PHOTO/Joseph Geha

CONGRESS | “It’s good to be home,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, addressing nearly 100 residents in Hayward Saturday attending his first day of town hall meetings. “I grew up in this area, I know it really well, and I think my most important responsibility is to update you, to inform you, and most importantly to listen to you about the issues.”

March 2 marked the House representative’s first town hall meetings since taking office on Jan. 3. The double feature, which started in the early morning in Pleasanton and concluded in Hayward, exposed a constituency increasingly concerned about gun control, social security, the welfare of veterans and domestic drones among others issues.

Swalwell listens to an animated constituent,
Mar. 2, in Pleasanton. PHOTO/Joseph Geha

Swalwell began the town hall meetings by stating his three legislative priorities for this year: enabling local economic development through advancing local infrastructure, promoting clean energy jobs, and developing comprehensive immigration reform.

After the twofold hour and a half long forums, what resulted was a seemingly overwhelming majority of residents in both locations enamored with the young congressman, many applauding him for his “energy” during his first sixty days in office. Yet, with the acclamation came a long list of requests from citizens expecting a great deal from the young politician who defeated a man who held the office since 1973.

Swalwell seemed adamant to prove himself to residents through his “Main Street Revival,” a plan to pursue infrastructure spending and seek investment in revitalizing businesses in areas weakened by the recession and whose residents suffer from high unemployment. For businesses with 50 employees or less that operate in one of these areas, according to the plan they will receive tax deferments for the first two years. Swalwell believes those years are “crucial” to growth and development for small business owners and the communities they work in. In turn, Swalwell claims his plan will not only help small business owners and the economic growth of cities, but also add to local job growth.

Swalwell told The Citizen that although it’s not going to be “the panacea” for economic development, it’s targeted on areas that were once supported by a $10-million redevelopment agency fund, which was dissolved by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011 due to budget cuts. “It’s going to take a lot of work,” he said. If passed, this will be his first bill of which he is planning to propose in the “coming weeks,” adding that Hayward and San Lorenzo, in particular, stand to benefit the most from it.

Gun control was the most popular issue of the day at both the Pleasanton and Hayward town halls. Residents on both ends of the issue persistently probed the congressman on his stance on assault weapons and principally the Assault Weapons Ban introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Jan. 24. The bill proposes to stop the sale, transfer, importation and manufacturing of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition feeding devices.

Hayward residents, including Councilman Mark Salinas and
Asm Bill Quirk, Mar. 2, at the Swalwell town hall in Hayward.
PHOTO/Joseph Geha

The issue of what defines an assault weapon was heavily and fervently contested amongst residents. Swalwell related he was an original co-sponsor of the Assault Weapons Ban and believes reform needs to be done in a way that still “honors the second amendment.”

“I’ve been around guns my whole life,” said Swalwell referring to his father who was a police officer, and acknowledging his younger brother who currently is a police officer.

“I think that we can respect the second amendment, we can allow people to protect their homes, we can allow people to hunt, we can allow people to shoot for sport, but we can still take reasonable measures like universal background checks by providing more funding for the mentally ill, giving more funding to schools for school resource officers and taking weapons of war or weapons that have high capacity magazines off the street,” Swalwell said in Hayward.

One resident from Pleasanton told Swalwell a story of finding armed burglars attempting to break into his car. He told Swalwell that the Assault Weapons Ban limits the rights of citizens and is not clear in how it will prevent potential criminals, especially the mentally disabled, from acquiring these guns. Swalwell’s strongest argument of the day stemmed from this issue, as he afforded Pleasanton residents his extended viewpoints on the subject matter. Swalwell believes they are “weapons of war” and the pistol grip, the part of the firearm held by the hand and orients the hand in a forward, vertical orientation, similar to the position one would take with a conventional pistol such as the Glock pistol is “the characteristic that makes it most dangerous” because of its quicker accessibility and an easier capability of “spraying a crowd.”

“If we can take these weapons off the street, keep over 90 percent of the weapons that are already out there off the streets, I think we will mitigate gun violence in America. It’s not going to eliminate all gun violence, I’m not foolish or naïve but I do think these weapons [assault] have no business on our streets,” he said.

In terms of immigration reform, Swalwell called for reform, including deporting violent criminals but also a path to citizenship for law-abiding undocumented immigrants. Also saying he prefers the term “undocumented” to “illegal,” Swalwell expressed he believes it is an issue that affects an incredibly vast ethnic population with a multitude of different needs.

Social security was a pressing issue as well in both Pleasanton and Hayward, considering the overwhelming majority of attendees were either at or close to the retirement age. Seemingly much to the approval of residents, Swalwell said he is “committed to making sure that we protect and strengthen social security,” and supports raising the cap on social security. Due to its regressive tax nature, Swalwell stated he wants to raise the cap so wealthier Americans are not exempt from paying into social security.  Currently, a worker who makes twice the Social Security wage cap – $213,600 per year – pays Social Security tax on only half of his or her earnings, and one who makes just over a million dollars per year pays the tax on only about a tenth. Raising the Social Security cap – which would make some or all earnings above $106,800 subject to the Social Security tax – a move Swalwell says will help alleviate Social Security’s long-term budget shortfall.

It was clear by the end of Saturday that residents in the 15th congressional district were concerned with security and health related issues. However, the looming and highly controversial issue of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office possibly purchasing two domestic drones to be used for “law enforcement” purposes in the county was only brought up once by a Hayward resident, to which Swalwell responded by saying “nobody wants an aerial vehicle hovering over their house,” and doesn’t want to see an “abuse” of civil liberties like that, adding we need to make sure our civil liberties keep up with technology. In short, Swalwell did not provide a definite statement short of saying he is going to “continue to look at what we can do.”

When asked by The Citizen what he thought the issue of drones meant for Alameda County, Swalwell diverted and ignored the questions by saying that local jobs were “the biggest issue” and saying his priority is “getting people working in sustainable jobs.” Previous statements made by Swalwell on drones have also been empty, as he told The Citizen last week “he hopes the use of local drones will be within constitutional boundaries but voiced no opposition to their use.”

What was clear from Saturday was a young congressman eager to please, shaking the hands and kissing the babies with promises left and right. “I love doing this,” he said at the end of the Hayward meeting. “I promise I will always listen to you, I will always stand up for you, I’ll never take you for granted, and just let me know what I can do to be helpful.”

Natalia Aldana is an East Bay Citizen contributor.