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Ambition vs. a big mouth

Pete Stark is sitting in a gilded meeting room in the House of Representatives. It is home to the powerful Ways and Means Committee that the Northern California Democrat might never chair, precisely because of the sort of verbal exchange he is attempting to explain at the moment:

“He said to me, ‘Don’t pee on my leg.’ And in a sense I said, ‘I won’t.’ ”

Stark, nearly 78, is dissecting the latest in a hit parade of outbursts, this one pertaining to the likelihood of California’s longest-serving congressman relieving himself on a constituent.

His colorful tirades don’t offend the working-class Fremont district that has sent him to Washington 19 times. Now, though, Stark’s temper threatens to cost him one of the most prestigious seats in Congress -- chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

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The job could come open if a pending House investigation finds that the current chairman, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, broke ethics laws by failing to report thousands of dollars in taxable income even while he was head of the tax-writing committee.

Next in line for the post is Stark, long known as an antiwar crusader and champion of the disadvantaged, but also for, as the San Francisco Chronicle put it, “spewing personalized invective that might get him punched in certain East Bay taverns.”

He once called the American Medical Assn. a bunch of “greedy troglodytes.” He assailed one Republican colleague as “a whore for the insurance industry,” called another a “fascist” and a third a “fruitcake.” Recently, when a pesky journalist asked the same question too many times, Stark threatened to throw him out the window.

“Oh yes, oh yes, I personalize it and I shouldn’t,” Stark says, slouched in a chair, confronting what he calls “my outbursts” like a chagrined schoolboy who might do it again anyway. “A member has a right to have a position different from mine without my challenging their mental capacity, their integrity, their manhood, their womanhood.”

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Elected in 1972 on an antiwar platform, Stark built a reputation as a tax law reformer and a fierce champion of universal healthcare. Among his legislative achievements: the COBRA law that lets workers keep health insurance coverage for a time after leaving a job; improved unemployment compensation; and legislation banning emergency rooms from dumping patients who can’t pay.

Stark seems to thrive as the odd man out, the only self-declared atheist in Congress, a septuagenarian soccer dad and grandfather of eight. (He has four grown children from his first marriage and three from his second -- a 14-year-old and 8-year-old twins -- what he called his “second litter.”)

Lately, his health hasn’t been the best. He is still wheezy from a two-month battle with pneumonia. Neuropathy locked up his left ankle and gave him a limp. His 6-foot-2 frame is now just a hair over 6 feet. “As you get older, you shrink,” he says.

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But not from any fights.

This brings us to how an MIT-educated ex-banker and retired Air Force Reserve captain wound up in a testy exchange this summer at an otherwise uneventful town hall. There, an angry voter spent several minutes telling Stark the government messes up everything it touches and should not be trusted to run a public health insurance program.

“Mr. Congressman, don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining,” the voter said.

“I wouldn’t dignify you by peeing on your leg. It wouldn’t be worth wasting the urine,” the congressman replied.

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Hello YouTube.

“I don’t know. It’s difficult for me,” says Stark, a mild-mannered gentleman this afternoon, acknowledging that his colleagues faced similar attacks and mostly sucked it up. “I don’t do it on taxes, that doesn’t bother me. But on issues I think are harmful to the disadvantaged, I lose patience. So, I do what I shouldn’t do, in other words; rarely is it planned.”

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That’s what worries some Democrats in Washington who think replacing Rangel with Stark could mean swapping one public relations minefield for another.

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The Democrats came to power promising to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption, only to see Rangel come under a House Ethics Committee investigation. At issue are four Harlem apartments he rented for thousands below market value in what might be an illegal gift. He later revealed owing thousands in back taxes on rental income from a Caribbean villa that he never reported.

Party leaders are waiting for the inquiry to wrap up before deciding whether to oust Rangel. Meanwhile, Washington’s eyes inevitably turn to the heir apparent and a long resume of rants. His fans cheer the tirades as courageously candid; his foes suggest he “take his medication.” The targets are usually Republicans who, as he sees it, put the wealthy before the poor, send other people’s children off to war or fail to practice what they preach.

There was the 1994 subcommittee hearing where Stark suggested that Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a Connecticut Republican married to a doctor, got most of her healthcare knowledge from “pillow talk.” Thirty-two female House members demanded an apology, which Stark delivered in a sealed envelope; he called Johnson an insurance industry “whore” a year later.

