Stark, Swalwell, Pareja face off on issues

The Bay Area News Group held its editorial board meeting with the 15th Congressional District’s three candidates this afternoon in Pleasanton.

Incumbent Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, was pressed on his series of recent gaffes in which he has made accusations against Democratic challenger Eric Swalwell and a San Francisco Chronicle columnist; he apologized for those, as well as for the not-quite-apology he issued several weeks ago. We’ll be posting a full, separate story on that.

Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of what the candidates said during the hour-long meeting.

Chris ParejaChris Pareja, 40, a Hayward businessman who’s running as a conservative independent, opened by saying he favors “more responsible public spending;” lessening the “regulatory burdens” on small and mid-sized businesses; and rolling back laws that infringe upon civil liberties, such as those allowing indefinite detentions or mandating health insurance coverage. He said it was Obamacare that inspired him to seek public office, making him realize you have to be inside the system to change it. “I definitely have a lot of Tea Party support,” he said, but he also has been endorsed by the Contra Costa County Republican Party and other conservative groups.

Eric SwalwellSwalwell, 31, a Dublin councilman and Alameda County prosecutor, said he’s a local native who’ll bring “new energy and ideas to Congress” including a “mobile Congress” initiative to let lawmakers spend more time in their districts. He said Dublin has successfully controlled its costs in recent years, including striking a deal with workers on pension contributions, and he wants to bring that kind of fiscal discipline to Washington. “I think the greatest threat to our national security is our national debt… so being fiscally responsible in Congress is important to me,” he said. “I think Congress is struggling to think big.”

Pete Stark (photo by Aric Crabb)Stark, 80, said he has “accomplished a great bit in my first 20 terms and there’s more to accomplish,” such as protecting Medicare and Social Security for future generations; cutting military spending, including ending our current wars while avoiding new ones; advancing education bills for disadvantaged children; and bringing home more federal funding for district infrastructure projects. Asked how many more terms he might seek, he replied “That’s a question I think I don’t want to answer until after the election. I would not want to go in under any circumstances as a lame duck.”

Tons more on specific issues, after the jump…

On the No Child Left Behind education law:
Stark said he agrees with author George Miller, D-Martinez, that some changes are needed, in cooperation with teachers’ unions, to evaluate and reward teachers for good performance, and that less emphasis should put on teaching to tests.
Swalwell said he would vote to repeal the law, which is labeling schools as failures without giving them chances to succeed, leaving students without options, and “handcuffing teachers” with excessive testing requirements. He agreed with Stark that better teachers should be identified and rewarded, and that while “you still need testing, right now there’s too much of an emphasis on testing.”
Pareja said he doesn’t believe in teacher tenure as it exists today, because it results in younger, more eager, more energetic teachers being first on the chopping block. He said he supports school choice as a means of letting the free market drive improvement, and is against federally centralized education standards. “Not everyone is cut out for college,” he said, and so there should be technical and career education for those who aren’t, as well as tools and training for teachers working with special-needs students.

On balancing debt reduction with stimulus:
Pareja said the best way to reduce debt is to increase gross domestic product, and let the tax revenues follow, while cutting spending. “To me, stimulus should be an absolute last resort. Is it completely off the table? No, but there are there 95 out of 100 things I’d like to see tried first? Yes.”
Swalwell said debt reduction is vital, but needs to be balance with economic stimulus until the nation is definitively out of its slump. “I see them as hand-in-hand,” he said, citing as an example the idea of increasing Energy Department grant money for putting LED lights in federal buildings – saving the government on energy costs in the long term but creating manufacturing jobs now.
Stark said he is “very much for stimulus.” The government always carries debt, he said, and in times of economic crisis must let it grow in order to keep people in their jobs and homes.

