Pete Stark: Raving, Mad, Unapologetic 

Fremont's congressman made news when he compared the Iraq war to "an act of extreme terrorism." But did he weaken himself politically?

On the brink of the US war on Iraq, Rep. Pete Stark of Fremont used the T-word to criticize the military's plan to "shock and awe" Baghdad into submission. "I think unleashing three thousand smart bombs against the city of Baghdad in the first several days of the war ... to me, if those were unleashed against the San Francisco Bay Area, I would call that an act of extreme terrorism," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. His comments became the sound bite of the day and made Stark a national megaphone for Bay Area dissent.

Stark had long been highly critical of the Bush administration and its response to the events of September 11. As an antiwar measure, he campaigned to reinstate the draft, arguing that it might curb the nation's bloodlust by ensuring that the sons of wealthy families would be put in the line of fire. He also voted against a resolution to support the president and troops, although he eventually voted to appropriate $80 billion in spending to feed and arm soldiers who had already been sent to Iraq.

But the forcefulness with which Stark opposed the war inflamed conservatives all the way up to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas. "There is a proper time and place for vigorous debate, but there is no debating with remarks such as these, " DeLay said in response. "It is unconscionable that Stark would make these remarks at the very time our troops are preparing to lay their lives on the line in the name of freedom. This destructive rhetoric does nothing more than demoralize our troops and second-guess our commander in chief."

Stark's stance made him a hero for some, but for others, his remarks were merely the latest proof that the East Bay is hopelessly out of step with the rest of America. Political operatives went so far as to suggest that Stark had jeopardized his hold on his congressional district in the 2004 election.

"Calpeek sources say there's growing pressure building on US Rep. Howard Berman (D-Los Angeles) to recruit a credible primary opponent against Stark," a March edition of California Political Week reported. "Pressure could also be building on AG Bill Lockyer (D) -- who has never liked Stark -- to join Berman." The newsletter named both former Board of Equalization President Johan Klehs and former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin as possible contestants for Stark's seat.

Both potential candidates have local street cred: Klehs served in the Assembly for twelve years representing Hayward, San Leandro, Dublin, and parts of Pleasanton and Castro Valley. Eastin, before becoming State Superintendent of Public Instruction, was a four-term state Assemblywoman from the neighboring Twentieth District, which covers Fremont, Newark, Milpitas and Union City as well as parts of San Jose, Pleasanton, Castro Valley, and Hayward.

Kevin Spillane, one of the few Republican campaign strategists who runs candidates in the Bay Area, believes Stark's outspokenness may hurt his next election bid. "His comments have brought negative attention to himself," Spillane says. "You're dealing with a very crusty, acerbic personality that a lot of people don't care for to begin with." He contends that if strategists can argue that Stark's hotheadedness has made him an ineffective congressman, he may be vulnerable to a primary challenge not from a Republican, who would be unlikely to gain a foothold in the highly Democratic Thirteenth District, but from a less inflammatory member of his own party.

Hard-edged dissent is nothing new for Stark. He's become famous for his sharp tongue -- drawing flak over incidents such as the time he called Rep. Nancy Johnson a "whore" for the insurance industry, incorrectly remarked that all of Rep. J.C. Watts' children were born out of wedlock, and called former Health and Human Services Director Louis Sullivan, who is African American, a "disgrace to his race." But Stark has been particularly harsh when it comes to the Bush administration, repeatedly calling the president a "megalomaniac," famously declaring "I don't trust this president or his advisers," and even referring to him as a recovering alcoholic.

Stark has always been loud and left. He won his seat in 1972 by famously beating George Miller, an entrenched 81-year-old Democratic incumbent who supported the Vietnam war. "He was somewhat out of tune with the realities of what was going on," Stark recalls of his opponent. His own paradoxical image was that of the "hippie banker." The founder of the Security Pacific Bank in Walnut Creek, he had brought in a lefty clientele by installing a large peace sign on the top of the building and printing peace symbols on the bank's checks. Stark essentially ran to Miller's left, promising to help end the war and address local environmental issues. For more than three decades since, Stark has built a solid reputation as an advocate for health care and Medicare reforms; he served as the chairman of the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee between 1985 and 1994 and is currently its ranking minority member.

Meanwhile, Stark's district, which covers most of southern Alameda County, including Hayward, Newark, Fremont, San Leandro, San Lorenzo, and Alameda, has grown increasingly liberal. "It has moved from being safe Democratic to being very, very safe Democratic," says Michael Barone, author of The Almanac of American Politics, which every two years charts the performance of the nation's elected officials. But political strategists point out that unlike the Brie-and-Chablis Democrats one might expect to find in Moraga or Mill Valley, the Thirteenth District is home to blue-collar Dems more likely to focus on local problems than the divisive issues that drive national debate. "They are probably more interested in meat-and-potatoes issues and the size of their paycheck than they are with abortion rights," Spillane says.

Like most of the East Bay, the Thirteenth District is considered such solid Democrat territory that the GOP doesn't focus many resources there. Barone says the Democrats hardly feel they have to campaign, either. "Both Democrats and Republicans don't bother to buy time in the San Francisco media market because there are so few target voters it's not worth the money," he says. "This means that what Bay Area residents hear about politics is what they say to themselves or get from San Francisco city politics and the like -- which is almost all left-wing stuff. They never hear much of anything else. The Bay Area is a kind of cocoon, insulated from the political debate that goes on in the rest of America."

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