Acrimony and Threats Dog Stark at Town Halls

Supporters of possible Tea Party independent candidate for Congress Chris Pareja hold a demonstration last Saturday morning before Rep. Pete Stark’s town hall meeting in Hayward. 

By Steven Tavares

As his constituents shuffled into the Hayward City Hall chambers Saturday morning, the first thing they saw was Rep. Pete Stark dressed casually in an orange button-up shirt and khakis. He was propped on a stool like an animatronic statesman. He smiled and greeted a few as the took the seats in the first few rows. Steve Kemp, the now famous Golden Gate Minuteman who Stark asked last month at another town hall meeting whether he had killed anybody that day, was back with his video camera hoping to capture another quip sure to rile the Tea Party patriots around the country (he may have).

Seated next to Kemp was Tim Goeppner, a Hayward resident who calls himself a political activist. With a shaved head and goatee Goeppner has the look of a someone you don’t want to mess with, although his bespectacled eyes lend themselves to a man in his forties past his brawling prime, meaning his bark nowadays is better utilized than his bite.

Ten minutes before the first of two town hall meetings in his district, Stark scanned the filling room that would eventually hit its 160-person capacity. Stark’s attention turned towards Kemp and Goeppner who were positioning their cameras nearby with small, unobtrusive single-legged stands. As one of Stark’s aides passed by, he motioned him over. The aide leaned in and Stark ostensibly gave him instructions to remove the camera stands. The aide paused and politely asked both men to not use the accessory during the meeting. Both gave no outward sense of disagreement and began twisting them loose.

Stark congenially spoke up and joked to the men, “It’s so you don’t hit me over the head with it,” he said with a wide grin. Goeppner glared at the congressman for a second and said, “I don’t need a camera to do that.” The aide later said he clearly heard Goeppner’s comment, assessed the situation and determine the threat benign. After the 90-minute meeting, Goeppner said the much-publicized video of Stark disparaging one of his constituent so incensed him that he was compelled to see Stark in person. He denied the remark was a threat and when asked if he thought the the group inside represented a small minority of the 13th Congressional District, he said no. “He gets re-elected because he has all the illegals voting for him,” Goeppner said.

It was kind of like that all morning as primarily conservative and Tea Party activists barraged Stark with an unfettered litany of catcalls and insults primarily in Hayward, but also to some extent at his next stop at Alameda’s City Hall.

“You’re delusional!”

“You’re senile!”

“What is it about freedom you don’t like?”

“You have gone off the rails!” various people said in Hayward.

One woman who only described herself as a nurse in her forties from Alameda continually levied a barrage of invective at Stark that eventually tested the patients of the calmer, smaller group of about 50 in Alameda.

“You’re an idiot,” she said, body curled on a seat in the front row of the chamber no more than seven feet away from her target.

“Fool!” she later added and “I hope you get your butt kicked out of office.”

Two police officers in Alameda and Stark’s staff, though, let the woman continue to interrupt the proceedings, but in some ways the congressman with nearly 40 years of experience on Capitol Hill has made himself a target of such vitriol with biting rejoinders of his own on display on YouTube and also apparent Saturday.

When the same woman questioned Stark about a part of the health care reform he snidely asked her, “Did you learn that in nursing school?” Another time after she become utterly incorrigible, he made the off-cuff remark to others in attendance, “Every so often there’s reapportionment, so someone else might get her.”

In Hayward, a man interrupted Stark saying, “You’re talking in circles, Pete.” The response ignited a few chuckles. Stark shot back, “Your reasoning may be circular, but you’ll catch up.” The comebacks, though strengthen a strong feeling among Tea Party activists that Stark has little respect for their opinions and give fuel to the idea prevalent among conservatives that elite liberals have a systematic disdain for their ideology.
“We did not vote for a king. We expect him to treat us with respect,” said Chris Pareja, who needs to gather 9,500 signatures by Aug. 6 to oppose Stark on the November ballot as a Tea Party independent. An hour before the Hayward town hall, Pareja and over 30 people carried signs in protest of Stark’s recent bad behavior in addition to his part in recent landmark health care reform bill. Pareja encouraged the group to not let Stark “berate and belittle you,” while also calling for him to issue an apology to Kemp for his comments last month. “People want to stand up against what I call out of control government,” said Pareja, who believes the anger felt by the Tea Party is also prevalent among others in the district further to the left of the political spectrum.
Stark may have made news in the coming days for some of America’s most popular conservative talking heads when Kemp’s cameras captured him saying “the federal government can do anything it wants.” The comments drove a few into a uncontrollable rage, but Stark did not flinch as three people pressed him on the comment. Stark eventually clarified his statement arguing citizens are protected by the Constitution. “If the government does something unconstitutional that would be under review,” but many in Hayward appear to view the federal government as more a monolith than friend these days.

Although very few at the town halls voiced much liberal backup for Stark, a few shouted at Tea Partiers to allow Stark to answer questions. In Alameda, a thin elderly man stood and addressed Stark and the group with a clearly enunciated Northeastern accent saying, “I thank you for putting up with this imbroglio,” he then directed his statement to the belligerent woman in front to her dismay. “Ma’am, I am appalled by your manners.” Another said he often times disagreed with Stark’s politics, but agreed the demeanor of many in attendance was disrespectful to a member of congress. It was not only the opinion of Stark who elicited rancor from the group. A woman who identified herself as a member of SEIU was shouted down by people in Hayward when she spoke. “Lock her out of the room,” a man was overheard saying to his neighbor.

Some part of Stark’s irritation with points of view incongruent with his own and exhibited at recent town hall meetings may stem from numerous either uninformed or preposterous declarations brought forth. One man with a handle bar mustache and black Harley Davidson t-shirt insisted the health care bill gave the federal government the authority to track his personal bank account. When Stark protested that no such provision existed, the man continued by saying the faux surveillance measure also used global-positioning software to track the accounts of Americans. Another woman in Alameda assured Stark the same bill included a provision forcing people who purchase more than $600 worth of gold to report it to the government. “Is this 1933 with F.D.R.?” she proclaimed. “Are they going to confiscate our gold now?” Stark assured the woman no provision existed in the health care bill, but the woman insisted and vowed to return next month armed with the offending section of the new law. “Oh, uh huh,” Stark slowly said, “I’ll look forward to that.”