On Social Security:
Swalwell said “it’s a big problem, it’s a big concern” best addressed by raising the payroll tax cap from its current level of $110,000. He also called for building into the system an index that would automatically raise retirement ages in proportion to life expectancies.
Pareja said he agrees with gradually increasing the retirement age over time, but also in privatizing part or all of the program so people can make their own investment decisions. He also would let people opt out of collecting their benefits if they don’t need them, and take a tax deduction instead.
Stark said to guarantee current benefit levels indefinitely, the payroll tax would need to be increased by 3 percent – 1.5 percent for the worker, 1.5 percent for the employer. He, too, called for raising the tax cap and said he would be willing to scale up the retirement age. “It’s a strong social program that I think has been the backbone of protecting the less fortunate in this country, and I think we can make it work.”

On Iran:
Stark said every possible diplomatic and economic solution should be attempted and given a chance to work before turning to a military strike against uranium-enrichment facilities: “I don’t think we’ve yet run that string out.” He said he would support military force only when the United States is attacked or knows an attack is imminent. If Iran attacked Israel, he said, he would support the United States taking Israel’s side.
Swalwell called for a continuation of economic sanctions, saying that bombing Iran while other alternatives still exist could lead Iran to do exactly what we don’t want: expedite its weapons development. An attack upon Israel would have to be answered with America’s full force, he said, but conversely, America should do all it can to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran: “We can’t let that happen.”
Pareja said it’s fine to rely on diplomacy and sanctions, but he learned growing up as “a skinny kid in San Lorenzo” that “there are certain people who only understand physical violence.” He said his views aren’t inconsistent with Swalwell’s, but he’s somewhat tougher than Stark on willingness to defend Israel. But he said any and all military action must be approved by Congress, unlike recent actions by the Obama Administration in places like Libya. “I do not believe our form of democracy is cut out for the rest of the world, I don’t believe we should be pushing it on people.”

On health care reform:
Pareja said some parts of the current law – such as letting young adults stay on parents’ insurance policies until age 26, and banning rescission of ill patients’ policies – should be reintroduced individually, but on the whole, “I’ll be glad to see it go” if the Supreme Court deems it unconstitutional this year. “With so much legislation that we pass, we’re trying to fix symptoms, not the root cause. The root cause is, health care costs are just too high,” he said. He would move to solve that by establishing clinics for the uninsured, in order to get them out of high-cost emergency rooms for basic care, while letting the rest of America have free choice and a free market. “I don’t believe in single payer; I have family in Canada, I’ve seen how that works.”
Swalwell said he supports the Affordable Care Act’s reforms, but it’s not bringing costs down enough; he spoke of the need to control the sustainable growth rate, capping what doctors are paid. He also cited a local pilot project in which paramedics at certain firehouses offer some basic care to the uninsured. “We still need to find ways to keep costs under control.”
Stark read from a letter sent to him by President Obama, thanking him for his contributions to the Affordable Care Act. If the Supreme Court tosses it, he said, “we’ll re-introduce legislation that does meet constitutional muster.”

In closing, Stark said he’s the only candidate with a record to be challenged, a record of which he’s proud – including COBRA insurance, the Affordable Care Act, trade adjustment assistance for workers laid off from the NUMMI auto plant and billions in funding for local projects. Dinged by Swalwell for living in Maryland, he said he maintains a townhouse in Fremont and is here in the district at least twice a month for town hall meetings, other events, holidays or other causes. And criticized by Swalwell for his attendance record, he said he long ago made a decision to skip quorum calls – “They take a half an hour away from your work and they do nothing and are usually there to stall proceedings” – but rarely misses important votes.

Swalwell reiterated his record as a local councilman, planning commissioner, arts commissioner and prosecutor, as well as his desires to impose fiscal discipline while partnering government with business to spark job creation. “More importantly, I will always, always, always live in my district and commute to Washington, not the other way around,” he said. “And I think showing up and working hard is what the people in this district need.”

