WASHINGTON – Ami Bera came to the nation's capital this week for freshman orientation in the House, not yet knowing if he had actually won a seat.
Friday, he left Washington for Elk Grove as a Democratic congressman-elect.
"We want to hit the ground running in January," he said 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. Chairman of the House committee that runs freshman orientation, Lungren conceded Friday.
"It was a tough campaign, and I accept the outcome," he said in a note to volunteers and supporters. "It is my hope that Dr. Bera approaches Congress, as have I, with a humble heart, respect for the institution and a desire to perform his duties in the best interest of the people he represents and the country."
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, 66, as "extremely professional" and said his rival had served the district admirably. He also said he was ready to sit down with constituents and business leaders to hear their issues and priorities, 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 the redrawn district, but also rode 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 Claremont McKenna College political science professor Jack Pitney.
President Barack Obama carried California by 20 percentage points, a margin that was never expected to be close. But in the state's first competitive House races in years, Democrats won four seats previously 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. The new district he'll represent is entirely in Sacramento County, and Democrats have a slight edge in voter registration.
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 for the first time has a majority of women and minorities.
Bera called diversity the mark of the next Congress. He said the country is 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."
He said he hoped his California House colleagues will set aside their differences to fix big problems. The current Congress accomplished very little in two years, he said, and he doubts it will resolve the impasse over 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 California and Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, Bera said, "As Californians, we should be able to set aside that partisanship. We're in a tenuous recovery in our state right now."
He plans to bring his parents to his inauguration in January. "I didn't get here alone," he said. "My parents took a chance in the 1950s and came here as immigrants, and that is the American dream."