Eric Swalwell unseated 40-year Democratic Rep. Pete Stark in a classic race that pitted youth against experience. Swalwell, 31, pressed the case that time had passed by the 80-year-old incumbent. Swalwell can also credit his win to a new California election law allowing the top two vote-getters to advance to a general election, regardless of party affiliation. For Swalwell, it meant two shots at Stark and the chance to build momentum for his insurgent candidacy. He trailed Stark by 6 percentage points in the June primary.
Born in Sac City, Iowa, Swalwell grew up in Dublin, Calif., where he currently serves on the city council. He attended the University of Maryland, where he was bitten by the political bug and graduated with a degree in government and politics in 2003. He continued on at the university’s law school, graduating in 2006. He got his start in politics as an unpaid intern on Capitol Hill, working for then-Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a moderate Bay Area Democrat. To make ends meet, he worked two summer jobs around the Capitol, at the local gym and a restaurant, where he kept an eye out for members of Congress. “In the morning I would serve them gym towels,” he said. “In the evening, I would serve them dinner.”
After graduation, Swalwell moved back to California and got a job as a prosecutor in the Alameda County district attorney’s office, where he has worked ever since, rising to the post of deputy district attorney. “I put a lot of bad guys away,” he told voters on the campaign trail. He ran for city council in Dublin, an outer suburb of San Francisco, and has served on it since 2010.
Square-jawed with a shock of blond hair, Swalwell looks the part of a politician. Still, he is an unlikely congressman. Other prominent California Democrats have been patiently waiting their turn for Stark to retire, including former Obama administration official Ro Khanna, who raised more than $1 million for a congressional bid. But Khanna and others opted to let Stark serve another term unchallenged and Swalwell jumped the line.
Much of the Democratic establishment backed Stark, including the state’s two U.S. senators, leading labor unions, the state party, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the entire Bay Area congressional delegation, and President Obama. Swalwell got support from only a smattering of local officials, including Tauscher, his old boss. Swalwell began the campaign by competing in running races across the district, a series his campaign dubbed the “race for change.” But beyond his hustle, Swalwell’s campaign was largely fueled by Stark’s own missteps.
During a debate, Stark wrongly accused Swalwell of taking bribes (and had to apologize because it wasn’t true). He accused a local newspaper columnist of donating to his opponent (and had to apologize because it wasn’t true) and he threatened the family and livelihood of a local politician who endorsed Swalwell (but claimed he was provoked). After the slip-ups, the notoriously mercurial Stark was largely cloistered out of sight, instead relying on hard-hitting mailers, the rare scripted appearance, and his high name recognition after his decades of service.
Under California’s new election rules, Swalwell sought to reach out to Republicans and independents dissatisfied with Stark’s long liberal tenure. He didn’t promise he would vote all that differently from Stark—he describes himself as a solid Democrat, though he believes “every human problem does not need a legislative solution”—but said that he would at least listen intently as their congressman. His victory was an ironic way for Stark to lose: Four decades earlier, Stark had made much the same argument in unseating a previous octogenarian congressman.