By Xabier Berrueta and Nancy Zubiri
California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi received a high-profile boost in his campaign for Congress, appearing with former President Bill Clinton at an upbeat rally Tuesday Oct. 6 at the Basque Cultural Center in South San Francisco.
Several hundred people were on hand as Clinton endorsed Garamendi’s bid for a Northern California congressional seat. A Democrat, Garamendi is considered the front-runner in a Nov. 3 special election to fill the vacant seat because the district is heavily Democratic, according to political observers.
“The room had a great energy, and the President made a wonderful speech,” Garamendi, 64, said in a message sent out on his Twitter account shortly after the event had ended. A majority of the guests were his supporters, but many Basques also attended.
The rally began in the main banquet room with Garamendi’s wife, Patti, talking about the family’s Basque heritage. Garamendi is the grandson of Basque immigrants who operated the Ely Hotel in Nevada and the California Hotel in Stockton. She called herself “an adopted Basque.”
The crowd cheered and clapped as Garamendi and Clinton took the stage.
“America really has to get the health care issue resolved,” Garamendi said. “We’ve got many, many things to do. I’m anxious to be your congressman. I want to be back there.”
Addressing the audience, Clinton recounted a trip he and Hillary took to the Basque Country over 30 years ago. Then he launched into a 20-minute discussion on healthcare and renewable energy.
The former president called Garamendi a problem-solver who would help the U.S. reform its health insurance system and shift its economy into green jobs. Garamendi was a deputy secretary of the interior during the Clinton Administration.
“Every day that he worked for me, he had that smile on his face. And he was thinking what good can I make happen today,” Clinton recalled. “Those are the kinds of people we need in the Congress.”
Clinton and Garamendi spent about 30 minutes greeting guests, including several members of the Cultural Center, and taking photographs with them in the center’s children’s room.
Despite the short notice regarding the visit — the center was notified officially about 24 hours before the event — several founders of the center were in attendance, such as Felix Berrueta and Jean Gorostiague.
“”We never imagined that the president of the United States would come to the Basque Cultural Center,” said Gorostiague, who served as the first president and was the main contractor of the center. “It was pretty exciting.”
Gorostiague remembered when they started building the center exactly 30 years ago. “When I went to City Hall to build this place, they didn’t know who the Basques were,” he said, adding that he had to explain to city officials about the Basques. “This was good publicity.”
After the speech-making, Garamendi and his extended family stayed to eat dinner in the Cultural Center’s restaurant. Garamendi’s staff and Secret Service agents commended center manager Francois Camou and his staff for their professionalism.
Garamendi captured 26% of the vote against 13 other contenders in a an election held in early September. Since no candidate won a majority, the November election was scheduled. Garamendi will be running against Republican David Harmer.
The sprawling Congressional district stretches from Sacramento County south to Alameda County in the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. The seat was previously held by Ellen Tauscher, who resigned to go to the State Department.
Over the years, Garamendi has hosted big Basque barbecues on his sprawling ranch in Mokelumne Hill in Northern California. The events, where the U.S. and Basque flags have been prominently displayed, are typically attended by hundreds of people who enjoy chorizos, music and performances by Basque folk dancers.
On his campaign website, Garamendi touts his 32 years of public service. He also talks about his time in the Peace Corps, working as a volunteer in Ethiopia. A graduate of U.C. Berkeley, Garamendi played football for the Golden Bears and was a second-team All American as a guard.