Pete Stark, 40-year East Bay congressman and progressive icon, dies

Pete Stark, the Walnut Creek community banker who parlayed his opposition to the Vietnam War into an unprecedented 40-year run representing the East Bay in Congress, died Friday at his home in Maryland, the family announced. He was 88.

“Today, America has lost a champion of the people and a leader of great integrity, moral courage and compassion. Congressman Pete Stark was a master legislator who used his gavel to give a voice to the voiceless, and he will be deeply missed by Congress, Californians and all Americans,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said,  in a statement Friday night.

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Few have served the East Bay longer and with more distinction than Stark. During the four decades representing congressional district’s that shifted from Oakland, San Leandro, Hayward, the Tri-Valley, and Fremont, Stark’s brand of progressive politics proved to set the stage for the region’s current undeniably lefty ideology.

He was an early advocate, going back the early 1970s, on issues that still resonate in the current political discourse of the nation. Primarily, removing endless military entanglements and improving health care for all. In addition, Stark was a strong early supporter of LGBT rights, and always a defender of minorities, and the poor.

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Stark in 1972.

Stark began his political career when he defeated George Miller, a long-serving East Bay Democratic congressman, in the primary, and then beat Republican Lew Warden in the general election. Miller had maintained his support for continuing the Vietnam War, which Stark disagreed. Prior to that, Stark founded a bank in Walnut Creek and gained some notoriety when he erected a peace sign on its roof.

Stark’s victory in 1972 came along with a wave of other freshman congressmembers who had opposed the war. His opposition to wars of any kind was a constant theme during his time in Washington. In the aftermath of the Iraq War, Stark supported reinstituting the draft out of a belief that those with means would likely avoid the personal consequences of war. “If we’re going to have these escapades, we should not do it on the backs of poor people and minorities,” he said.

Following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stark took heat for suggesting during a speech on the House floor that President George W. Bush enjoyed sending to troops to get killed. “You don’t have money to fund the war or children. But you’re going to spend it to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement,” Stark said. Republicans in the House tried unsuccessfully to censure Stark for his remarks.

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It was not the first and not last incendiary comment Stark would make. The comment and others may have led to Stark serving as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee for just one day in 2010.

But his tell-it-like-it-is rhetoric was often music to the ears of progressives in his district and the nation, while infuriating his opponents. During a congressional town hall in Fremont, an upset, likely conservative senior, berated Stark and told him, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me its raining.” Stark quickly responded, “I wouldn’t dignify you by peeing on your leg. It wouldn’t be worth wasting the urine.” To East Bay progressives, it remains a classic Stark retort that embodied his fighting spirit. For conservatives, it was an example of Beltway superiority and divisive politics.

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Stark often had little patience with those who stood in the way of his ideas for providing greater health care and social services to not just the neediest of Americans, but all of them.

Long before Medicare for All was a progressive talking point, Stark supported a universal single-payer health care program. His advocacy over the years provided the building blocks of what led to the Affordable Care Act being signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010.

In 1986, Stark authored the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. It’s better known to employees as COBRA, the law that allows workers to remain on their former employer’s health insurance until they find another job.

Earlier, he led the effort to prohibit doctors from referring patients to clinics in which they or a family member had a financial interest. The anti-kickback legislation is named the “Stark Law.” However, the Trump administration has recently attempted to weaken the law.

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Stark’s congressional career, however, did not have the ending many progressives in the East Bay believed he deserved. When California approved the use of an independent congressional redistricting commission to redrawn its borders in 2010, the decision to cobble together the Hayward and Fremont areas of Central Alameda County with the Tri-Valley proved to be Stark’s demise.

Eric Swalwell, a then virtually unknown first-term Dublin councilmember successfully used Stark’s age and the lengthy list of insults, quips, and commentary against him. Stark was also somewhat of an unknown quantity to Tri-Valley residents in the new 15th District. While Stark won the June primary in 2012, Swalwell won the general election rematch in November.

“Pete Stark gave the East Bay decades of public service as a voice in Congress for working people. His knowledge of policy, particularly health care, and his opposition to unnecessary wars demonstrated his deep care and spirit. Our community mourns his loss,” Swalwell said, in a statement Friday night.

Rep. Barbara Lee, who worked along side Stark as a formidable pair representing the Democratic Party’s left flank, and who furiously opposed war, bad farewell to him on Twitter on Saturday morning.

“Pete Stark was a powerful voice for everyday families in the East Bay and around the country. His tireless work on health care & his fierce opposition to war helped make our country a better place. He will be missed,” Lee said

Fremont and Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna, who in many ways has taken up the progressive mantle left by Stark in Central and Southern Alameda County, praised his service and political foresight.

“Pete Stark was a giant. He opposed the Vietnam and Iraq wars. He was for single payer before it was popular. He was a friend and mentor and helped build the progressive movement, even when it was lonely,” Khanna said, in a statement.

In Congress, Stark was indeed lonely, at least, on the spiritual front. In 2007, Stark revealed that he was an atheist, making him the first member of Congress to acknowledge he did not believe in a supreme being.

Fortney “Pete” Stark was born in Milwaukee, Wis. in 1931. He graduated from M.I.T and served two years in the Air Force. Afterwards, he received a MBA from U.C. Berkeley.

He is survived by his wife, Deborah Roderick Stark, seven children, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

For more information visit PeteStarkMemorial.org.