SAN LORENZO | Jan. 21, 2012 | A sedan drove up to the front of San Lorenzo's tiny library Saturday morning containing one of the most senior members of Congress. Rep. Pete Stark opened the passenger door, slung his right foot out, propped himself on his walking cane and ambled by his lonesome to an awaiting group of constituents at his mostly monthly town hall meeting.
"Good morning, congressman," I said to the 80-year-old Stark as we walked. "Who says Pete Stark is part of the one percent?" I joked. "One percenters don't enter through the front door like the rest of us."
"Yeah," he simply said with a grin and like octogenarians typically do, made a beeline to the restroom.
After reigning over the Democratic Party in the East Bay for nearly 40 years, Congress' most liberal lion is now the hunted. With a scrappy, young challenger in Dublin as the only Democrat with the guts to show his/her cards and, at least, two others unsure of how to delicately maneuver around obvious desires for Stark's seat while paying homage to one of the region's truly immense political figures of the last 50 years.
During is 90-minute town hall Saturday, Stark sounded listless. His reknown sense of timing a tad off. There was very little of the rascally edge most expect from a Stark town hall. Some of his greatest hits in the past had been off riffs skewering Republicans, Tea Party adherents, military spending or quick comebacks to confrontational opponents of his political ideology.
Instead, he passed on the sort of saber rattling we come to expect from Stark. What resulted was an odd, almost defeatist ambivalence to most every subject. For a representative armed with a carbon tax bill, he didn't sound very confident over its efficacy or whether it had any chance of becoming law. A constituent asked if Republicans would pass such a bill. Stark's answer was effectively, no.
In fact, subjects like those dastardly Republicans almost always become biting soundbites. Not last Saturday when his comeback to slow job growth at the hands of conservatives was barely tame.
"They tell me we had great job growth," he said. "I don't see it." He went on to blame Toyota for ditching Nummi as part of a plan to brake unions in America. "It's part of the Republican strategy to have unions fail," Stark added. The Stark of just six months ago use the same story line to rail against Republican obstructionists at another town hall in Fremont. This time around it was just, blah.
At other times, his response to numerous questions about Citizens United and the SOPA/PIPA Act, amounted to honest, yet debilitating admissions that things in Washington will never change. It's the type of answer that while sobering, also comes from infinite experiences of disillusionment in the Beltway. While brutal honesty has long been a hallmark of Stark's years in Congress, the tone, during a more depressing moment in our history, sounds more defeatist than honorable.
Last weekend's performance is bit of what his June primary challenger, Dublin Councilman Eric Swalwell, is telling groups about their potential new Rep. Stark. He's old and past his prime. In the new eastern sections of the 15th congressional district, Swalwell is trying to paint the race as youth and vigor versus decay and entitlement.
While a growing number of Democrats in the East Bay are wondering whether Stark has the energy and desire to put more effort into his re-election, they may not be sold Swalwell's early bid for Stark's seat in 2012. Some charge him with attempting to jump out of the party's stated pecking order.
Those same people see Swalwell's effort as a definite opening act for 2014 where the choice will likely be (Stark runs in 2014) between a candidate experienced enough to know the impossible is sometimes impossible in Washington and vastly younger candidates who believe blindly, sometimes naively, in the glorious possibilities of everything.
Swalwell took his argument for replacing Stark to the Alameda County Democratic Party poobahs Saturday afternoon at an pre-endorsement speech in Oakland. One attendee said they were impressed by Swalwell's remarks charging Stark no longer serves the region as he once did, does not live in the district and most tellingly, did not even bother to personally bid for their recommendation.
Stark's town hall in nearby San Lorenzo ended at 12:30 p.m. He was seen leaving at 12:45 p.m.--15 minutes before party leaders commenced their meeting in Oakland. Nevertheless, Stark's endorsement was overwhelmingly approved with Swalwell receiving just five votes.
Whether Stark has firmly entered the sunset of his long career in Washington is ripe for conversation, but he also may have ominously pointed out the mood of the country near the end of today's event in San Lorenzo.
"We have a lot of unhappy people," Stark said about the public dislike of Congress without referencing his own re-election chances. "They want to throw the bums out. We'll see."