Pareja in closing noted he’s the only one who brings recent business experience to the race. He said his nonpartisan status means voters have been opening up to him, and he’s finding it’s not hard to build consensus on defining the issues; it may be harder to agree on solutions, he said, but “we need to have an adult conversation.” He said he’s interested in solving problems, not treating symptoms: “If it’s good for the people, that’s what I’d fight for, not just what’s good for the party line.”

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.

  • JohnW

    On Social Security, Swalwell said, “…it’s best addressed by raising the payroll tax cap from it’s current level of $110,000.”

    Not picking on Swalwell. Lot’s people think this is a nifty quick fix, especially people who don’t make $110,000. It’s one of the worst ideas, in my opinion. First, the cap is indexed to go up automatically by a certain amount every year anyway. It’s gone from about $80k to $110k just in the past several years. Second, it wrecks the relationship between what people pay in and what they get back out. Third, somebody grossing $110k is most likely in the 25% or 28% marginal federal income tax bracket. So, if you lift the cap and make them keep paying 6.2% (not including employer share), you have effectively increased their marginal rate to 31.2% or 34.2%. That’s like a 20 or 25% increase in the tax they pay on everything they make over $110k. We’re not talking about the 1% here, just average middle income folks making ends meet. It also makes it more expensive for employers to hire and keep middle income employees. People think this is a way to avoid cuts to SS, but this is a cut, at least for the people who have to pay more. It means they pay more in but don’t get more back out at the end. That’s a cut!

  • ken

    Pete Stark is such an arrogant elitist Marxist I would rather vote for a rock. Please put this creature into retirement on taxpayer funded pension in his taxpayer funded everything that has been his life and lifestyle.

  • Elwood

    Chronicle editorial endorsing Swalwell:


    I wouldn’t slam an outhouse door as hard as they slam Stark.

    If you see the video of the Chron editorial board interviewing Stark you will see that the pathetic old man has lost his grip on reality.

  • moderate voter

    I first encountered Pete Stark campaigning in 1968. He appeared at a debate at my high school – De La Salle – he was then running for State Senate. Stark has run for office in the 60’s, the 70’s, the 80′, the 90’s, the 2000’s and now he’s running again in this decade. His political career spans six decades!
    Amazingly, in this story by Josh Richmond Stark is coy about whether or not he intends to retire anytime soon. Josh couldn’t pin him down about a retirement date. Stark also says that’s he’s got unfinished business in Washington, even though his political career spans 60 years! Geez, you’d think he would have wound up things up in six decades. I mean that’s longer than it took to build the pyramids.
    I think the real thing going on here is Stark just doesn’t want to leave. He likes his job, it’s cushy, the pays great, you get your name in the paper all the time. The fact that he’s never been terribly good at the job – he has a reputation for being a notorious bumbler in DC – well that’s not his problem, that’s the problem his constituents.
    Look it’s no accident the San Francisco Chronicle just endorsed this 32 year old Alameda County prosecutor Erik Swalwell. It’s time for Pete Stark to go. At age 81 he’s way, way over the hill, he’s just not effective, and hasn’ t been for at least a decade. You can serve too long in Congress, Stark is a poster child for this. I mean Stark’s s over-the-top bufoonish behavior in this campaign is the talk of Washington.
    Congress benefits by having new blood, you keep the same people in office year after year you get stagnation. Senority – that’s great sometimes, but so is change, you put new people in Congress and you get change. Like the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board I think 32 year old Eric Swalwell is the right choice for the 15 district.

  • Truthclubber

    @3 —

    News Flash!

    Rabid Reactionary Neo-Con Quotes Leftist Yellow Journalism Rag in Support of Political Point to Blog!

    Does So Despite Recent Sarcastic Criticism of Same Source, Accusing It of Tokenism Regarding Staff!

    (Film at 11)

  • JohnW

    Once the new district boundaries were established, and Swalwell threw his hat into the ring, it should have been obvious to Khanna, Corbett and the local Dem party establishment that giving Stark a pass was a really dumb idea. As the saying goes, “snooze, you lose.” Lucky Eric!

