By Cyrus Musiker
Pete Stark has specialized in health care during much of his 40 years in Congress. He’s helped pass some of the nation’s most far-reaching laws in that area, including the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare” to some); a law that says emergency rooms are required to admit patients who can’t pay; and COBRA, which lets workers and their families temporarily remain covered under an employer’s health plan even after leaving their job.
Stark says he considers himself a health care “expert.”
“But there’s lots to be done,” he adds. “I would like to work until we see that every resident of the United States has access to health care regardless of their income or health status.”
In a normal year, voters would probably have granted him yet another term to do that work. But in this election cycle, he has to fight to be re-elected because of the state’s “Top Two” primary system and newly drawn congressional districts that have changed business as usual.
Instead, he faces another Democrat, Eric Swalwell, an ambitious novice who is an Alameda County prosecutor and Dublin city councilman. Swalwell finished just six points behind Stark in the June primary, 42-36 percent.
“In a Democrat vs. Democrat race,” says Jack Pitney, who teaches political science at Claremont McKenna Colleges, “there’s a very reasonable chance he could end up out of Congress.”
Pitney notes Stark has a number of strikes against him. First, more than half of this redrawn district is new to Stark. In addition, Pitney says Stark has squandered the power of incumbency — and the political clout that usually brings — by antagonizing Democrats and Republicans alike with nasty personal attacks.
“He’s among the most despised members of Congress,” Pitney says.
Stark’s Democratic colleagues even passed him over a few years ago when he was in line to become chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, “a stunning, stunning rebuke,” according to Pitney.
Stark’s crankiness is well known to some Bay Area business leaders. Carl Guardino heads San Jose’s Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade association. He says he sent a group of start-up CEOs to meet with Stark in Washington a few years ago.
“He came in cursing, yelling, saying profanity to these people,” Guardino recalls. “Obviously the meeting didn’t last long, and it was completely unproductive. Whether you agree with people on policy or not, we need to treat each other with respect. Constituents deserve that; the American public deserves that.”
When asked about that incident, Stark said he didn’t recall it. “If I was short with them, I certainly apologize,” he says. “I do tend to find that people who oppose helping children and helping provide medical care to the poor — I tend to, I guess, not like them.”
But there have been other slip-ups during the campaign that have some wondering if Stark, 80, is still up to the job. Two examples: Stark accused Swalwell, without evidence, of taking bribes; he was forced to apologized; and he wrongly accused newspaper columnist Debra Saunders of making political donations to Swalwell, again apologizing after.
Here’s the video of Stark, during a debate, accusing Swalwell of taking bribes, then being admonished by the moderator:
Here’s the video of Stark accusing Saunders in front of the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board:
Such incidents have energized the campaign of his 31-year-old challenger.
While Stark spent most of the summer working in Washington, Eric Swalwell has been campaigning hard. He’s knocked on thousands of doors in neighborhoods across Alameda County. On one day in September, he was in San Ramon, a suburb of big houses and cul-de-sacs east of Oakland.
At home after home, he introduced himself, reminding potential voters of his name and why he’s running.
“…(P)eople who oppose helping children and helping provide medical care to the poor — I tend to, I guess, not like them.” – Pete Stark
“It kind of upsets me that you have all this voting where all the Republicans vote on one side,” Fitzmaurice told Swalwell, “and all the Democrats vote on the other. I thought they were there to represent the people, and sometimes that aggravates me.”
Swalwell wrapped up the campaign day at a house party 10 miles away in Castro Valley, where he addressed a cheering crowd.
“I’m running because I know this area well,” he told supporters. “I want to see nothing but the best for the area where I grew up, and I believe that the person I’m running against is at the root of the problem in Congress.”
Swalwell says Stark is among the most partisan members of Congress. He argues that Stark has lost touch with his district. Stark’s wife and young children are settled in Maryland. Stark comes home to the district for town halls but less often than some of his Bay Area colleagues, Swalwell says.
At the house party, Teresa Branaugh says Swalwell won her over. Still, I asked why she’d trade a veteran lawmaker for someone who hasn’t even finished his first term on the city council.
Some dismiss Stark’s temper as a minor flaw in someone who is a champion of average people.
Swalwell has a strong grassroots campaign, but Stark has had 40 years to build his political network. The result is name recognition — and the loyalty of many in the district, including Hayward Mayor Mike Sweeney.
Sweeney and others dismiss Stark’s flaring temper as a minor flaw in someone who is a champion of average people needing a voice in Washington.
“Whether it’s getting money for local communities like Hayward to hire more police officers,” Sweeney says, “or helping us start after-school tutoring programs through our library — or standing up to special interests that want to undo Social Security or eliminate Medicare, he’s there, and he’s in touch, and he’s fighting the right fights for us.”
Stark’s incumbency also brings benefits like endorsements from congressional colleagues, President Obama, and most labor unions — plus a powerful get-out-the-vote operation.
In the past, when Stark was running against a Republican, assets like these were always more than enough to put him over the top. But against a fellow liberal like Swalwell, Stark will have to prove he’s still the best Democrat for the job.
Listen to Cy Musiker’s story: