PHOTO/Shane Bond ILLUSTRATION/Steven Tavares
CONGRESS//15TH DISTRICT | In 2012, Eric Swalwell had everything go right for him. A lengthy list of East Bay Democrats put off challenging 40-year incumbent Pete Stark last year, state redistricting soften up the then 13th Congressional District into a slightly lighter shade of blue and his opponent virtually imploded without explanation. The rise of Swalwell came about through an inexplicable perfect storm. So, how does the young moderate Democrat replicate the fortunate events of 2012? He can’t. However, earlier indications suggest Swalwell will run for re-election next year on a platform that conjures the ghost of Stark, primarily labeling his Democratic opponent, State Sen. Ellen Corbett, as a vote for the past.
In an email last week to supporters, Swalwell highlighted the $2,000 contribution from Stark’s former re-election committee to Corbett’s campaign to create a link between the two long-time progressives. “Last week, Pete Stark donated thousands of dollars to my Primary Election opponent, in the hopes that she will serve his 21st term in Congress and the East Bay will once again have a representative just like him,” the solicitation for campaign contributions said. “Let’s show Pete Stark that his days of dictating East Bay politics are over.” Later in the email, Swalwell boiled down his 2014 campaign playbook to a single sentence. “Pete Stark’s hand-picked successor is a step backwards we can’t afford.” A few days later, Swalwell’s campaign Twitter account featured a photo of him chatting with a constituent, along with the caption, “Giving voters a choice: keep moving forward or back to tired, same old ways.”There is a problem, tough. Corbett is not Stark, by any means. She is widely known as courteous, approachable and accomplished. Most importantly, she has never been prone to the “diarrhea of the mouth” moments that riddled Stark, not just in last year’s election, but for the last 20 years.
Despite his youthful choir boy persona, Swalwell is actually a very aggressive campaigner—downright dirty, at times. A year ago, he got away with labeling the 80-year-old Stark as “out of touch” and slow-minded. Deploying such hateful ageism was very risky, but Stark’s behavior may have squandered any sympathy. Apparently, he will try sexism this time around. A lone female candidate is always problematic for a male opponent and implying, like he did in his tweet this week, a middle-aged woman is “tired” is asking for trouble. Will women voters pick up on Swalwell’s sly sexism? Likely. But, he won’t be actually running against Corbett as much as trying to talk up Stark and the baggage he still carries, since what are the alternatives?
Swalwell is a freshman member of congress who through one year in office has accomplished zero. A PowerPoint he employs at town hall meetings is cringe-worthy in its struggles to show any achievement other than representing youthful potential at some point in time. In all fairness, it is expected. He is one of 535 members and one without any seniority or precise ideological bent. Running on experience is, of course, foolhardy. Not only does Corbett have a long resume of legislation in Sacramento, she also beats him on a personal and private level, which also makes the sexism gambit a perilous move. As a single mother who juggled raising a son with, first, serving as mayor of San Leandro and later with terms in both houses of the State Legislature, Corbett’s private life is overflowing with positive cues not only to women voters, but males, too.
The “do you really want to change horses in midstream?” plan and “Back to the Future” gambit is Swalwell’s only good moves, but also telling ones. It suggests his campaign again sees trouble in the district’s more progressive areas around Hayward. Why? How can you raise the ghost of Stark with any success in Hayward? It’s an area Swalwell was not competitive last time around. However, the key for Swalwell is again in the more moderate Tri Valley. During the recent government shutdown, Swalwell was forceful in opposition to the Tea Party, a small, but very vocal group in the district, that raised hell in opposition to Stark over the past three years. Will they flee from Swalwell next year? It might not matter, at least, in the June primary since there does not appear to be a Republican candidate like Chris Pareja for that conservative bloc to go. In the meantime, the strategy to repeatedly link Corbett to Stark comes into play, especially with low-information voters who only recall their distaste for Stark only one year ago.
As a House incumbent, Swalwell should not be beatable. However, his luck could be starting to run out because the only person in the entire East Bay who could possible make him a one-term congressman is Corbett. After only two years on the sleepy Dublin City Council, Swalwell sits in D.C. It didn’t happen without him selling his soul. Time will tell which apparition comes back to haunt him first: Stark or the Devil calling in his chits.