What ‘Corbett for Congress’ Really Means

Sept. 19, 2011 | Rep. Pete Stark’s future in Congress has long been one of the East Bay’s great parlor games. Will he one day set the stage for his wife to further his four decades in Washington? Might he stick it out for the remote chance his teenage son could take over the family business? There have always been a myriad number of candidates too numerous to count with dreams to supplant Stark in the House, but then there’s constant delicious whispers of what happens if someone employs a type of  “nuclear option” where one big name regardless of past loyalties and ideology makes a bold move within Stark’s own party.

That scenario may have come last week when State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett filed with the Federal Elections Commission to form a political committee for Stark’s Congressional seat. Unless Corbett plans to move out of the district, what comes next is anybody’s guess, but many political insiders have long described the possibility of an insurrection against Stark. Such a move might lead to a political bloodbath unseen in these parts and featuring nearly every East Bay politician of any stripe throwing their hat in the race. Here’s what Corbett’s bold move might mean:

2012 OR 2014? The organization formed Sept. 9 is named “Corbett for Congress.” Some political committees name their organization in tandem with the year, but Corbett left hers generic. The formation of the committee took Stark’s team by surprise, according to sources. They may not of been aware of Corbett’s move until last weekend. Such a sneak attack will likely be greeted with anger from Stark.

Recent chatter has centered on a possible challenge from a portion of Stark’s district recently drawn to include the more moderate Tri-Valley area. Dublin’s freshman Councilman Eric Swalwell filed a campaign statement for Stark’s seat. Although Swalwell is young and highly inexperience, his brand of politics is already well-suited for the Tri-Valley area and he has impressed many in the early stages of his possible campaign. The demographic of the Tri-Valley is problematic for Stark, but not viewed as a deal breaker, at least, not yet.

In light of Corbett’s surprise, Stark may have been caught looking to the east rather than under his nose. Swalwell’s run, if anything, clearly highlights Stark’s undeniable Achilles Heel–his age. Almost 80, Stark was seen Saturday at a town hall in Hayward walking slumped over with the help of a cane.

A weekend informal poll of observers believe Corbett’s committee merely allows her to begin beefing up her campaign coffers for a run in 2014 when she is termed out of the state senate. The filing can be read many ways, but it may say to Stark: 2012 is your last campaign for congress–retire by 2014 or face a rigorous challenge.

The move is uncommonly ballsy for Corbett for its boldness and past loyalty to Stark. In the East Bay, there is Team Lockyer and there is Team Stark. Corbett has long been allied with Stark far more than the group aligned with Lockyer, which includes rival Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi. This dynamic makes Corbett’s move even more shocking absent a backroom deal with Stark.

IS STARK REALLY THAT VULNERABLE? It is very difficult to imagine an 18-time congressman who just last year won 70 percent of his district would be vulnerable. The district has not changed enough through redistricting to make a difference in 2012 and Stark is still beloved in this area for independent liberal streak. Even at 79 Stark is still very well in tune with the ideology of his constituents. An attitude of change for change sake leads some to believe Corbett’s move is a message. In effect saying thank you for 40 years of work in Congress which reached its pinnacle last year with the landmark health care reform bill of which he helped craft, but it’s time to go, Pete.

It could be a Machiavellian political move by Corbett. Many view her as the rightful heir to Stark’s seat. At town halls and public meetings across the district, many of the same people who declare immense love for Stark also heap the same amount of affection on Corbett. Starting in 1994 as a mayoral candidate in San Leandro, Corbett’s career trajectory has also led to this point. In an interview with The Citizen earlier this year she confirmed her interest for moving up to the next tier in the political ladder, whatever that may be. She had clear interest in Secretary of State office this year when it appeared Debra Bowen was in driver’s seat for Rep. Jane Harman’s open seat in Congress. That shot at statewide office fell through when Bowen eventually lost the special election. Obviously, the newest calculation is Stark’s seat, but she is not alone in coveting the title of congress member.

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY The next name to follow is Hayashi, who also views Congress as her destiny. Many have said it is Hayashi’s goal, among many, to be the first Korean-American member of the House. She’s also out of a job after next year. Many have speculated what Hayashi might do during the two-year gap leading to 2014. She could run for Corbett’s open seat that year or also make a move for Stark’s seat. If Corbett is in, most say, Hayashi has to follow. The inclusion of Hayashi in any race would also make for a brutal primary. Known as a cutthroat politician, she would likely turn any head-to-head campaign with Corbett into a nasty affair. Although Corbett’s kind smile and demeanor belie a shrewd politician any knife fight with Hayashi might spill more Democratic blood than local officials could handle. Outside of Hayashi, the list of possible names interested in Stark’s seat is too numerous to list. So long, in fact, that the number of those not interested would be way shorter than those who are.

The East Bay political scene appears to be heading toward a reorganization that no Citizens’ Redistricting Commission could have created. Instead, we may be seeing something unique to this region–a visible delineation in the road where the past violently merges into the future.