Of all the Democratic primary battles for congressional seats in the country, it's hard to imagine there are many contests between two candidates more different than the one in California's new 15th congressional district.
Rep. Pete Stark has been a mainstay in Washington for a generation. The 80-year-old liberal has served in Congress since 1973. Only four congressmen have been there longer. One can debate if Stark is as sharp intellectually as he's always been, but physically the years have clearly taken their toll. He battled pneumonia last year and walks with a limp.
His challenger is 31-year-old Alameda District Attorney Eric Swalwell. The moderate is serving his first term on Dublin's City Council, his first elected position. He's a former Division I soccer player and looks like he would still have no problem playing 90 minutes on the pitch.
The district they are vying for is new, after the California Citizens Redistriciting Commission made drastic changes to the state's congressional map last year. Stark is currently representing the inner-East Bay, from Alameda down to Newark. But the open district comes into the Tri-Valley, starting in San Ramon, going east past Livermore, west to Castro Valley and down to Union City.
Their differences were on display Monday night, when Stark and Swalwell spoke to the Tri-Valley Democratic Club at IBEW Hall in Dublin. There was a straw poll taken after the two talked, that Swalwell won 32-19, taking advangtage of the home field advantage. But the takeaway from the night was this campaign isn't going to be too friendly.
Swalwell spoke first to the packed hall. He sounded like the attorney he is, laying out his arguments as if he was making an opening statement to a jury — and he went right after the aging congressman.
"Pete Stark has been a congressman for 40 years, I respect that," said Swalwell. Though, what he said next, showed he didn't respect Stark's time in office all that much.
"However, 40 years is a long time. And if you do not stay sharp, if you do not stay engaged, you can become out of step, out of touch and out of sight."
With Stark listening in the audience, Swalwell argued that his opponet was not fit to stay in office.
"Congressman Stark has become disconnected to our area and ineffective in representing our people," Swalwell said. "You see, Congressman Stark lives in the state of Maryland, and I'm not talking about along the Washington D.C.-Maryland border, he actually lives closer to the capital of Maryland than he does the to capital of the United States, where we sent him to serve."
The council member didn't stop there.
He went on to say how Stark's only connection to the area is an address where he does not live, so he can register to vote; he said Stark recently didn't allow media into a public town hall meeting; he called Stark "a part-time congressman" who misses more than 20 percent of the votes.
"I will work every day to bring new jobs and new opportunities to members of this district," Swalwell said.
After Swalwell spoke, Stark slowly made his way to the front of the room, casually taking a seat on the table.
While Swalwell came across as a bit stiff, even robotic at times, Stark looked more comfortable in front of the filled room. If being publicly berated by someone who was born nine years after he had started his tenure in congress bothered him, he didn't really show it.
Instead of firing back, Stark needled Swalwell.
While talking about his family and his roots to area, Stark said, "My son is a more senior, experienced assistant district attorney than the previous speaker."
Much of the audience chuckled.
Stark did defend his record, saying he's worked tirelessly over the last 40 years for the Democratic party and helped people less capable of helping themselves.
He said the votes he has missed were due to a battle with pneumonia last year, though Swalwell said after the forum that Stark was missing votes before his illness. When it comes to where he lives, Stark said he stays in Maryland to spend time with his school-aged children but comes to his district often and said after the meeting that he spends about a third of his time in the area.
While Swalwell argued that Stark being in office for so long is a weakness, Stark argued it's a strength.
"If you needed a heart transplant, would you look for someone right out of medical school who had never done a heart transplant before?" Stark said. "Or would you like someone who has done 100 heart transplants and you know how many patients lived? I think you know the answer to that."
During the Q&A portion, Stark was reminded that back in 1972, he was the young politician who knocked off the older incumbent, and was asked why it's different now.
Stark smiled, and said it wasn't so much his age, but his substantive differences with his opponent that won him the election.
When it comes to the issues, the substantive differences between Stark and Swalwell weren't on full-display Monday night. Swalwell is more moderate, but was subtle in his speech that he would be willing to work with Republicans.
"We're all in this together," Swalwell said. "But unless we get a Washington D.C. that starts working for us, and politicians that stop working against each other, the future of that dream will never be realized."
Swalwell faces a significant challenge to unseat Stark. The congressman has the full backing of the Democratic Party and the endorsement of almost every influential politician in the area.
But after Monday night, it's clear Swalwell won't go down without a fight.
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