Gabriel Gomez is an ambitious guy. In January, with Massachusetts senator John Kerry all but certain to be confirmed as secretary of state, the 47-year-old Gomez wrote a letter to Governor Deval Patrick. Between Kerry’s resignation and the special election to fill his seat in the Senate, Patrick, a Democrat, would need to nominate a temporary replacement. Though a lifelong Republican, Gomez tried to appeal to Patrick’s sense of bipartisanship and asked the governor to choose him.
“Appointing a moderate Republican would set a national example of sorely needed bipartisanship and would reinforce your growing national reputation for bold and thoughtful leadership,” Gomez wrote. He cited his years of military service, Latino heritage, and moderate views. He promised to “serve [his] time” in the Senate, if appointed, and then “move along” and not get involved in the special election. He even promised to support President Obama on immigration and gun control.
It was a bold move, but it didn’t sway Patrick. Instead, he appointed his former chief of staff and fellow Democrat Mo Cowan to replace Kerry. Still, Gomez is used to aiming high and hitting his mark, which is likely why he’s now running for the Senate seat outright in the June 15 special election. The odds aren’t much better for a Republican to be voted into the Senate from Massachusetts than they are for one to be appointed by a Democratic governor. If past is prologue, however, Gomez’s ambition could pay off.
The son of Colombian immigrants who settled first in Los Angeles, Gomez grew up in what he calls a “typical middle-class lifestyle” in Washington state. He played sports—basketball, soccer, baseball—and, in his words, “excelled” in school, enough to earn an appointment to the Naval Academy. He excelled there, too, graduating with merit. He proceeded to flight school, got his wings, and became an aircraft carrier pilot. That’s a crowning achievement, as far as a military career goes.
But Gomez needed more. He wanted to join the Navy SEALs, the elite special operations force with arguably the most selective and rigorous military training program in the world. It was a risk for Gomez to take the plunge.
“The Navy told me if I didn’t make it through, I wouldn’t be able to go back and fly. I’d lose my pilot status,” Gomez says.
He did make it through and joined SEAL Team Four, becoming one of just two men in history to serve both as an aircraft carrier pilot and a SEAL. Gomez met his wife, Sarah, then a Peace Corps volunteer, while deployed in the West Indies and married her in 1996 after leaving the military. But he kept pushing himself, enrolling at Harvard for business school, which took him and his young family to the Boston area. After a short stint at Erskine Bowles’s investment firm in Charlotte, Gomez has lived in Massachusetts with his wife and four kids since 2001.
Now, Gomez is taking on his toughest challenge yet: running in Massachusetts as a Republican. According to Real Clear Politics, he’s trailing his Democratic opponent, 66-year-old House veteran Ed Markey, by just under 9 points. A recent internal poll suggested the margin was tighter, with Gomez only 3 points down.
Bay State Republicans are hoping for a replay of the last Senate special election, in early 2010, when their nominee Scott Brown shocked the political world by defeating Democrat Martha Coakley, a veteran of statewide politics who had been thought a shoo-in. Coakley wasn’t a terrible candidate, but she ran a bad campaign, and Brown took advantage of the growing dissatisfaction with Barack Obama’s health care legislation to ride an anti-establishment wave into the Senate.
Despite attempts in the media to label him as such, Gabriel Gomez isn’t the next Scott Brown. Brown had served in local and state elected office for two decades before running for Senate and is a skilled and gifted politician, a charming populist whose moderate politics were competitive in heavily Democratic Massachusetts.
Gomez is a political novice, and it shows. In our interview, he repeatedly referred to Kentucky Republican Rand Paul as “Senator Rand.” He can lean heavily on talking points (his go-to line on questions about immigration reform is, “I’m with Marco Rubio on this”). After winning the three-way Republican primary with 51 percent of the vote, he began his acceptance speech a little haltingly.
“Now Congress is full of politicians. Washington has enough politicians,” Gomez said, his cadence not quite right. “And if you send another one down there, you’re going to get the same result.” There was a brief pause while Gomez looked down at his notes. It wasn’t immediately clear to his supporters that this was an applause line, so they were slow to start clapping.