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Meet the Costume-Donning, Prop-Loving Thirtysomething Who Ousted Pete Stark

The idea for a mock funeral procession was made in jest, but that’s not how Eric Swalwell took it. It was March of 2003, and the governor of Maryland, where Swalwell attended the University of Maryland–College Park, had just sliced $67 million out of the state university system. Students were planning a protest when a friend joked to Swalwell, a senior, that they ought to stage a funeral for higher education. And that’s how what could have been an afternoon of handing out fliers or chalking the quad ballooned into a 35-car caravan—complete with a coffin, hearse, and police escorts—that traveled 30 miles along Route 50 to the capitol building in Annapolis.

At the time, longstanding Congressman Pete Stark was one of the most powerful members of the California delegation. He had shepherded through Congress the monumental COBRA health care law and the Stark law, a set of provisions that regulate physician self-referral. But nine years later, the 80-year-old liberal lawmaker would be booted from his seat by this political prankster who hadn’t been born yet when Stark took office nearly four decades earlier.

“We were not supposed to win,” the 31-year-old Swalwell said, in an understatement. We were meeting a week after his election in the freezing fitness center of the Capitol Hill Hotel, where hotel staff had quarantined the multitude of reporters chasing new members of Congress. “There were a lot of people in our class who weren’t supposed to win.” Swalwell had met many of them earlier that week, as he muddled through freshman orientation, and it makes perfect sense that he was among their number. While there were any number of California Democrats qualified to unseat Stark, only Swalwell was bold—or foolhardy—enough to try to cut the line of liberals politicos patiently awaiting Stark’s retirement.

But that’s just the kind of person Swalwell is: Someone who's willing to risk ridicule to accomplish his goal—whatever that may be. Back in 2003, when Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich made additional budget cuts before taking off on a tropical vacation, Swalwell followed up the fake funeral by capering around the capitol in a Hawaiian shirt and wig as “Bahama Bob.” In 2000, as a freshman in college, Swalwell and his buddies, not for any particular reason, went to Cancun masquerading as a camera crew for a reality show they dubbed “MTV Undercover.” Toting three video cameras, mics, lights, business cards, and forms with MTV letterhead, Swalwell and co. sponsored a Mardi Gras–themed parade and hosted a bikini contest.

Granted, this is not the same guy who’s just become a congressman. Swalwell, in the intervening years, was a city councilman in his California hometown of Dublin and a successful Almeda County prosecutor, and he counts respected local leaders as friends. But he has not eschewed his appreciation of spectacle and the unexpected. “There’s a lot of examples,” he told me, thinking back. “I had a trial, where the pieces of the case kind of fit together like a puzzle. So I had a giant four-by-six color picture of the defendant’s booking photo but I had it covered in puzzle pieces. As I explained each piece of evidence I had, I slowly pulled off the pieces.” After cases, Swalwell was usually quick with a snappy post-mortem for the press: Of a C-list rapper he put behind bars for murder, he said, “No longer will the defendant live out his lyrics.” And this year, when Stark refused to debate Swalwell more than once, Swalwell held a mock debate with a stand-in in a silver wig playing Stark. 

“It’s not like Stark doesn’t understand what happened to him,” said Eric Jaye, a longtime California consultant who worked for neither campaign. “It’s not a sinecure. It’s an honor to represent us in Congress.” Although Stark was a mighty legislator into the ‘90s, the waning days of his career were aptly described by The San Francisco Chronicle as an “extended fade from influence and effectiveness.” His record was pockmarked with nasty conniptions—a Republican female colleague he called a “whore,” a black Republican he called “a disgrace to his race,” a former member of Congress who had to be restrained by staff after Stark said, erroneously and on the House floor, that he had fathered all of his children out of wedlock. Late-period Stark was best known for having been pointedly denied the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee despite being next in line by seniority. Coasting through his twilight, he was vulnerable.

But only Swalwell seized on this, and at first, his odds were long. When he announced, in September 2011, that he was running against Stark, what he calls “a long winter” ensued as local leaders circled the wagons around the incumbent. To a person, every Bay Area representative endorsed Stark. “One person very high up,” Swalwell said, a state party official, “told me that there’s a ladder for these sorts of things, and that I wasn’t even the bottom rung.” Others threatened to squash him if and when, after losing to Stark, he set his sights on a lower office. His first quarter of fundraising—$75,000—was dwarfed by that of Ro Khanna, a former Obama official who raised $1.2 million without even declaring his candidacy. And the expectation that Stark would retire in 2014 ultimately persuaded all of his most viable opponents, including Khanna, to sit out 2012. Earlier this year, as pundits predicted an easy Stark win, Swalwell faced a cash shortage and weighed reducing some campaign staffers to part-time.

Stark’s collapse began in mid-April. At the campaign’s only debate, before the primary, the incumbent accused Swalwell of taking “hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes” as county prosecutor, and in an editorial board meeting with The San Francisco Chronicle he accused an op-ed writer of donating to Swalwell’s campaign. Neither claim was true. Thereafter, the Chronicle covered Stark’s missteps relentlessly. “Quite frankly, they went crusading,” Jaye said. The result: Stark went into hiding while Swalwell poured all of his money and energy into a tech-savvy door-to-door campaign. In the June primary, Stark beat Swalwell by only six points and garnered just 42 percent of the vote. Thanks to California’s “top two” election rules, the two Democrats faced off again in the general election—and despite being outspent two to one, Swalwell won with 53 percent of the vote.

The Democratic caucus has already acclimated to his presence. So far, there are no post-election enemies. As Swalwell milled among a sea of House freshmen awaiting Nancy Pelosi's post-election press conference, the minority leader, who endorsed Stark and attended a Khanna fundraiser, greeted Swalwell by name and congratulated him on a race well run. Local papers still aren’t sure whether to call Swalwell—a law-and-order man who supports gay marriage and gushes about green tech—a centrist or a liberal. But asked how he compared with his far-left predecessor, Swalwell implied that the ideological distinction between himself and Stark isn’t as important as the difference in their work ethics—Swalwell may actually work on immigration, whereas Stark never seemed to care much about that and many other issues.

It’s been a dizzying few weeks for Swalwell. When he interned for Rep. Ellen Tauscher during college, and gave tours to Capitol visitors, he was only able to show them the House floor from the galleries; now, he’s allowed to walk on it. At a dinner Pelosi hosted just before Thanksgiving, Swalwell found himself seated beside Rep. Sander Levin, an inveterate squash player to whom Swalwell used to hand towels while working at the Washington Sports Club. In other words, he has arrived. And with his blindingly white dress shirt, precise navy suit, and Movado watch, Swalwell looks the part of a congressman—but Washington hasn’t sanded off his edges yet. Playing with his shoelaces, he’s unselfconscious and not afraid to answer a question with, “Huh. I never thought about that.” Interviewing potential chiefs of staff is a task less hum-drum than bewildering: “It’s like, who are these people you’re going to spend more time with than almost anyone else in your life for the next few years?” Stuff is still “neat.” 

But the Hill has already changed Swalwell in at least one respect: His props are staying home. “I’ll reach my constituents in creative ways,” he said, laughing. “But I think as far as the points I make here, I will remain open to how I can do that as I learn about the rules of respecting the House.” Which is a shame. What with tension mounting over the “fiscal cliff,” Washington could use some of the levity that helped get him here.

Follow me on Twitter @mtredden