DUBLIN | Feb 21, 2012 | Even with Rep. Pete Stark exuding more energy than locals have seen in years, the Tri Valley Democratic Club handed Dublin Councilman Eric Swalwell--one of its own--a symbolic, but important victory Monday night for his quixotic attempt to unseat the 40-year veteran of Congress.
Over 200 people packed the IBEW Local 595 hall in Dublin for a race loaded with interesting historical parallels and dichotomies between the candidates. A third candidate, Tea Party Independent Chris Pareja, was also in the audience and challenged his Democratic opponents to a series of debates.
The surprise of the night was not Swalwell's 32-19 win from his hometown Democratic club, but the return of a far more energetic Stark who refrained from his customary trash talk and condescension. Instead, it was Swalwell who threw punches against an opponent more interested in bobbing and weaving.
"Congressman Pete Stark has been in Congress nearly 40 years," said Swalwell in his opening remarks. "I respect that, however, 40 years is a long time and if you do not stay sharp, if you do not stay engage, you can become out of step, out of touch and out of sight. I believe Congressman Stark has become disconnected from our area and ineffective in representing our people. Disconnected because he does not live here and rarely visits."
Swalwell also referenced Stark's embarrassing one-day's service as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee two years ago. "Despite being a member of Congress, he has squandered the value of his seniority with his behavior and antics," said Swalwell, while also skewering Stark for asking a cameraman from KTVU to leave his Feb. 11 town hall meeting in Hayward. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are Democrats and Democrats believe in open and transparent government and we never, ever hold meetings in secret or ask the media to leave."
The 30-year-old Swalwell is a first-term Dublin Councilman and a deputy Alameda County prosecutor for the past 6 years. At times, his stump speech appeared overly-rehearsed with robotic hand gestures and mismatching inflections in his voice. The early performance may have been a mere case of the nerves. After slipped out of his sport coat and rolling up his sleeves halfway through his allotted 15 minutes, he appeared more relaxed.
Being rambunctious and biting is usually the role of Stark, but not Monday night. The only zinger being a swipe at Swalwell's experience. "My son is more senior and experienced assistant district attorney than the previous speaker," Stark said. He did, though, attempt to isolate a potential hole in Swalwell's resume--his inexperience.
"It's interesting, often times, that people say, 'We'll, I've not had any experience in Washington. I'm new. I'm going back without all that Washington experience,'" said Stark. "I say, 'Well, I wonder what you'd do with a surgeon when you're going to have a heart transplant.' Would you look for a surgeon just out of medical school whose never done a heart transplant before or would you like to find a surgeon who's done a 100 heart transplants and he could tell you how many of his patients lived? I think you know the answer to that. Only in politics have I heard having no experience is better than having some experience."
Stark also rebuffed Swalwell's assertion that he is absent from the area and neglecting his voting duties in Congress. "It would just about impossible until we have some type of rocket, which we don't have," he said, "to represent you in Congress and not live in the Washington, D.C. area." Stark said he generally works four days a week and spends every other weekend at his Fremont home. He pinned his absence from Congress on a bout of pneumonia last year. "I was fine until I went to the hospital and that's when it all ended up and I spent a good part of last year in the hospital--not missing many votes, I would say, but a few--because they wouldn't let me out," Stark said. "When I got out, I got much better. So that's my excuse. I'll use it, but that's where I was."
It is not clear if Stark misspoke on the year he suffered a long bout with pneumonia, which is believed to have been mostly in 2010. "He was talking about last year," said Swalwell afterwards. "I was talking about 2009-2010. I don't know what the explanation for that is. If you're not there and you're not here? Where are you?"
Stark's cordial behavior towards Pareja was also surprising. Over the past two years, Stark has been largely dismissive of Pareja during numerous attempts by the Tea Party candidate to join him in debates. Pareja ran as a write-in candidate in 2010. Before Monday night's straw poll, Pareja told The Citizen, Stark was uncommonly gracious towards him at town hall meetings on Feb. 11. When asked to organized a series of spring forums, Stark sounded amendable to the suggestion as was Swalwell. "We're up for debates--the sooner the better." Swalwell told Pareja after Monday's event.
"He wants more candidates in the race,"Swalwell said of Stark while dismissing Pareja's chances past the June 5 primary "In the general, he's gone," Swalwell said, referring to Pareja. "We only need to finish second. We're not expecting to win this thing in the primary."