DUBLIN, Calif. — On the morning that Rep. Charles Rangel—the embattled 82-year-old New York Democrat—won his party’s nomination for the 22nd time, Eric Swalwell grabbed a copy of The New York Times and tucked it into his bag.
Swalwell, a 31-year-old Democratic congressional candidate in California, is undertaking a dragon-slaying effort of his own this year. He is the upstart challenger to Rep. Pete Stark, the liberal 20-term veteran from the San Francisco Bay Area. The Rangel newspaper clipping, now pinned on the wall of his campaign office—a single 10-foot-by-10-foot room—is a reminder, for himself and his small staff, of the magnitude of the undertaking.
“The power of incumbency cannot be underestimated,” he said.
But three months out from the election, the tea leaves in California show that a Stark upset could be brewing. Swalwell opened eyes with his strong showing in the June primary, when he finished fewer than 6 percentage points behind Stark. The state’s new top-two primary system allowed both Democrats to advance to November.
“Act 1, as I call it,” Swalwell said of the 42.1 percent-to-36.2 percent result in June.
The fall race is shaping up as a classic generational duel: young versus old. Swalwell began the year by running in six 5-kilometer races across the district, a circuit his campaign dubbed the “race for change.”
Stark, 80, is familiar with such a playbook. It’s just the kind of thing his own campaign did—40 years ago—when he was the fresh-faced alternative to then-81-year-old incumbent George Miller. That year, Stark called Miller “a man whose ideas petrified years ago.” Swalwell is saying much the same these days.
Now, it’s Team Stark touting experience as an asset. “It’s a liability in tough times like these if the people in the 15th Congressional District send a rookie to Congress,” Stark campaign strategist Michael Terris said.
But Stark’s bid has been damaged by his own stumbles and the run of bad headlines they’ve produced. He accused Swalwell of taking bribes without evidence; he later apologized. He accused a local opinion columnist of donating to his opponent without evidence; he later apologized. This month, he berated former state Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico for endorsing his opponent—including threatening his family and livelihood, according to Torrico. Stark said he had been baited.
In recent weeks, prominent local Democrats, led by former Rep. Ellen Tauscher and former state Senate leader Don Perata, have publicly endorsed Swalwell for the first time.
“Stark is viewed as being in pretty serious trouble,” said Darry Sragow, a California Democratic strategist. “The rap is his time has come and gone.”
As a result of his missteps, Stark has been largely cloistered from the press and his constituents. Stark has suggested he won’t debate Swalwell again (their first debate resulted in the false bribery charge). His campaign declined multiple requests for an interview, and in the first week of congressional recess he had no public events his office would speak of.
The little-known Swalwell, meanwhile, is crisscrossing the district to introduce himself. On a recent evening, he displayed a political knack for trying to make a connection with everyone he engaged in conversation, drawing on either his years as a local district attorney (where he “put a lot of bad guys away”) or his time on the Dublin City Council.
Swalwell begins almost every conversation by saying he’s running against Stark. For several voters, it was all they needed to hear.
“You’ve got my vote. You’ve had my vote since Day One,” replied Kathie Ready, a 47-year-old at a neighborhood watch event. “He acts like a bully and accomplishes nothing.”
Stark’s temper has erupted both in Washington and his district over the years. His mercurial nature was one of the reasons that Democrats skipped over Stark, despite his seniority, for the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee in 2010.
Stark remains the front-runner. He has a financial advantage and the backing of the entire Bay Area congressional delegation, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; both of California’s senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer; the biggest labor groups in the region; and the local and state Democratic Party. President Obama bestowed one of his few congressional endorsements on Stark, as well.
Stark’s campaign notes that Obama’s health law was steered through his congressional subcommittee and that his decades in Congress have produced notable results for the district, from environmental protections to transit projects.
“I just think people don’t know what he’s done because he’s never had to do this kind of campaign to tell them,” Terris said.
California’s new balloting rules mean that Stark likely needs to reach beyond the Democratic base, as he will face a Democrat in November for the first time in his career. In the June primary, an independent candidate took in more than 20 percent of the vote, and the non-Stark vote totaled nearly 58 percent of the electorate.
How Republicans will vote in a Democrat vs. Democrat race--or if they’ll vote at all--remains unclear; 2012 is the first year under California’s new electoral rules. The seat’s registration is 49 percent Democratic, 24 percent Republican and 22 percent declined to state, according to data from Redistricting Partners.
It’s also not clear if Stark has adjusted to the state’s new balloting rules. The biggest name supporter he’s brought into the district, in June, was departing Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an icon of the left, hardly an olive branch to independents or Republicans. (The campaign has since gone through a shake-up, as Stark parted ways with his original chief strategist, Alex Tourk.)
Swalwell is running less on ideological grounds. He acknowledged he likely wouldn’t vote all that differently from Stark, describing himself as a solid Democrat. Instead, he’s made the race about character and work ethic. He accuses Stark of missing votes in Congress while living full-time in Maryland. “He doesn’t live here, doesn’t work there: How’s that working for you?” he said.
Stark’s new district, meanwhile, has been redrawn to capture some of the Bay Area’s more politically moderate suburban communities, in places like Pleasanton, Livermore, and Dublin, which Swalwell represents on the city council.
Though Stark has represented the broader region for four decades, Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce President Scott Ray said, “Eric Swalwell is more of a known entity out here.”
Campaign cash could be the biggest pitfall for Swalwell. While he has outraised Stark in each reporting period in 2012, he still trails the incumbent $79,000 to $379,000 in cash-on-hand. He has a paid staff of only three, and his campaign office, such as it is, is a single room. That is not the kind of financial firepower usually necessary to unseat an entrenched incumbent.
Then there is Stark’s personal wealth. His financial disclosure form shows he has assets worth as much as about $30 million, including a large warehouse building south of San Francisco that paid him between $1 million and $5 million in rent in the last year. How many of Stark’s assets are liquid, or whether, at 80, he’d tap them to remain in Congress, are open questions.
Terris said he has had “no discussions” with Stark about him using his personal money to fund the campaign.