Maryland grad and California prosecutor challenges House veteran Pete Stark

December 28, 2011

His hair is a little shorter than when he donned a wig and Hawaiian shirt eight years ago, dressing up as “Bahama Bob” and mocking Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) for considering cuts to education funding and then heading for a vacation in the Bahamas.

But Eric Swalwell, a former University of Maryland student government vice president and Maryland law school graduate, hasn’t given up on political activism. The 31-year-old prosecutor and City Council member in Northern California is doing what many student government types do when they join the real world: He’s seeking higher office.

And he’s looking for support near his old stamping ground in College Park as he seeks to shake up his own party’s establishment by unseating veteran House Democrat Pete Stark (Calif.).

Among those aiding Swalwell is the vice chairman of the Prince George’s County Council, Eric Olson (D-College Park), who has known Swalwell since Swalwell became the first student liaison to the College Park City Council.

Now, encouraged by his success in local California politics and emboldened by changes in the state’s primary system, Swalwell is seeking national office.

“The voters are looking for some new energy and some new ideas,” Swalwell said on a recent trip to Washington to raise money and meet with potential supporters before his primary in June.

California has adopted a system in which all candidates from all parties compete in the primary and the top two winners face off in November’s general election. The system has been challenged in court, but if it survives, Stark and Swalwell may end up running against each other twice. So far, Swalwell, who announced his candidacy in September, is Stark’s only announced challenger.

Redistricting, which in California was done by a citizens group rather than state party leaders, has left Stark in what one expert says is “less comfortable” territory but not one that should cause him big problems.

“He would be the favorite,” said San Jose State University political scientist Larry Gerston. “He should be fairly comfortable, although it will not be as comfortable for him as it was in the past.”

The newly drawn district in the East Bay area near San Francisco is 49 percent Democrat, 24 percent Republican and 23 percent undeclared, which Gerston said could chip into Stark’s traditional base. Although there are more-experienced politicians waiting in the wings for Stark to retire, Swalwell figured that the new district gave him an opportunity to jump in now.

Swalwell politely sidesteps questions about his youth vs. Stark’s experience, but he points out that Stark was passed over by his colleagues to head the House Ways and Means Committee, although he remained head of the powerful health subcommittee. Swalwell says he is closer to the pulse of the district, which redistricting made less Democratic.

“People are looking for someone who is connected to the district,” Swalwell said. He said he’s not sure that Stark’s firebrand liberalism will play well in the changed district.

The campaign, he estimates, could easily cost $1 million. So far, he has raised about $100,000, he said, mostly from supporters close to home. Detailed campaign-finance reports are due by Dec. 31.

Stark, 80, was first elected to the House in 1972. When he announced his bid for his 21st term, he said he was eager to serve his new constituents.

“I’m committed to representing my new district with the same level of service, responsiveness and representation my constituents have come to rely on during my tenure in Congress,” he said.

Stark has substantial seniority (fifth in the House) and about $550,000 in his campaign war chest. Through a spokeswoman, Stark declined to comment on the race.

For the past year, Swalwell has been a member of the City Council in Dublin, Calif., where he grew up. Previously, he served on the planning commission in Dublin, a city of about 80,000 residents about 25 miles southeast of Oakland. He says these experiences, coupled with his term as student liaison to the College Park City Council while he was at U-Md., have helped him understand that seeking common ground is crucial in politics.

“How can we work together versus working against each other,” he said.

As a council member in Dublin, Swalwell has supported efforts to create tax incentives and defer fees for businesses as the community near the Lawrence Livermore Labs tried to retain and create other local jobs. He has also worked on trying to establish Dublin as a “gateway” to local wineries to attract tourist dollars.

Swalwell’s interest in government was evident early.

As a student leader at U-Md., he helped College Park establish a new system for giving Maryland students a voice in local affairs. Students had run unsuccessfully for years for the City Council. Swalwell thought a nonvoting student liaison position might be something that the community and local leaders could accept, and he worked with then-City Council member Olson to get the position established.

“He was very attuned to what the concerns of city residents were,” Olson said. A former congressional staffer, Olson has helped Swalwell make connections in Washington to prospective supporters.

“I would stay to this day we are still benefiting from his influence. He and a group of students who came after him really improved a lot of the relationships between town and gown,” Olson said.

Stephanie Stullich, now on the College Park City Council, said that Swalwell could charm older residents with his earnest demeanor and suggestions about ways to help the community. She recalled Swalwell’s efforts to enlist fraternity and sorority members as well as other students in a weekly Sunday morning cleanup after campus parties.

“People were really pleased with that. It was a practical solution to one specific problem. It was also a way for students to do community service,” Stullich said.

Even if it doesn’t work out for Swalwell this time around, allies such as Stullich say he has a future in politics.

“I was not at all surprised to hear that he is running for higher office. We thought he was someone who would go far,” she said.

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