In 1999, he said former California welfare administrator Eloise Anderson would “kill children if she had her way.” She said he was “totally out to lunch.”

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At a GOP-led hearing pushing abstinence in 2001, he noted that two of the party’s leaders had confessed to extramarital affairs and said that all the children of a third were “born out of wedlock.” (When it came to Stark’s attention that only one of Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts’ five children was born before Watts’ marriage, Stark’s office apologized for “overstating the number.”)

At times, his defenders would say, Stark was provoked. Like in the summer of 2003, when Republicans dropped a draft of a complicated pension reform bill after midnight and called an early morning meeting to discuss it. Democrats huddled in a back room to strategize, leaving Stark to stall for time, which he did by demanding the bill be read word for word.

Tempers flared. Republican Rep. Scott McInnis of Colorado told Stark to “shut up,” prompting Stark to remark: “You think you are big enough to make me, you little wimp? Come on. Come over here and make me, I dare you. You little fruitcake.”

Police were summoned. McInnis said he thought Stark might hit him, a charge the then-71-year-old congressman called ridiculous. “I’m an elderly gentleman. . . . Look, I fall over trying to put on my underwear in the morning.”

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Growing up in Wisconsin with Republican parents, Stark shared their politics even while his liberal leanings simmered. The aptitude tests he took as a teenager told him to become a social worker. “It didn’t take a kid very long on my block to see the guy at the YMCA drove a Model A and the banker on the next block drove a Buick,” he says. “So I became a banker.”

A graduate degree from UC Berkeley brought him to the Bay Area. Vietnam changed his politics. Stark switched to the Democratic Party to back the 1968 protest candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. He put little peace signs on the checks of his Security National Bank and plastered a giant one on the roof of its Walnut Creek headquarters; the resulting attention launched his political career. He sold the bank -- it made him a millionaire -- and has been an outspoken war critic ever since.

“McChrystal is one of the best killers in the world, as he proved in Iraq, but I don’t think he knows squat about diplomacy,” Stark says of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. “I mean, if he didn’t have a gun, he’d be useless.”

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One of only two House members who voted in favor of a draft, Stark reasoned that his colleagues would think twice before sending their own children into combat. “It’s great to wave the flag and say go get ‘em, but if their kids were going to go, they might think differently.”

Years of Beltway brawling only seemed to raise Stark’s stature in his largely blue-collar district, a Democratic stronghold wedged between Oakland and the Silicon Valley that last year gave him his biggest win yet, 77%.

“People who know him, some shrug and say, ‘That’s Pete.’ Others say, ‘Go get ‘em,’ because for these people, taking on the institution and the sacred cows when others shy away is admirable,” said San Jose State University political science professor Larry Gerston. “The House has so many crazy characters, I’m not sure he stands that much apart.”

But some believe the displays that spawn headlines like “Stark Raving Mad” would deepen the ideological divide in a key committee charged with finding the ways and means to pay for what the federal government does. Then there’s the likelihood that his antics would boost the Republican Party.

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“From a GOP point of view, you just stand back and watch,” said Kevin Spillane, a party consultant in Sacramento who called Stark a “deeply offensive and toxic personality” and “a great fundraising tool.”

Bypassing Stark for the chairmanship would not be simple. The Democrats like to honor seniority (the GOP got over that under Newt Gingrich). Then again, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Beverly Hills did just dethrone Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan as head of the Energy and Commerce Committee, so perhaps anything goes.

As for Stark, he wants the job. “I figure there’s not a bill where I couldn’t put a group together and get it done. And I think I’m a very fair presider.”

He realizes he would not win the hearty endorsement of his fellow Democrats. It did not help matters when he recently called his party’s moderate Blue Dogs, who are wary of healthcare reform, “brain-dead.”

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“I don’t suffer people who disagree with me that well,” he says.

He cites his mentor, the late Rep. Phil Burton, the famously volatile and brilliant powerhouse from San Francisco who lost a leadership election by one vote, then went on to forge landmark wilderness preservation. “You always find something to do,” Stark said.

Still, he’d rather lead the committee he loves -- a sentiment he expresses, not surprisingly, with extra salt as the wall clock buzzes to summon him to another afternoon vote.

“In politics, winning isn’t everything, but being second is pretty” . . .

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Well, let’s just say crappy.

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faye.fiore@latimes.com


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