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Pete Stark's Slow Moving Train Wreck

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Opinion: Pete Stark's Slow Moving Train Wreck

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Two weeks ago I wrote about the 15th Congressional district campaign between 20-term incumbent Pete Stark and a relatively unknown challenger Eric Swalwell.

"On paper," the race should be a cakewalk for Stark, given his long tenure and long-standing record on liberal causes which have fit well with his district's values.

Still, Stark put himself in a bit of trouble in a debate by accusing Swalwell of taking bribes and a faulty voting record. Both claims were without evidence, leading an embarrassed Stark to apologize.

Fair enough. Mistakes happen in politics, even with seasoned veterans like Stark.

Now Stark finds himself on the hot seat again, this time with on the record remarks he made to the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle on May 2nd. In the interview, Stark showed little understanding of his district's issues.

At one point, he confused Solyndra, the now-bankrupt solar panel company with Tesla, the
nascent electric car company, saying his son hoped to buy a "Solyndra."

Okay, anyone can be confused, even elected officials. But on something as big as that?

But Stark lost it altogether when he accused Debra Saunders, a conservative Chronicle columnist, of contributing to his opponent's campaign.

When asked to substantiate, Stark shuffled through some papers and backed off again, sheepishly blaming his 16-year old son for sloppy research.

Either Stark has lost it or has become incredibly sloppy in his work. Regardless, he has become an embarrassment to his supporters, his political party, his institution, and himself.

The sad thing is that Pete Stark is a liberal icon. He has opposed America's involvement in ill-conceived wars, come down hard on irresponsible financial institutions, supported health care and a slew of social programs, and fought for the poor.

Yet, all the goodwill that Stark has accumulated over the years is now threatened. Moreover, his vulnerability is accented by a district that has been reapportioned to the point that more than half of the residents are meeting Stark for the first time.

And the new district's composition is not as liberal as previous district.

Talk about the meaning of a "first impression."

The end result is that the June 5th election now looms more a referendum on Stark than a contest between two candidates with different values and aspirations for the district. All Eric Swalwell has to do is keep quiet, leaving the self-inflicted wounds to his opponent.

Even if Stark prevails on June 5th, he'll have to face Swalwell again in November, courtesy of California's "top two" primary system.

Meanwhile, the voters are left with an uneasy choice: to reward Stark with re-election for his glorious past performances or replace Stark for his present behavior. Regardless, while they won't win the district,

Republicans can expect lots of mileage from a Democratic meltdown.

Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst at NBC Bay Area.

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