LAS VEGAS — Nevada Congressman-elect Ruben Kihuen’s friends and family never doubted the former Las Vegas high school sports standout would go on to a dazzling career — they just thought it would be on the soccer field rather than the campaign trail.
Kihuen, who’s at orientation in Washington this week as he prepares to assume office in January, was in his early 20s when his family gathered the money to send him to Mexico to chase his childhood dream of playing for the Chivas of Guadalajara. But he broke his foot three months before a tryout, and was told by doctors that while he’d play his favorite sport again, no professional club would risk investing in him.
“I realized that my soccer dream was over,” said Kihuen, 36, a tinge of wistfulness in his voice as he recalls his onetime training partner, Herculez Gomez, went on ahead of him to join the U.S. men’s national soccer team. “Life takes some interesting turns.”
It was that foot injury that cleared the way for a charmed political career. First elected at 26 to the Nevada Legislature, the Democrat befriended presidents and the highest leaders of Congress en route to his latest feat — a decisive, four-point victory over freshman incumbent Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy in Nevada’s 4th Congressional District.
He exemplifies the magic that made swing state Nevada blue when most other parts of the country went red. A former staffer for Democratic kingmaker Sen. Harry Reid, his frequent presence at casino worker picket lines over the years earned him the singular loyalty of the formidable Culinary Union, and his immigrant success story — he’ll be Nevada’s first Latino representative in the House — has made him the hopeful symbol of an increasingly diverse state.
“He is an embodiment of the dream our members have for their children,” said former Culinary Union political director Yvanna Cancela, whose army of political foot soldiers prioritized his race and helped him clear a fierce primary before locking down the general. “I think that’s what every hard-working person strives for — not necessarily for their kid to be in elected office, but for their kid to have a better life than they did.”
Kihuen’s family enjoyed a comfortable middle-class life in Guadalajara, Mexico, where his father was a schoolteacher. But persuaded by relatives, the family moved north when Kihuen was 8 and his father picked strawberries and lettuce in California to make a living.
Kihuen’s mother Blanca took a job as a casino housekeeper when the family moved to Las Vegas a few years later. That was supposed to be a short-term job, but with good union benefits and a pension now within sight, she’s kept with the exhausting job for 23 years now.
“I thank my son because he’s proud, and he’s not ashamed that his mother’s a housekeeper,” she said in Spanish after a campaign event this fall. “I try to have a life that they can be proud of.”
Kihuen is the third of four children in the close-knit family. They stay in touch through a group text message, and Ruben is the one most likely to get them together on a Sunday afternoon and man the grill.
“He’s just very sensitive as a brother. He knows how to be there for us as a family,” said his sister Mariana, who gave up her job as a big-city lawyer to help her big brother on the campaign. “His desire to always work for the underdog and give a voice to people like my mom has always been his driving force.”
Kihuen relishes the personal side of the job — maintaining a superhuman schedule of community appearances on any given day or having conversations with voters at their doors, where he switches effortlessly between Spanish and English. He’s a dynamic public speaker who’s difficult to knock off message and can make even familiar campaign lines seem ripe with conviction.
His opponents have criticized him as a policy lightweight, pointing to a legislative session where he didn’t introduce any of his own bills. National Republicans trying to save the plainspoken Hardy in a district with a 10-point Democratic registration advantage tried to tie Kihuen to an ongoing FBI corruption investigation into a Las Vegas city councilman who used the Democratic public relations firm where Kihuen works.
But even ads that likened him to sleaze were no match for his sure-footed campaign. Kihuen’s the one who took a concession call from Hardy on election night and the one who’s making plans for a rural tour to visit the more conservative parts of the district he now represents.
“Everything Ruben does he wins. He blows them out. He soars on them. He swoops on them,” said Omar Lateef Bywaters, whose father coached Kihuen’s high school soccer team. “He always wins, and people know they’re going to win with him.”