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