After Upset Win, House Freshman Looks To Make A Name For Himself

After Upset Win, House Freshman Looks To Make A Name For Himself

6:27am Jan 03, 2013
Then-candidate Eric Swalwell speaks as Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., walks offstage during an endorsement meeting at the Alameda County Democratic Lawyers Club in Oakland, Calif., in September.
Then-candidate Eric Swalwell speaks as Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., walks offstage during an endorsement meeting at the Alameda County Democratic Lawyers Club in Oakland, Calif., in September.
Jeff Chiu/AP

A 32-year-old Bay Area prosecutor will be sworn in to Congress on Thursday after ousting a 40-year incumbent.

California Democrat Eric Swalwell — who will be the second-youngest member of Congress — capitalized on his opponent's gaffes and used old-fashioned door-knocking and high-tech mobile phone outreach to win votes.

His first challenge in Washington might be getting people to pronounce his name correctly. Even senior members of California's congressional delegation have gotten it wrong, saying "Stallwell" instead of "Swalwell."

"It takes everyone time," he says.

Swalwell has lived in Washington, D.C., once before, as a summer intern. The job was unpaid, so he worked mornings at a gym and evenings at a Tex-Mex restaurant.

"Many times members of Congress would come in and, you know, I would give them their meals," Swalwell says. "And I tried to memorize their faces in the congressional facebook, which was a kind of printed directory that they used to hand out."

Swalwell wasn't planning to run for Congress. He was on a weekend vacation in Maryland with two childhood friends and made an appointment with Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., to talk local business. At the last minute, Stark changed what was supposed to be a face-to-face meeting into a quick phone date.

The episode disappointed Swalwell and led him to view the 81-year-old incumbent as someone who had served honorably in the past but who "I just didn't see as being up for it anymore."

Swalwell made a spur-of-the-moment decision to run against Stark for the House seat. Everyone from Democratic Party gatekeepers to his own parents told him he was throwing away his career.

He says they told him: "This is the biggest mistake, you know, of your life because you're going to lose. And ... anything you want to do in the future, you can just write that off. You know, it's not going to happen."

Richard Schlackman, a political consultant in San Francisco, says he didn't think Swalwell "had a chance in the world."

"Incumbent Democrats don't usually lose in the Bay Area," Schlackman says.

He says Stark, the incumbent, helped Swalwell build name recognition by refusing to debate him and falsely accusing him of taking bribes.

"Pete Stark was doing a great campaign against himself," Schlackman says, "and it's a classic example, more importantly, of a candidate who hasn't had a real race in years."

Because California has open primaries, the top two vote-getters face off in the general election. In the showdown between the two Democrats, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other big names endorsed incumbent Stark, as is the custom. Swalwell relied on local politicians and local money for support, yet he won by a comfortable margin of about 4.5 percentage points.

David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University, says to keep his seat, Swalwell will have to distinguish himself on policy matters.

"Swalwell is a bit more fiscally conservative," McCuan says. "He's not a Bluedog Democrat. So the degree to which Swalwell as a newcomer, as a freshman, can position himself in the middle — and the middle is pretty squishy — is going to be also an important test for him."

Swalwell, whose hometown is Dublin, Calif., plans to live in his district four days a week, to stay in touch with his constituency. And he wants to secure federal research money for his district's largest employer, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

He says it needs that money "because too often, the capital is so great that no private organization or startup is going to be able to make those types of upfront investments."

Senior lawmakers say it'll be hard for the freshman Swalwell to raise cash — perhaps just a little bit harder than getting Capitol Hill to say his name right.

Copyright 2015 KQED Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a generational change: A San Francisco Bay Area prosecutor is about to become a congressman at the age of 32. He ousted an incumbent who had been in Congress for 40 years. The newcomer highlighted his opponent's gaffes in got out the vote with old fashion door-knocking, as well as high-tech mobile phone outreach. And that leads to the next step.

As he heads for Washington, D.C., KQED's Aarti Shahani reports that senior members of California's congressional delegation are working on pronouncing his name.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: At a press conference the morning after November's elections, Senator Dianne Feinstein stumbled on her words.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Eric Stallwell(ph) is an apparently a very bright young man. As a matter of fact, he was an intern of my pal.

REPRESENTATIVE-ELECT ERIC SWALWELL: It's a thick name, yeah. It takes everyone time.

SHAHANI: It's not Stallwell. It's...

SWALWELL: Swalwell, Eric Swalwell.

SHAHANI: Eric Swalwell is at a Starbucks in his hometown of Dublin, California, sipping lemonade. The Democrat is about to be the second-youngest member of Congress. Swalwell has lived in DC just once, as a summer intern. The job was unpaid, so he worked mornings at a Washington Sports Club and evenings at a Tex-Mex restaurant.

SWALWELL: Many times, members of Congress would come in and, you know, I would give them their meals. And I tried to memorize their faces in the congressional face book, which was a kind of printed directory that they used to hand out.

SHAHANI: Swalwell wasn't planning to run for Congress. He was on a weekend vacation in Maryland with two childhood friends and made an appointment with Congressman Pete Stark to talk local business. At the last minute, Stark changed what was supposed to be a face-to-face meeting into a quick phone date.

The episode disappointed Swalwell, and led him to view the 81-year-old incumbent as someone who'd served honorably in the past.

SWALWELL: But I just didn't see his being up for it anymore. And so...

SHAHANI: Swalwell made a spur-of-the-moment decision to run for the House seat. Everyone from Democratic Party gatekeepers to his own parents told him he was throwing away his career.

SWALWELL: This is the biggest mistake, you know, of your life, because you're going to lose and, you know, anything you want to do in the future, you can just write that off. You know, it's not going to happen.

RICHARD SCHLACKMAN: I didn't think he had a chance in the world. Incumbent Democrats don't usually lose in the Bay Area.

SHAHANI: Richard Schlackman is a political consultant in San Francisco. He says the incumbent helped Swalwell build name recognition by refusing to debate him and falsely accusing him of taking bribes.

SCHLACKMAN: Pete Stark was doing a great campaign against himself. And it's a classic example, more importantly, of a candidate who hasn't had a real race in years.

SHAHANI: Because California has open primaries, the top two vote-getters face off in the general election. In the showdown between two Democrats, Senator Dianne Feinstein and other big names endorsed incumbent Stark, as is the custom. Swalwell relied on local politicians and local money for support, yet he won by a comfortable four-and-a-half point margin.

David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University, says to keep his seat, Swalwell will have to distinguish himself on policy matters.

DAVID MCCUAN: Swalwell is a bit more fiscally conservative. He's not a Blue Dog Democrat. So the degree to which Swalwell as a newcomer, as a freshman, can position himself in the middle - and the middle's pretty squishy - is going to be also an important test for him.

SHAHANI: Swalwell plans to live in his district four days a week, to stay in touch with his constituency. And he wants to secure federal research money for his district's largest employer, the Lawrence Livermore Labs.

SWALWELL: Giving the laboratories that seed money which is needed - because too often, the capital is so great that no private organization or start-up is going to be able to make those types of upfront investments.

SHAHANI: Senior representatives say it'll be hard for the freshman Swalwell to raise cash, perhaps just a bit harder than getting Capitol Hill to say his name right.

For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani, in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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