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Astronaut running for Congress in Central Calif.

Former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez smiles prior to a media conference Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, in Modesto, Calif. Hernandez announced his candidacy for Congress from California's 10th congressional district. Former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez smiles prior to a media conference Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, in Modesto, Calif. Hernandez announced his candidacy for Congress from California's 10th congressional district. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
By Traci Cone
Associated Press / October 11, 2011

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FRESNO, Calif.—A California native who grew up picking vegetables with his migrant parents and then soared over the same fields as an astronaut aboard the International Space Station announced plans Tuesday to run for Congress in one of the state's newly formed districts.

Jose Hernandez told a crowd of about 75 people outside Modesto City Hall that he was proof the American dream was still alive.

"I went from plowshares to the stars," Hernandez said with his wife beside him.

Hernandez, who has never held office, will face freshman lawmaker Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, if no other Democrat files. Democrats have a 42 percent to 37 percent voter registration edge over Republicans in the district.

President Barack Obama encouraged Hernandez to run for the seat when the two met after the former astronaut received an award from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. First lady Michelle Obama offered to come to the district and help him campaign, Hernandez said.

The Central Valley native worked for the U.S. Department of Energy at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, learned to speak Russian, coordinated Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals, and applied 12 times to astronaut school before being accepted at age 41.

"I've worked hard and haven't taken any shortcuts, and I've got this country to thank for it," Hernandez, 49, told The Associated Press before his formal announcement Tuesday. "It has been possible in this country for people like me to live the American Dream, and that's what I want to make sure I preserve."

As the U.S. space program began transitioning into its post-shuttle form, Hernandez spent a year at NASA headquarters working with members of Congress on space policy issues out of the office of legislative and intergovernmental affairs. That's where the political bug bit him.

Even with the Democratic registration edge in the newly redrawn district, Hernandez won't be a shoo-in to knock off the incumbent, said California Republican Party Chairman Tom del Becarro.

Democrats in the Central Valley are generally more conservative than Democrats along the coast and are concerned with issues related to jobs, agriculture and the availability of water -- issues del Becarro said are top priorities for Denham.

"I think the Central Valley isn't looking for solutions from someone who would be beholden to Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid," he said, referring to the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

Del Becarro said the GOP has a revamped party-building and voter-registration strategy that should benefit Denham next year.

Hernandez has resigned from his job at a Houston high tech firm and is moving his family to the San Joaquin Valley, where he visits often and still has family. He serves on the Board of Regents at the University of the Pacific in Stockton and runs his Reach For the Stars foundation, which helps low-income students attend college.

Hernandez was born in nearby French Camp and grew up speaking Spanish and picking vegetables alongside his parents. He dreamed of space, and his parents encouraged him to develop a plan to reach that goal.

After college, he became a pilot and a certified scuba diver. Eventually, NASA's Johnson Space Center offered him a job as a research engineer. He was selected four years later for astronaut training.

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Associated Press photographer Ben Margot in Modesto and writer Tom Verdin in Sacramento contributed to this report.