  • Truthclubber

    @6 —

    While I agree that Swalwell seems to have the “Big Mo'” on his side, I doubt that all of the 2014 wannabe candidates (Khanna, Corbett, and I’m sure there are others lusting to be a member of one big 435 member committee — aka the US House of Representatives) are going to just sit idly by on their hands and watch this electoral travesty (aka “a cakewalk by a less-than-one-term Dublin councilmember into Congress”) take place.

    Khanna alone has over $1.1MM in cash on hand as of the end of last year for a 2014 election run, and raised over $1.2MM in just the 4th quarter of 2011 — so he has the option of either (a) “returning” that money to his very loyal supporters with a pre-paid, filled-out envelope to ease their “re-direct” of that money to Stark’s campaign, along with his letter “encouraging” them to do so, or (b) waiting out the 2012 storm, piling up that much more money, and trying to unseat a very green, one-term member of Congress (Swalwell) with a little help from his friends (like Vinod Khosla, for example).

    Meanwhile, ol’ Pete is no slouch at the money raising — he had close to $600K in cash on hand at the end of 2011, compared to a meager $89K for Swalwell, and can expect to see efforts by Khanna, Corbett and others to fatten that coffer between now and November (see notes above as one idea among many).

    Net, net: As much as we poli-wonks like to think that the rest of the electorate is as astute as we are, they ain’t — and it’s gonna take lots and lots and lots of moola to get that word out about how “ol’ Pete is loonier than the loose change in a Canadian bank”, especially if a lot of noise about how green and untested, and unsupported by the California Democratic Party Mr. Swalwell (aka Mr. Swal-who?) is.

    This race is fast becoming one of “show me the (Mega-)MONEY!” — and unless Swalwell wins an upcoming PowerBall, he is in for very rough sledding as the powers-that-be figure out what is happening.

  • Truthclubber

    @7 —

    Update to self; here’s the latest from fec.gov on the folks mentioned above, and how fat (or thin) their respective wallets are for this mudfight (rounded up to nearest $1,000):

    Candidate: Cash-on-hand, 3/31/12 Debt, 3/31/12
    Khanna $1,110,000 <$1,000
    Stark $ 551,000 $0
    Corbett $ 104,000 $0

    Above total: $1,765,000 $1,000

    Swalwell $ 93,000 $9,000

    Pareja $ 1,000 $0

    Don’t know what the FEC rules are on one candidate (say Khanna, or Corbett) using their campaign money to say “here’s what I like about Pete;” or “here’s what I really hate about Eric”; — but I suspect that if the money is raised legitimately, one can say pretty much anything…after all, since that lovely Citizens United ruling by SCOTUS, it’s “Free Speech!”

  • Cindy Corrello Hilke

    Congressman Stark has been on the right side of every vote that matters to the people he serves. His leadership on health care reform, civil rights, and standing up for working families in Alameda County is without equal. I have been shocked to see your recent attacks on the Congressman, and stunned to see your endorsement of his opponent. For those of us that actually live in his district, we will endorse Pete with our vote in June.

  • Elwood

    Yo, Cindy!

    Care to place any money on that one?

    Here are some words and phrases which describe old Starkers:






    This is a fun game which any number can play! Feel free to jump in!

  • JohnW

    We get to go through Stark v Swalwell twice. First in June and again in November. The June vote is fairly meaningless, except as an indicator of how much residual support Stark has in the district after all the recent noise.

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    Cindy is right, Pete has served his district well in peace and war.Why, it seems like only yesterday when Pete warned us not to over-react when the “Lusitania ” was sunk.

  • Josh Richman

    Re:#9 – Cindy, I think you probably know both of these things better than most of our readers, but for the record:
    a.) We’ve made no “recent attacks” on the congressman – we’ve accurately reported his unsubstantiated claims. Not even the congressman has disputed the veracity of our coverage.
    b.) I have nothing to do with our endorsement process.