Rhetorical sparks flew tonight as Rep. Pete Stark crossed paths for the first time on the campaign trail with his Democratic challenger, Dublin councilman and Alameda County prosecutor Eric Swalwell.
The Tri Valley Democratic Club’s candidates’ night drew a capacity crowd of about 200 people to the IBEW hall in Dublin, with most there to see the 15th Congressional District faceoff between Stark, 80, and Swalwell, 31. Though the two candidates have a lot in common on the issues, there were elbows thrown aplenty.
Swalwell won the straw poll at the end of the evening, 32-19 – unsurprising given that this is his home club, in which he’s been active for years. The outcome was foretold by the much louder applause and cheering he got compared to Stark’s earlier in the evening.
Stark, D-Fremont, had won the coin toss, but chose to have Swalwell go first. Swalwell led off by touting his local roots and said he has worked on behalf of working families and small businesses as a Dublin city councilman, but quickly turned the lens toward his opponent.
“We need new energy and new ideas, we need someone who is going to step up and lead,” he said, noting Stark has been in the House for nearly 40 years. “I respect that, but 40 years is a long time and if you do not stay sharp, you can become out of step, out of touch and out of sight.”
That’s the case with Stark, he said, who lives in Maryland and doesn’t visit often; he also said Stark blocked all media from one of his town hall meetings last weekend. (Actually, Stark holds a series of three such town-hall meetings just about every month, and barred a television camera from last weekend’s event, not all reporters.)
Asked by an audience member how he intends to stay in touch with this community if elected and sent to Washington, Swalwell replied, “I’m not going to live there.”
Stark’s fiery and sometimes controversial rhetoric has rendered him ineffective, Swalwell accused, as evidenced a few years ago when the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee came open and Stark was the most senior Democrat. “Our party’s leaders had to step in when Congressman Stark was slated to become the chairman of one of the most powerful committees in Congress.”
And Stark missed more than one in five votes in the last session, he said. “If Congressman Stark does not live here and he is not voting in Washington, D.C., it begs the question where is he, what is he doing and how can he help us in these tough economic times?”
“I imagine that Congressman Stark and I will agree on many issues,” Swalwell said, both of them being Democrats. It’s not about who moves the district to the left or the right, he said, but about who can move it forward.
Stark, in rebuttal, said “the Stark family has been here well over 40 years doing things for this community,” and he has worked tirelessly on behalf of the Democratic party and the often-needy people it’s supposed to represent.
In response to Swalwell’s barb about his residency, he said, “It would be just about impossible until we have some kind of rockets… to represent you in Congress and not live in the Washington, D.C. area.” He said that he’s here in the district every other weekend, and that he missed some votes due to his hospitalization for pneumonia, but also needs to consider the needs of his 16-year-old son and 10-year-old twins.
Stark likened the situation to deciding whom you’d choose to do your heart surgery: a student fresh out of medical school or a seasoned surgeon with many operations under his belt. “Only in politics have I heard that having no experience is better than having some experience.”
During the Q&A, Sergio Santos – a United Auto Workers local president from the former NUMMI plant in Fremont – said Stark has been anything but out of touch with auto workers, to whom he gave great support following the plant’s closing. They will support him now, he said.
Alameda County Democratic Central Committee Chairwoman Robin Torello noted Stark has the party’s endorsement as well, and that Stark has been a champion of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Stark said Republicans are putting those programs at risk, and trying to undo President Obama’s health care reforms.
“Their policy is to not see the president succeed at anything,” Stark said. “It’s pure politics.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are concerned with helping those unable to help themselves, he said.
Swalwell went to the front of the room to shake Stark’s hand when both were done.
Club President Ellis Goldberg said it was the most crowded meeting he could recall. Amid that sea of Democrats was indepdendent 15th District candidate Chris Pareja, 39, of Hayward, a Tea Party conservative.
“Eric came off as much more aggressive than the typical Pete,” Pareja obersved afterward, adding he thinks district voters want to hear less about age and residence and more debate on issues such as fiscal policy and overencroachment of government on private rights. He said both Stark and Swalwell appeared willing to engage in a three-way debate with him sometime soon.
The evening’s undercard included speeches from Democratic incumbents without Democratic challengers this primary season: state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord; Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo; and Alameda County Supervisors Scott Haggerty and Nate Miley. County supervisorial seats are nonpartisan, but Miley is a lifelong Democrat while Haggerty switched from Republican to Democrat in 2009.