By Cy Musiker
The June primary is providing a rare sighting for California vote-watchers: competitive congressional elections.
New districts drawn by a citizen panel and the new "top-two" primary have shaken up the status quo for incumbents. Those include Congressman Pete Stark, representing parts of the East Bay and suburbs. He's California's senior Congressmember, with 40 years in office.
Stark, who is 80 years old, says he works hard to take care of constituents. Just ask him about his accomplishments. "It's just been a historic record of bringing great advantages to the East Bay," he says.
Those include billions of dollars in stimulus funds, and tens of millions for teachers' jobs and to improve schools.
And Stark says he helped draft and pass Obama's health care measure, using his clout as a senior member of a House health care subcommitee.
If voters send him back to Washington, Stark says, constituents can expect him to continue to protect Medicare and Social Security from what he calls the Republican onslaught. "Which wants to turn it into a voucher system, that would bring about Newt Gingrich's idea of letting it wither on the vine."
That performance and agenda has guaranteed Stark re-election by big margins for nearly all his 40 years in office.
But this year Stark is vulnerable for the first time in decades because of a series of gaffes, the state's new top-two primary, a new, more moderate district, and an ambitious Democratic challenger. He's Eric Swalwell, an Alameda County prosecutor and Dublin City Councilman. Swalwell recently told a small group of Castro Valley residents that when he decided to run, he had in his favor that he knows the area.
"And more than anything I thought the US Congress is an absolute mess and in a dire, dire need of new energy and ideas."
Swalwell is 31, and he plays up his youthful energy, stealing a page from Stark's own political debut. Back in 1972, Stark, a banker at the time, challenged and beat an elderly incumbent. In his talk in Castro Valley and elsewhere, Swalwell makes the same case Stark once did.
"Pete Stark has been in office 40 years, and that is something I greatly respect," Swalwell says. "But I'm afraid if you do not stay rooted to your community, you can become out of touch, out of step, and in Stark's case, out of sight."
The Congressman returns to the district about once a month. He once tried to claim his Maryland home, where his wife and children live, as his primary residence.
Swalwell's charge hits home with this Castro Valley group. Dan Willits nibbles on pastries after the speech. He owns Direct Sales Floors, and he's the second generation in the family business.
"If you don't have any roots here," Willits says, "if you don't live here, I don't know how you have the pulse of what's going on - if you don't live and breathe it every day."
Carey Sanchez Para works for the Castro Valley Unified School District. She's voted for Stark in the past, but this time she says, she's supporting Swalwell, if only to insure he survives the primary. "Maybe see him debate Pete Stark one or two times times before the general election in November."
Stark has another challenger this year. He's business consultant Chris Pareja, an independent with a libertarian streak and Tea Party support. But it's Swalwell who has a well financed campaign, and who's out daily walking precincts.
Swalwell grew up mostly in Dublin, delivering newspapers and taking other jobs to pay for a private soccer coach so he could earn an athletic scholarship to college. "We were referred to as Scrubtown by our neighbors," Swalwell said in an interview, "and I remember as a kid playing soccer against other towns, always carrying the underdogness on my shoulders and always wanting to beat Pleasanton, beat San Ramon, because we were more of a blue-collar town."
Swalwell might be just another political footnote but for Stark's missteps earlier this spring. During a League of Women Voters debate, he falsely accused Swalwell of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from a family of prominent East Bay developers in return for zoning privileges. "If I were a lawyer," Stark said, "I'd call that bribery."
Swalwell denied the accusations, and Stark later apologized.
Then during an editorial board meeting at the San Francisco Chronicle, Stark accused a conservative columnist of contributing money to Swalwell, and had to apologize again.
Those incidents are fresh reminders, says Larry Gerston, a professor of political science at San Jose State University, of Stark's long history of intemperate remarks. "Stark has always been one of these fellows who's just a little on the edge, just a little too abrasive for some, a little too cocky for some, a little too truthful for others."
Stark's bluntness in Congress caused his colleagues to pass him over for a committee chairmanship a few years ago.
Gerston thinks a number of factors are conspiring against Stark. His new district runs east from Hayward and Castro Valley to the homes of more moderate voters in Livermore and Pleasanton. Then there's the gaffes, and the infrequent visits to the district. "And suddenly this person,"Gerston says, "who's been an icon. I mean he's been there on every social issue that Democrats would ever want, and suddenly all that glorious past for some people is no longer as important, given all these other things that have come into play."
The Stark campaign may be trying to limit the damage. The campaign has seemed to be limiting the candidate's exposure over the past ten days. Stark made just one public appearance in the district, at which he didn't speak. And he turned down two recent debate invitations.
"I'm not used to exposing myself to scurrilous attacks." Stark said in a phone interview. "I don't want to create a circus for opponents who aren't qualified to hold the office, and have had no political experience and whose sole campaigns have been to denigrate me and my family and the work I've done."
Stark's campaign manager Alex Tourk says the Congressman is making appearances at smaller house parties, though Tourk didn't respond to requests for the locations of those events.
"We're doing what we think we need to do to be successful," Tourk said. "And we've got a candidate in Pete Stark who has a very deep record, who has delivered for the people of this district. And we just need to continue reminding them of that, and talking about what he's going to do moving forward."
Stark can count on the backing of dozens of lawmakers and colleagues. Last week he won the endorsement of President Barack Obama, and after so many years in office, he's built a loyal following among his constituents as well.
"I'm definitely going to go out of my way to vote for Pete Stark in the primary. Absolutely." says Newark resident Steve Goleman.
When Goleman recently had a problem qualifying for Social Security disability, a friend suggested he email his Congressman.
"A day later, (Stark's) staff called me up and said, 'Mr. Stark read your email and he was outraged.'" Goleman said. "I didn't expect anyone to call me back that soon."
Stark's staff helped Goleman get on disability. Goleman says it sounds corny, but that quick help restored his faith in politicians.
So Stark's rivals shouldn't underestimate forty years of name recognition and constituent services. Even if the top-two primary system gives Swalwell another crack at Stark in November.