Local surgeon Eugene Cleek vying for Congressional seat
The Aug. 20 grand opening of the North State Republican Victory Headquarters in Chico brought out a who’s-who of the GOP politicians: Rep. Doug LaMalfa, Assemblyman James Gallagher, state Sen. Jim Nielsen and California GOP Chairman Jim Brulte.
Among the heavy hitters was Dr. Eugene Cleek. Many Chicoans know him as a preeminent trauma surgeon practicing at Enloe Medical Center, but he was with the Republicans as a candidate—for Congress, no less. He emerged from June’s primary as the Nov. 8 challenger to incumbent Democrat John Garamendi in District 3, covering counties west and south of Butte.
Cleek, whose family settled rural Glenn County in 1850, lives in Orland. His ranch doubled as his campaign center until Saturday (Oct. 8), when two staff members opened an office in Fairfield, manned by 12 part-time field representatives. Speaking with the CN&R, Cleek said his campaign has been going well and that when voters hear he’s “not a career politician, people’s eyes light up.”
In the primary, at least, voters favored the established official. Garamendi received 63.1 percent of the vote versus 24.3 percent for Cleek and 12.6 percent for the other challenger, Republican Ryan Detert.
Cleek sees cause for optimism. In 2012, Garamendi beat Republican Kim Vann by 8.4 percent; in 2014, against then-Assemblyman Dan Logue, the margin shrank to 5.4 percent. That trend encourages Cleek; so do Garamendi’s low rankings by GovTrack.us, an independent group that monitors representatives and senators on such measures as committee leadership and bills they introduce, sponsor and vote upon.
“There are probably 435 surgeons in Northern California,” Cleek said, drawing a parallel to the U.S. House of Representatives. “If I were ranked sixth from the bottom, would you want to go to me for an operation? If I were ranked sixth from the bottom, I’d want to find a new job—and I want to help him find a new job.”
Cleek finished his post-graduate medical studies at UC Irvine and served as an Army surgeon in the Gulf War.
Campaigning actively through a district that extends into Yolo and Sacramento counties, Cleek still treats patients at Enloe. He says he’s a doctor first and foremost; he entered the congressional arena not only late in life—at age 67—but also in the manner he sees as the Founding Fathers’ intent.
“Our country was set up for citizens to make laws and live under the laws they make,” he said. “That is not the way we are doing it now.”
He’s not, nor has he been, a political person. Family dinners with his wife, Laurel, and their five children haven’t been rant-filled. He hasn’t unleashed diatribes on friends or colleagues.
“This hasn’t been my life—my life has been taking care of people,” Cleek said. “I’ve dedicated every moment of my being to being the best surgeon I [can] be and doing the best job I can.”
Dr. William Voelker, a retired emergency medicine specialist and fellow military veteran, said by phone that he “never saw [Cleek] push a political agenda. He’s definitely conservative and religious, but he never went around saying, ‘You need to vote for this guy; you need to vote for this proposition.’
“All his reasons for doing this are all above board. I don’t think he’s trying to get power—I think he’s just trying to change the country’s tack and make it better as far as how he sees the world.”
Should he get elected, Cleek would take office in January, immediately leaving a gap in the local medical community. He’s medical director of Enloe’s Trauma and Emergency Surgery Program, through which he remains an active surgeon, and 2010 recipient of the hospital’s Physician Legacy Award (annually honoring doctors “whose body of work in and out of the profession has created a lasting impact”).
Voelker, a 2014 Physician Legacy Award winner, and Cleek concurred that Enloe could handle a quick transition.
“It’s kind of like pulling your fist out of a bucket of water: It doesn’t stay [with] a void too long,” Cleek said.