The Stark-Swalwell-Pareja smackdown in Hayward

I went to tonight’s League of Women Voters forum for the 15th Congressional District candidates expecting mostly to tweet it and gather some string for an eventual overview story. But after watching the event turn into a bit of a slam-fest, I feel compelled to summarize the high (or low) points for you here and now.

The oversimplified summary:

  • Pete Stark: I’m experienced, I deliver; Eric Swalwell doesn’t vote but takes bribes.
  • Eric Swalwell: I’m energetic and will deliver; Pete Stark has been in Congress too long, lives in Maryland and doesn’t care or do much for his district.
  • Chris Pareja: I’m not Pete Stark or Eric Swalwell.
  • Stark, Swalwell & Pareja @ LWV forumOverall, I’d observe tonight’s forum at Hayward City Hall was very different from the Stark-Swalwell faceoff in February at the Tri-Valley Democratic Club. Swalwell seemed looser and less formal but still focused on smack-talking Stark; Stark, who’d started this race barely willing to acknowledge Swalwell’s existence, now seemed eager to go for Swalwell’s jugular; and Pereja provided a heretofore absent conservative counterpoint.

    Now, for some details:

    Swalwell – the Dublin councilman and Alameda County prosecutor – opened with the central theme of his campaign, which is that while he has deep roots in the community and “much-needed new energy and new ideas,” Stark is a 40-year-incumbent who has become “out of step, out of touch and out of sight” here and hasn’t authored his own legislation in decades.

    Pareja – a businessman from Hayward who’s running as a conservative independent – opened by saying that what Washington needs is a hefty dose of real-life business experience from citizen legislators who’ll serve a few terms at most and then “go the heck home.” He gave Stark and Swalwell copies of the U.S. Constitution so they could refer to it more often.

    Stark – first elected to the House in 1972 – opened by noting Swalwell is a “pipsqueak” and “junior leaguer” who has not raised a family, held a private-sector job or had any of the other life experiences that connect a lawmaker to his district. “What you want is somebody who’s dependable, who’s been here, who’s served you, who’s provided all the projects this community needs.” He said you’d be no better off picking a lawmaker with no experience than you would be picking a surgeon with no experience (to which Swalwell later in the evening retorted that you wouldn’t pick a surgeon who hasn’t performed surgery in 20 years, either).

    Lots more, after the jump…

    The moderator, former San Leandro Mayor Shelia Young, asked questions – some prepared by the League, some handed up by audience members – of each of the candidates. Here’s the scorecard on some of the issues:

    The individual health care insurance mandate: Stark and Swalwell both voiced support for the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance reforms. Swalwell said it’s not a silver bullet, and the nation should still be looking for new innovations to reduce health care costs and increase access; he cited an Alameda County program in which some nonemergency care is provided by paramedics and nurses at fire stations. Stark said the mandate is necessary to ensure that those who don’t carry insurance won’t become free riders who increase costs for those who do. Pareja said “absolutely not” to a mandate; he said 85 percent of Americans were already happy with the health care insurance they had, and the nation would’ve been better served by building a better safety net for the other 15 percent until they can buy their own insurance, too.

    The economy and job creation: Stark said he’ll keep pushing for increased spending on public infrastructure such as schools and roads to both create jobs and improve communities; he also said the path to a high-tech economy starts with investments in education, and that it’s time to stop the scapegoating of unions and erosion of workers’ rights. Swalwell said perhaps Stark would’ve been able to do more to keep the NUMMI auto plant in Fremont from closing if he’d actually lived here in the district; he also said he, too, would pursue infrastructure spending but also would seek investment in a “Main Street Revival Plan” offering one-year tax deferments to new small businesses so they can get off the ground and hire workers. Pareja said “we need people who actually understand the ramifications, who won’t use crony capitalism” like that which led to the government’s loss in Fremont solar manufacturer Solyndra’s collapse. “Unleash the free market, let business do what it’s good at.”

    Immigration: Swalwell called for reform, including deporting violent criminals but also a path to citizenship for law-abiding undocumented immigrants. Pareja said “we have a border security problem and we need to address it,” with the realization that illegal immigration is an issue of national security, safety, finance, education and health but not one of race. Stark essentially sidestepped the question, which had been framed as a matter of protecting citizens’ jobs, and instead spoke about protecting labor rights as well as taking some swings at Swalwell.

    Actually, Stark’s swings at Swalwell twice drew warnings from Young that candidates were not to make personal attacks on each other. The first warning came after Stark’s “pipsqueak” and “junior leaguer” cracks. The second came after Stark accused Swalwell of having accepted “bribes” from the Lin family, Dublin-area land developers; the accusation apparently is based on a controversial housing situation that came before the Dublin City Council last year. And Stark also accused Swalwell of not having voted in many recent elections.

    Swalwell said he votes regularly and has never talked with a member of the Lin family; he said he’s proud of never having taken the kind of corporate PAC contributions that Stark regularly accepts. (Without judgment either way, I’ll soon check both his voting record at the county registrar’s office as well as his FEC filings. )

    Pareja, who some might’ve thought would be tonight’s designated bomb-thrower, instead stayed mostly above the fray, talking instead about the need for principled bipartisan collaboration and spending more time in the district and less money travelling by doing more congressional business via telecommunications. (Though he did seem to lose most of the crowd in arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling was an appropriate means of balancing a playing field that had unfairly kept corporate money’s influence out of politics.)

    After the forum, Stark explained that “at some point I felt I was the object of their attack, and it was time to hit back.” Swalwell called Stark’s jibes “the accusations of a desperate man who realizes now more than ever that his 40-year reign may be coming to an end.”

    UPDATE @ 4:14 P.M. WEDNESDAY: Here’s the skinny on Swalwell’s voting record.

    Josh Richman

    Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.