Eric Swalwell Recognized the Changing State

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Editor’s note: Eric Swalwell is John Wildermuth’s nominee for the Fox & Hounds Black Bart Award. This annual award goes to the Californian of the year in the world of politics – decided by Joel Fox, John Wildermuth & Joe Mathews.

California politics is never going to be the same again. And because Eric Swalwell took a chance and showed just how different life is going to be for officeholders and political wannabes in the Golden State, he’s my choice for Californian of the year.

In years past, Swalwell’s decision to challenge fellow Democrat Pete Stark, a 40-year veteran of Congress, would have been the type of chance no ambitious young politician would take. At 80-years-old, Stark wasn’t going to be around much longer, so it would have made sense for Swalwell, a 31-year-old Alameda County prosecutor and Dublin councilman, to just sit back and wait his turn.

After all, that’s what Ro Khanna, a former Obama Commerce Department official with a $1 million campaign war chest, and former state Sen. Ellen Corbett did. They backed off any plans to tackle Stark in order to let him decide when it was time to go, just the way it’s always been done in the Old Boys Club.

But times are different in 2012. While Stark’s new 15th Congressional District was still heavily Democratic (hey, it is the Bay Area), the new lines drawn by Prop. 11’s multi-partisan Citizens Redistricting Commission moved him out of his Alameda and Fremont comfort zones, something that likely wouldn’t have happened if his buddies in the Legislature still ran the redistricting show.

Even so, a 20-term incumbent is still next to impossible to beat in a partisan primary. But with 2010’s Prop. 14, voters eliminated partisan primaries, deciding that the top two finishers, regardless of party, would meet in the November election.

That changed everything, and Stalwell recognized it. An unpopular incumbent in a one-party district could no longer depend on his name ID to carry him through the primary and then use the heavy partisan advantage to cruise to victory in November.

Now, a same-party challenger who can stay close in that primary election will get a second shot in the fall, with a very good chance to pick up those voters who already have shown they don’t much like the incumbent.

The election broke just the way Stalwell planned. He lost to Stark in June, but only by six percentage points, 42 percent to 36 percent. And with two Democrats facing off in November, the district’s Republican and decline-to-state voters helped carry him to a 52-48 win.

When unhappy voters decided to take politicians out of the redistricting business and make it easier to challenge the old bulls who saw their congressional seats as something they deserved, not something they had to earn every two years, Stalwell is what they were hoping for: a bright young politician with deep local ties who would owe his seat to everyone in the district, Democrats, Republicans and decline-to-state voters alike.

In that November race, Stark was endorsed by President Obama, senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, every Bay Area member of Congress and Democratic politicians across the state.

Stalwell’s endorsement list was heavy on council members, school board trustees and local political leaders.

And to the dismay of once-safe incumbents everywhere in the state, look who won.

It took plenty of savvy for Stalwell to recognize the state’s rapidly changing power structure and lots of guts to go all-in on a decision that could have ended his political career before it began. It’s the type of focused risk-taking that’s always been what’s made California special.

Another Californian deserves credit for what he did over the past year.

When you talk about old-school politics, no one does it better than Gov. Jerry Brown and no one gets less credit for it.

Pushing to get his tax increase passed this fall, Brown negotiated with unions and interest groups, modified his plan to deal with complaints and then made himself the focus of the campaign, talking directly to voters about why they needed to boost their own taxes.

Political gurus across the state had plenty of reasons why Prop. 30 would fail. The economy was still bad. Another tax measure, Molly Munger’s Prop. 38, would both confuse and alienate voters. The campaign was too much Brown and not enough modern consultants and snazzy ads.

All along, Brown said if voters were convinced that Sacramento was doing its share to cut the cost of government, Californians would share the sacrifice and put their money up for the state’s future. As he has for so many years, Brown read the voters right.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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