Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., has coasted to reelection in his safely Democratic district for 40 years. But the 80-year-old lawmaker has stumbled in the early stages of this year’s reelection bid amid the biggest threat of his electoral career.
The political world on Tuesday turned its eyes to Indiana, where another octogenarian lawmaker, Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, failed to stave off defeat; California political observers are starting to ask: Is Pete Stark next?
A confluence of political misfortune and mistakes has left Stark in trouble: an energetic young opponent, a redrawn district, new election rules, plus a series of unforced errors.
“It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion,” said Nathan Ballard, a Democratic political strategist in the Bay Area who is unaffiliated with either campaign. “Everywhere you look, Pete Stark seems to be making unforgivable mistakes.”
In a debate last month, Stark accused his opponent of taking “hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.” Except that Stark had no evidence and was soon forced to apologize. Then, he marched into an endorsement meeting at the San Francisco Chronicle and assailed one of the paper’s writers for having donated to his opponent. Again, the charge was untrue. Stark also confused Solyndra, the bankrupt energy firm, with Tesla Motors, the maker of electric cars in his district.
“Clearly, we’ve had a bumpy last couple of weeks. You lick your wounds and move forward,” said Alex Tourk, Stark’s campaign strategist.
The Chronicle interview resulted in a scathing editorial calling for Stark’s ouster and charging that he “should have retired by now.” The paper endorsed Eric Swalwell, 31, a local city council member and a prosecutor in the Alameda County district attorney’s office.
Swalwell, a Democrat, remains the underdog. A 20-term incumbent, Stark had more than $550,000 on hand at the end of March, while Swalwell had only $93,000, plus $8,000 in debts. But under California’s new elections law, both Democrats can advance to the general election if they finish as the top two vote-getters in the June 5 primary, as is expected in the overwhelmingly Democratic district. “He gets two at-bats,” Swalwell spokeswoman Lisa Tucker said.
By the fall, Swalwell said, he hopes to gather Republicans, independents, and disillusioned Democrats into a winning coalition. “I’m willing to work in a bipartisan fashion,” he said, noting that National Journal ranked Stark (in a tie) as the most liberal member of Congress.
The district’s new boundaries mean that more than half of the voters hail from outside Stark’s current seat. The new map includes less of the deeply liberal East Bay and a greater share of the more-moderate outer suburbs.
Swalwell is “an energetic young man” but has failed to “put forth a vision” for the district, Tourk said, adding that Stark, in contrast, has “fought vociferously to protect Medicare and Social Security” and helped write President Obama’s health care overhaul.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about rhetoric,” the strategist said. “It’s going to be about results.”
Early in the cycle, Stark appeared to have caught a major break. Two prominent Democrats who had been actively raising money to run opted instead to wait one more term, hoping that Stark would retire voluntarily. Ro Khanna, an Obama administration veteran who has banked more than $1.1 million, and local Democratic state Sen. Ellen Corbett, with more than $100,000 on hand, both took a pass in 2012.
But Swalwell jumped in. “I just couldn’t just sit on the sidelines and watch an absentee incumbent take another victory lap,” he said.
Stark first won his seat in 1972, when he ousted an octogenarian incumbent, then-Rep. George Miller, and campaigned as the fresh face. Swalwell has dug up some of Stark’s original campaign materials and reproduced a mirror version 40 years later, distributing them at a recent debate.
The fliers are a sign of how bitter and personal the race has become, punctuated by the unproven bribery charges that Stark lobbed later that same day.
“I think the biggest issue between us will be work ethic,” said Swalwell, who touted having knocked on nearly 8,000 doors since last year. He described Stark as “a mean-spirited person who feels entitled to a congressional seat.”
Throughout the lawmaker’s career, his penchant for verbal volatility has been well documented. He once called a black Cabinet official a “disgrace to his race,” accused a female colleague of being a “whore” for industry, and dared another member of Congress who told him to “shut up” to come and fight: “I dare you, you little fruitcake.” That history is one of the chief reasons why House Democrats passed Stark over for the gavel of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in 2010, despite his seniority.
His recent gaffes at the Chronicle editorial board meeting and the debate have become fodder for the current campaign. “Now that he currently is under fire, he didn’t bring his A-game,” said Andrew Acosta, a California Democratic strategist without ties to either campaign.
Still, Acosta said that Swalwell’s meager treasury remains a severe handicap, enough to pay for only a few mailers. “At the end of the day, it takes more than some newspaper stories to move public opinion in California,” he said.
The race could still see an infusion of outside cash. An anti-incumbent super PAC with a mission to dislodge veteran members, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, has the race “at the top” of its watch list, according to spokesman Curtis Ellis.
“We’ve been paying very close attention to this race,” he said.
This article appears in the May 8, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.