Aug. 16, 2012
Washington -- Rep. Pete Stark has coasted to election in his East Bay district ever since Richard Nixon beat George McGovern, the U.S. bombed Hanoi and France performed its last official execution by guillotine.
Along the way, Stark became California's longest-serving House member and a liberal totem in the Bay Area delegation. He left a big footprint on Medicare, the health care program for the elderly. He earned a reputation as a policymaker ahead of his time on universal health care, the Iraq War and carbon taxes. He aided thousands of constituents in dealing with federal agencies and brought billions of dollars to his district.
At the same time, he left a storied trail of verbal outbursts and personal confrontations that cost him, his district and his state the chairmanship of the most powerful committee in Congress, Ways and Means, which oversees the nation's tax laws and biggest social programs, Social Security and Medicare.
Now 80, using a cane and seeking his 20th term, Stark is in trouble. The two sides of his political persona - serious policymaker and snarling partisan - are at war on a campaign trail littered with false charges, invective and mental confusion. The outcome may topple not just Stark, but the machinations of the Bay Area Democratic brain trust.
Fremont Congressman Pete Stark pauses in the rotunda of the capitol building in Washington, D.C. Stark is sponsoring legislation requiring the nationwide use of safety needles and syringes. SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE PHOTO BY CHRIS STEWART
Stark has falsely accused his opponent, Eric Swalwell, of taking bribes and a Chronicle columnist of donating to Swalwell. He retracted both charges. At a Chronicle editorial board meeting in May, Stark confused defunct solar-panel maker Solyndra with high-flying Tesla Motors, both nationally famous companies with ties to his district.
Asked about Solyndra, Stark said he would love to buy one of the company's new "S" cars.
This month, he excoriated former California Assembly leader Alberto Torrico for endorsing his opponent, threatening to ruin Torrico professionally.
Record of attacks
Stark has a long record of attacking those with whom he disagrees. Many did not forgive him. In 1990, he called Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, an African American, a "disgrace to his race" because he differed with Stark on health care. In 1995, he accused a female GOP colleague of learning about health care from "pillow talk" with her husband.
In 2001, Stark narrowly escaped being punched by former Republican congressman and college football star J.C. Watts of Oklahoma. During a debate on sexual abstinence programs, Stark accused Watts, an African American who was not present, of fathering all his children out of wedlock. Watts confronted Stark two days later on the House floor, asking Stark why he had brought up Watts' children and denying that all were born out of wedlock.
Stark retorted, "Then how many were there?" Watts had to be restrained by colleagues.
Carl Guardino, head of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a nonpartisan business organization established by the late David Packard, recalled a meeting a few years ago that he arranged between Stark and a handful of small-business executives. Guardino said it was the last time he tried to talk with Stark.
"Mr. Stark walked in, screaming the 'F word' at those small businessmen and women, and turned what should have been a civil discourse on jobs and the economy into a curse-laden tirade," Guardino said. "That is not representing your district, the needs of the nation or what we expect in civil discourse."
Change of plans
Enter Swalwell, a 31-year-old Dublin city councilman and Alameda County prosecutor who pounced on California's new "top two" primary system, designed to facilitate challenges to incumbents.
Swalwell's second-place finish in the June primary earned him the right to take on Stark in a Democrat-on-Democrat race in November for Silicon Valley's northern rump, a new 15th Congressional District that joins Stark's liberal base in Fremont and Hayward with the more moderate inland suburbia around Livermore and Pleasanton.
That threw a wrench into the plans of Democratic kingmakers, who had their eyes not on an obscure Dublin city councilman who went to college on a soccer scholarship, but a rising 36-year-old Indian American political star.
Rohit Khanna, whose pedigree includes a University of Chicago economics degree, a Yale law degree, a federal court clerkship and a stint in the Obamaadministration, has drawn the attention of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and Silicon Valley's tech titans. Khanna raised $1.2 million to run for Stark's seat. But when Stark refused to retire, Khanna demurred.
Khanna donated $5,000 to Stark's campaign and said he will run for Congress "at the right time." Asked whether he would prefer to run for an open seat, assuming Stark retires in 2014, or against an incumbent Swalwell, Khanna said, "I am confident whenever I run, against whoever I run against, that I will prevail." He said he chose not to run this year because he wants to promote his new book on U.S. competitiveness and to build his grass roots.
Steve Westly, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and former Democratic state controller, said Khanna "had a tough choice, but decided to be a team player, back Stark. And I get that, but I think he'll win this seat in the future.
"It's time for a new generation of leadership," Westly said.
Stark has been endorsed by President Obama, Pelosi and the whole Bay Area delegation, many of whom declined interviews. Records show none so far has given money to Stark's campaign.
Stark declined to be interviewed. He has also refused further debates with Swalwell after a muddled appearance in April before the League of Women Voters at which Stark leveled the bribery charges.
Sharon Cornu, Stark's campaign manager, said Stark is campaigning on his record. "We welcome conversations on the issues. That's why we're talking directly to voters about their concerns and their needs," she said.
Stark rightfully claims a role in crafting the Affordable Care Act, the giant 2010 Democratic overhaul of the health care system. As chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on health, Stark had a hand in writing the law.
But he could have had a much bigger hand. The House version was written primarily by the chairs of three committees with jurisdiction: Education and Labor, then chaired by Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez; Energy and Commerce, chaired by Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles; and Ways and Means, led by Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y.
In the heat of negotiations, Rangel was forced by ethics charges in 2010 to abandon the chairmanship of Ways and Means. By seniority, Stark was poised to take the helm.
Two Democrats who were on the committee at the time who refused to speak on the record for fear of angering Stark, said Stark was never seriously considered for the job because of his abrasiveness.
"You can disagree with somebody without being miserably disagreeable," one of the sources said. "He's just been a very, very difficult and sometimes unpleasant person to work with." This source said Stark "didn't make a play for chair."
The other source said, "There wasn't a single discussion that was to just have Stark be the next guy."
In a written response to The Chronicle, Stark stated, "There was an election among Democrats on Ways and Means, and I didn't come in first place."
Cornu said voters see a different side. "He's a father and a grandfather, a warm, caring person. I've seen him reach out to people who are hurting or ignored, in living rooms and backyards."
Stark said in a written reply that his health is good. "I feel great," he said. "I may walk a little slower than I used to, but nobody has been able to catch me yet."
East Coast residence
For many years, Stark has lived in a $1.7 million home not on San Francisco Bay but on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, with his wife and young family. He holds monthly town halls in his district, and lists his official address as his wife's parents' home in San Leandro. He raises most of his money from health care providers in Washington. Swalwell charges that he has lost touch with his district.
Stark has a 4-to-1 cash advantage over Swalwell, and political consultants think he will win.
"A number of Democrats who I've spoken to privately are really saddened by the whole thing," said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University. "Many of them will go vote for him, but they're doing so in a lot of pain."
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead