[The Election Issue]

From the pitch to politics: U.S. Congressional hopeful Ruben Kihuen has a different goal in mind these days

Ruben Kihuen, center, poses with Hillary Clinton.
Photo: Steve Marcus
Tovin Lapan

On the morning of the presidential debate at UNLV, Ruben Kihuen climbed onto the back of a truck parked in front of the Trump International Hotel and told the crowd he was living the “American Dream.” Addressing the “Wall of Taco Trucks” rally—organized by the Culinary Union Local 226, one of his longtime supporters—Kihuen told his story of coming to the United States with his family from Mexico when he was 8 years old and making the most of the opportunity. The crowd roared with applause.

Kihuen has risen from Nevada State Assemblyman to State Senator, and is now running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Nevada’s fourth district. At 36, Kihuen is a promising, rising player on the Democratic roster. But a life in office was not his first choice. When Kihuen was attending Rancho High School he dreamed of receiving cheers on the soccer pitch, not the campaign trail.

Kihuen grew up in Guadalajara. His father, Armando, traveled to Southern California for seasonal labor, and in 1986 he applied for Ronald Reagan’s immigration amnesty program, eventually establishing permanent residency. Kihuen, his mother Blanca and his siblings followed in 1988. Armando, formerly a teacher in Mexico, moved the family to Las Vegas in 1993 and got his U.S. credentials to teach middle school science. Blanca has worked in housekeeping for MGM for the last 23 years.

Kihuen, meanwhile, became a star striker for the Rancho High soccer team, setting records for most goals and assists in his senior season, when he was named Nevada Player of the Year. “Ruben was the man,” says Herculez Gomez, a Las Vegas High School alum who went on to play for the Mexican professional league, Major League Soccer and the U.S. National Team. “Trust me, he had the toolset to make it … You just never know what life is going to throw at you.”

In 2003, at the age of 23, Kihuen scored a tryout with Chivas, the well-respected Mexican league team from his hometown. During final preparations, Kihuen was playing in a Las Vegas adult league when, with 10 minutes to go, he fell awkwardly. He knew immediately that something was wrong: a broken foot that would require two pins inserted for a year.

“The doctor came back and said, ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news is, you’ll be able play soccer again; the bad news is, you’ll never be able to play professionally,’” Kihuen recalls. “I was depressed.”

During his senior year at Rancho, Kihuen had volunteered for Sen. Harry Reid, and enjoyed the community work. So when his soccer dream dissolved, he turned back to school and focused on politics. Eventually, Kihuen received his degree in education from UNLV and became a recruiter and advisor at CSN. Meanwhile, he kept working on campaigns. He helped organize the first Latino outreach program in Virginia in 2001, supporting the successful gubernatorial run of Mark Warner. He joined Harry Reid’s 2004 reelection team, and when the Senator won, he brought Kihuen on as a regional representative.

It was the start of an ongoing mentorship. “For someone at that level to start mentoring someone in their 20s who is barely starting out in politics, I think it speaks volumes about him,” Kihuen says. “He was building the team, the infrastructure, that would go on to continue his legacy in Washington, D.C.”

In 2006 Kihuen, still a relative unknown, decided to run for state assembly, and defied the prognosticators by winning. It was the toughest race he faced until this year. After a competitive primary, he’s now in a close contest with Republican incumbent Cresent Hardy.

“Now, when you’re in elected office, you look back and say: ‘Yeah, I’ve made it, I’ve achieved the American Dream,’” Kihuen says. “But there are still many families who haven’t … I see it as a responsibility to not only give back to the country that’s given me so much, but also to help the next person up.”

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