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Gray gearing up for run against Duarte
• 13th CD contest will be real close
Adan Gray in Merced
Adam Gray, center, poses for a picture with supporters during one of his 2024 Congressional campaign kickoff events in January. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

MERCED — Adam Gray is seated inside Maria’s Mexican Kitchen, with its river-rock facade and 7-Up billboard outside that looks as though it’s been there since the place was called Sinaloa Cafe — a name by which Merced’s old guard still refer to it, even though it’s been Maria’s for decades.

It’s well past noon on a cloudy Monday afternoon, but the former Assemblyman and current Democratic candidate for California’s 13th congressional district has yet to eat breakfast. He’s ordered machaca and eggs, with a side of rice and beans.

Gray is seeking to unseat Rep. John Duarte (R-Hughson), a first-time politician who beat Gray in 2022 by just 564 votes — the second-closest race in the nation. The two rivals are the only candidates in this year’s bid for the 13th, so the March 5 primary is a moot point. They’ll both be moving on to the Nov. 5 general election.

During an hour-long interview with the Courier, Gray takes on every question with gusto. So much so, that he’s barely touched his food. Eventually, a staff member chimes in and expounds on one of Gray’s answers so that the 46-year-old Merced native can take a couple of bites of his meal. After a few moments, he returns to the fray.

“This campaign is going to be an opportunity for voters to simply look at our records,” said Gray, who in 2017 helped found the Problem Solvers caucus in Sacramento. “I’ve got a record; now John’s got a record. He didn’t have a record when he ran in ’22, right? Now he does. So, voters get a chance to look at the 10 years of service that I provided in the state Legislature. And I’m proud of that record.”

Gray lists the establishment of a medical education program at UC Merced, his co-authorship of a bipartisan $3 billion water bond; the acquisition of funds for flood-plain restoration; support for a bipartisan infrastructure act that led to the building of the parkway to connect UC Merced and Highway 99; and voting on time for 10 consecutive balanced budgets among his proudest accomplishments.

“My record is one of getting things done and working across the aisle,” says Gray. “It’s a record of both being effective and getting resources and projects and legislation passed, but also doing that while getting along with Independents and Republicans and building coalitions.”

The 13th congressional district — which includes Ceres — didn’t exist in 2020 as it’s currently drawn. Had it, it would’ve gone to then-challenger Joe Biden by 11 points over then-President Trump.

So what happened two years ago?

“Part of what happened in 2022 is people didn’t vote,” says Gray. “It was an off-year election … and we were coming out of COVID.”

In 2020, Gray says, 250,000 voters who live within today’s 13th congressional district made their way to the polls. That number in 2022 was at 135,000.

“Here’s what else I can tell you, if you like data,” says Gray. “Of the nearly 120,000 that didn’t show up (in 2022), 70 percent of those were Democrats and independents.”

For the first nine weeks of 2024, the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter has listed the 13th as a purple, toss-up district, unlike the 5th congressional district — home to the Hughson — represented by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-El Dorado Springs). The Cook Political Report lists the 5th as a red, solid-Republican district.

According to Stephen Routh, a professor of political science at Cal State Stanislaus, both Gray and Duarte will need to move toward the center to win in November.

“This is a real thread-the-needle campaign,” says Routh. “It’s going to be utterly fascinating to watch. Control of the house could come down to this election, and that’s amazing. This race could determine which party’s policies go forward.”

That’s fine with Gray, who claims to be the one true moderate in the race.

“I was chairman of the New Democrat coalition in Sacramento; I started the Problem Solvers caucus; in D.C. there’s the (moderate) Blue Dogs, of which I’m willing to be a member and which I’ve been endorsed by; there’s the New Democrats in D.C., which is also a moderate group,” says Gray. “Go on the congressional website and look up the Republican caucuses and find me the moderate one. You’re not going to find it. These guys are afraid to even use the word ‘moderate.’

“We’ve got to send people to Congress on both sides of the aisle who are truly going to be moderates, who are truly going to hold their own party accountable, in addition to the other party.”

While both candidates need to run toward the center, Routh points out that both may have to overcome questions at the top of the ticket. Biden’s age and his inability to change the narrative about the economy could impact Gray, while Trump’s 91 criminal indictments and lingering questions about Jan. 6 could impact Duarte.

“Another thing we’ve never seen is a candidate’s votes for Speaker of the House be used against them in a campaign,” says Routh. “Duarte voted for (Jim) Jordan and (Mike) Johnson (for Speaker). They’re both election deniers and Trumpites, and I’m sure Gray will be hitting that point.”

By now, Gray has finished “breakfast” and is casually leaving back in his chair. He’s got a schedule to keep, but he keeps the conversation going.

“The experience of this last year has been wonderful,” says Gray, who has spent time teaching political science at UC Merced. “Most importantly, it reminded me that my entire identity is not tied to being in elected office. And as much as I was an independent voice before, I’m unleashed in a way now that … I’m more unafraid. I have a new perspective that I think is timely, because our country is in a dangerous spot.”