Jose Hernandez grew up in a farmworker’s family, shuttling between Mexico and the United States. He did not learn English until he was 12, but that did not stop him from becoming an astronaut and flying into space in 2009 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Hernandez is now running for Congress against California Rep. Jeff Denham.
By any measure, Hernandez is a hero. He is an example of what hard work, perseverance and natural ability can achieve. But for a law firm associated with Denham, the California Republican Party and former Governor Pete Wilson, this is not enough. The firm is suing to have Hernandez remove the astronaut designation form his “astronaut/scientist/engineer” ballot listing.
California election law requires that a ballot designation contain the ”current principal professions, vocations and occupations” of the candidate. If he candidate does not have a current profession, then that candidate may use a designation “consisting of his or her principal professions, vocations or occupations, which the candidate was principally engaged in during the calendar year immediately preceding the filing of the candidate’s nomination papers.”
Hernandez left NASA in January of 2011, but he received pay that year from a private company as “executive director for strategic operations,” not from NASA.
It is the assertion of the law firm Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk that Hernandez is no longer an astronaut because “astronaut is not a title one carries for life.”
The law firm is probably right. Hernandez is a former astronaut. Yet there is distaste in this lawsuit, even if it is legally correct. The lawsuit borders on pettiness, but barring an unexpected interpretation by a judge, Hernandez is probably out of luck.
Astronauts are a small club whose members rank as some of the most esteemed Americans of the last half century. Oftentimes, those who attain prominent positions that only a few ever attain are forever tagged with that title as an introduction even after their service has ended. “Senator,” “Congressman,” “President” and “General” are a few examples of some other of those titles. That isn’t good enough for California election law, though.
Despite the lawsuit, Hernandez does have another way to get astronaut listed for his ballot designation. He can add “retired” to the astronaut. Unfortunately, that means he would have to drop scientist or engineer as he is only allowed three words.
However, whether a judge will allow Hernandez to declare himself an astronaut or not is beside the question. Nearly everyone is going to know that is what he did. There are few professions appreciated and respected more than an astronaut. This law firm may find that their lawsuit is counterproductive to their ultimate goal, which appears to be the reelection Congressman Denham.