WASHINGTON — More than a year after he came to Congress, Rep. Ami Bera is enjoying his work.
The California Democrat is well-regarded by colleagues on both sides of the aisle. He’s still finding time to get home, spending nearly every weekend back in California’s 7th Congressional District with his family and constituents.
His campaign bank account is flush, largely because of fellow physicians.
But come Election Day, Bera has little margin for error.
Bera, who is 48 and holding elected office for the first time, is viewed by both parties as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country. Two years ago, in his second try for Congress, he knocked off nine-term Republican incumbent Dan Lungren by less than 10,000 votes.
His Sacramento-area district is one of only eight in the country where party identification is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, according to the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
"He can’t be considered any better than a tossup for re-election," said David Wasserman, a House analyst for the report.
Bera knows the political pressure is high, and chooses his words carefully. His careful nature shows in his somewhat scripted answers to questions, his tendency toward tame and corny jokes (What did the fish say when it hit the wall? Dam!) and in his selective dissents from the leadership of his party.
His party loyalty score of about 88 percent is below the 93 percent average for House Democrats, according to opencongress.org, a nonpartisan website about congressional business.
He was willing to slash $20 billion from the federal food stamp program to get a farm bill passed, supporting an ultimately unsuccessful version of the legislation that contained the cut. He championed the vote as a signal of his willingness to compromise, saying "it’s as good as we were going to get."
But Bera has sided with his party on many of the more high-profile questions, such as the $1.1 trillion spending bill President Barack Obama sought and the measure opposed by many Republicans that settled on a budget agreement.
An internist and former hospital official, Bera has opposed multiple Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the health care law that could become an albatross for some Democrats this year, not the least of all himself.
He has also criticized it. Bera bucked Democratic House leaders last year when he co-sponsored a bill with Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., R-La., to delay a tax on health insurance companies. He sat with Boustany, a fellow physician, at the president’s State of Union address.
"I’m going to work with folks who share similar values and have similar ideas," Bera said.
He also was one of 39 Democrats who sided with Republicans last fall on a bill to let insurance companies sell health policies threatened with cancellation under the new law’s requirements. The measure responded to the president’s failure to keep a promise that people could keep their health plans if they liked them.
Still, the health care law will be the centerpiece of the Republican attack in the mid-term elections, and they aren’t about to let Bera off the hook.
"You don’t get to run away from this," said former Republican Rep. Doug Ose, one of three GOP candidates vying to challenge Bera this year. "He’s as culpable as anyone else."
Bera began his career in Congress not even sure if he’d won. He showed up for freshman orientation before the race was called. He came to Capitol Hill with several distinctions: the only Indian-American, one of 17 physicians in the House and a newcomer who had never before held elective office.
He had been chief medical officer for the Sacramento County hospital system and, before that, associate dean of admissions and out reach at the University of California, Davis. His wife, Janine, also a doctor, remained in Elk Grove to continue her medical practice.
Janine Bera said she was attracted to her future husband the first time she saw him visiting the undergraduate library at the University of California, Irvine, more than two decades ago. Ami Bera was a second-year medical student. He had a mustache and curly hair, and wore a bomber jacket and Levis. Only the curly hair remains.
"I watched him walk over to one of my closest girlfriends," she recalled, "and I said, ’oh she knows him.’" Her friend introduced them. A week later, he called and asked her out. "He put some effort into the phone call," she said.
She said his election wasn’t such a big adjustment since, as physicians, both were used to hectic, hard-to-plan schedules. But she thinks he’s having more fun wearing a polished member-of-Congress pin on his lapel than a well-worn stethoscope around his neck.
"There’s nothing greater than seeing one you love doing something they love doing," she said.
Bera’s office has acquired the traditional accoutrements of someone in his position, and of his role as an ambassador for his district and state.
Besides the family photographs, there’s a bowl of California walnuts and a few bottles of California wine, a gift from Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., elected two years ago with Bera. A scale model of a Siemens light-rail vehicle, similar to the ones the company builds at its Sacramento plant, sits on a shelf.
Bera is proud of his Indian roots, and it shows in his work. He recently met in his Washington office with Roger Beachy, founding director of the World Food Center at UC Davis, to discuss exporting California’s agricultural expertise to countries with large populations to feed, including India. In August, he spent a week in his parents’ native country, in part to encourage math and technology students to consider California’s universities.
He serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where Republican member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida said he has helped the panel’s efforts to improve ties between India and Afghanistan.
Last year, they traveled to Afghanistan on a flight "long enough to talk about everything under the sun," she said. She called Bera "a thoughtful, intelligent" lawmaker.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who is retiring this year after 20 terms, said his junior colleague has become someone both parties are comfortable approaching.
Bera said what has brought him the most satisfaction has been being a booster for the Sacramento region, and his role with the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group begun in 2010 by an advocacy organization called No Labels. He took pride in pushing back against White House plans for military action in Syria. Bera said his office got more input on Syria than any other issue last year, and that people were overwhelmingly opposed to the use of military force.
Efforts by the Foreign Affairs Committee paved the way for a diplomatic solution brokered by Russia, he said. "We created enough time for diplomacy to work," he said. "I think we kept us out of another conflict in the Middle East."
Financially, Bera is well-positioned to weather a tough campaign. He has $1.15 million in cash on hand, according to the latest federal election reports. That’s a healthy war chest for a freshman lawmaker, far outpacing any of his three potential Republican challengers.
He likely will need it – and more. The 2012 contest was one of the costliest in the country. Bera and Lungren together spent about $6.2 million, while outside groups spent another $6.1 million.
"However," said Wasserman of the Cook report, "money is not Bera’s problem."
The political state of play has changed since 2012. Now Bera has the record to defend, turning the aggressive challenger of two years ago into a defender of the status quo.
"The Republicans are going to say whatever the Republicans are going to say," Bera said in a recent interview. "At the end of the day, my constituents understand who I’m fighting for, and it’s really for them."
In addition, Obama, who won the district by four percentage points in 2012, won’t be on the ballot this time to provide a boost.
Bera also is now part of one of the most polarized and least popular Congresses in recent times. Miller said Bera’s freshman class walked into a difficult political atmosphere.
"When Ami ran the first time, he knew it was going to be a tough seat," Miller said.
Besides health care, Ose has criticized him for not forcefully addressing the drought. Earlier this month, Bera joined most Democrats in opposing a Republican bill, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, which among other provisions, would dismantle key parts of a landmark 1992 law that directed more water to protect the Delta.
Ose, who served on Capitol Hill from 1999 to 2005, accused Bera of giving speeches and holding roundtable discussions instead of introducing legislation to deal with the crisis.
"Talk is cheap," Ose said in a statement. "Action is required now."
Ose has two Republican rivals bidding for the nomination. The others are businesswoman Elizabeth Emken, who challenged Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2012 and lost by double digits; and Igor Birman, a former chief of staff to Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif. Birman has the endorsement of at least one group and several lawmakers aligned with the tea party.
The Political Hotline, a campaign tip sheet, includes the7th congressional district among 30 House seats most likely to flip parties this year. Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., who befriended Bera during his first run for Congress, thinks incumbency works to the freshman’s advantage.
House incumbents win re-election 90 percent of the time, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog group, boosted by fundraising advantages and wider name recognition.
"People want his seat," Honda said. "He’s in it, and he’s doing a good job. He’s taking care of business."