tell Republicans that their "extreme platform … is wrong for the San Joaquin Valley."

Gill sought to keep his distance from the party line ahead of Tuesday's speech. He wouldn't comment on the platform, saying he hadn't read it. He declined to say whether he supports Ryan's House budget proposal, an issue in many races because of its changes to Medicare.

Appearing in front of a national audience, however, could help Gill in an area in which he has already excelled: fundraising. He had raised more than $1.7 million as of the end of June, getting a boost from donors in the Sikh and Indian American communities. Gill, whose net worth is reported to be more than $1 million, also gave his campaign a six-figure loan.

His three-day trip to Tampa was bookended by fundraisers in California, including one scheduled less than two hours after he lands today.

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