WASHINGTON — Rep. Pete Stark, dean of California’s congressional delegation, arrived in the House when Richard Nixon occupied the White House and John McCain was in a POW camp.
Now, at age 80, Stark, one of Congress’ most liberal and outspoken Democrats, faces perhaps the toughest campaign since he was first elected 40 years ago.
Eric Swalwell, his aggressive 31-year-old challenger in a new East San Francisco Bay district, is taking a page out of the playbook Stark used in 1972 to oust fellow Democrat George P. Miller, the then 81-year-old dean of the California delegation: It’s time for change.
“This is one of those ‘what goes around, comes around’ things,” said former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, who has endorsed her onetime intern Swalwell, also a Democrat. Said Swalwell: “Times are changing ... and the pitches are coming too fast for someone who’s not up to the job.”
Stark, of Fremont, rejects any comparison between 1972, when he was the young challenger, and this year, when he is the entrenched incumbent.
“I didn’t run against a state in life,” he said, adding that he ran in 1972 as an antiwar candidate against Miller, “who was convinced that we should continue the Vietnam War … and who was as unfamiliar as my current opponent is with what the real problems in our district are.”
Stark’s message to voters this time: “Experience means something in this job.”
The race is another of those new clashes growing out of voter-approved changes to California’s political system.
Stark, a multimillionaire former banker who is fifth in seniority in the 435-member House, is one of three California congressmen with political careers dating to the 1970s who are fighting to stay in office.
Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River), who was first elected to the House in 1978 and served as state attorney general before returning to Congress, faces Democrat Ami Bera in a hotly contested Sacramento-area rematch of their 2010 race.
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), who began his career in 1972 winning a seat in the state Assembly, is locked in a nasty battle with fellow Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman of Sherman Oaks in a new San Fernando Valley district. (California’s longest-serving Republican congressman, Jerry Lewis of Redlands, is retiring.)
But Stark may be the most vulnerable California incumbent being challenged by an outsider, said San Jose State political science professor Larry Gerston.
Stark faces a tough race because of two big political changes in California: the political map drawn by an independent citizens commission that put Stark in a district that is about 50% new and a bit less liberal, and the state’s new top-two primary system that set up the Democrat-versus-Democrat clash.
Stark finished ahead of Swalwell in the three-candidate primary, 42.1% to 36.2%. Swalwell, a deputy district attorney, raised about $646,000 through Sept. 30, compared with Stark’s $750,000, the latest reports show.
Stark has strong support from labor unions. He won the endorsement of the East Bay Young Democrats, whose spokesman Jonathan Bair said its members appreciated Stark’s “long record of progressive leadership, from opposing unneeded wars to championing medical marijuana access.”
Stark first gained national attention as the “hippie banker” who, during the Vietnam War, put a peace symbol on the headquarters of the bank he founded in the East Bay. He was an architect of landmark legislation that allowed workers to extend health coverage for a time after leaving their jobs and required emergency rooms to screen and stabilize anyone who showed up at their doors, regardless of their ability to pay. He also played an important role in developing the 2010 Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s healthcare law.
He also has called for cutting the defense budget and creating a Department of Peace. He once voted “present” on a resolution wishing former President Reagan happy birthday. And he voted against etching the words “In God We Trust” into the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, saying he didn’t believe in a supreme being.
His legendary outbursts probably cost him the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee when Democrats were in the majority. Stark once called a Republican lawmaker “a whore for the insurance industry” and another a “fruitcake.” During the George W. Bush presidency, he said that troops were being sent to Iraq to “get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.”
Swalwell has sought to highlight Stark’s flammable personality, saying it has contributed to Congress’ sorry image.
In a campaign video, Stark asks voters to judge him by “the results I get” and “forgive my tart tongue.”
Swalwell, unable to get Stark to agree to a debate, staged a mock debate with an opponent dressed up, with gray hair, to look like the incumbent. The challenger, contending that Stark had spent much of his time at his Maryland home rather than in the district, sent out a mailer picturing Stark under the words: “Missing ... Have you seen me?”
Stark sent out a mailer featuring a young boy swinging at a baseball on a tee.
“You have to prove yourself as a rookie,” the mailer says, “before you’re ready for the big leagues.” Inside is a picture of Swalwell on a rookie baseball card.