Who is Eric Swalwell Anyway? (And Why Does He Think He Can Be President?) 

The East Bay congressman's history demonstrates shrewd political skills and an instinct for finding the center. Is that enough?

click to enlarge Rep. Swalwell appears each year at the Dublin St. Patrick's Parade - PHOTO BY D. ROSS CAMERON
  • Photo by D. Ross Cameron
  • Rep. Swalwell appears each year at the Dublin St. Patrick's Parade

On the day in January 2013 that Eric Swalwell was sworn-in as the East Bay's new congressman from the 15th District, he was interviewed on Politico TV, one of his first appearances as the talking head millions of American now view daily on cable news. The hosts ended their interview with a cheeky question. "I want to be the first person to ask you this — I hope I am — are you ever going to run for president of the United States?" The reporter then chuckled, as someone in the studio cackled faintly. Even Swalwell seemed amused. "I appreciate you asking," he said. "About 14 months ago, no one ever thought I would run Congress. In fact my own parents thought I was crazy and tried to talk me out of it. I'm just thrilled to be here."

C-SPAN commentators also asked Swalwell the question later the same day. Perhaps it was the way the former prosecutor and city councilman carried himself — young, fit, brash, and determined — which prompted the question in the reporter's mind. Their instincts were indeed correct. In the next few weeks, Swalwell, 38, is expected to announce a run for president, becoming the second Democrat in the race, along with Sen. Kamala Harris, with strong ties to the East Bay.

While the trajectory of Swalwell's rise is almost unmatched in recent Bay Area political history, most members of the political and media chattering classes seem to view the young congressman's presidential ambitions as a sign of hubris that is doomed to fail. After all, no one has ever become president having served their nation in no higher an office that of a member of Congress. Maybe he's really angling for the U.S. Senate one day? A cabinet seat in a future Democratic administration, perhaps? Vice-president?

Swalwell has heard it all before. The political cognoscenti in East Bay said he was crazy to challenge a 40-year congressman after less than a year of experience on the sleepy Dublin City Council. Yet he proved them wildly wrong.

In years leading UP to Swalwell's stunning upset of Pete Stark in 2012, the presumptive presidential candidate often veered toward the political center, sometimes even courting conservatives, in order to advance his political career. This strategy initially bred great skepticism among progressives, labor unions, and Stark loyalists, who viewed him too moderate for the East Bay district that runs from the Tri-Valley to Hayward and most of Fremont. But after vanquishing another long-time East Bay progressive in 2014, those doubts subsided greatly. Along the way, Swalwell's visibility in Congress has blossomed, foreshadowing his rapid rise as one of the nation's most forceful critics of President Trump, through his use of social media and almost daily appearances on cable news.

The question now is how might Swalwell's savvy political instincts serve him in a race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency.


The man Swalwell replaced in Congress was a legend among East Bay progressives. Like Swalwell, Rep. Pete Stark was a young, energetic man when he coalesced opposition to the Vietnam War to beat a long-time congressman from his own party in 1972. Stark's anti-war streak wasn't just politically expedient, he was a peacenik for his entire stint in Congress. He also was known as the only openly Atheist member of Congress. He focused much of his time on health care issues and is best known for the Stark Law, anti-kickback legislation approved by President George H.W. Bush that prohibited doctors from making patient referrals to offices and clinics of which they or an immediate family members has a financial interest. For his service, Stark was wildly popular in the East Bay and never faced a remotely contested re-election until facing Swalwell.

But after the newly formed non-partisan California Redistricting Commission drew new congressional boundaries that took effect in 2012, a larger than expected chunk of the new 15th District included parts of the Tri-Valley that Stark had never before represented. Not only were those voters not familiar with Stark, but Eastern Alameda County's many moderate-to-conservative voters weren't necessarily receptive to his very vocal brand of progressivism. Stark's campaign realized early on that the redrawn district's new areas could pose a problem. That is, if someone dared to challenge the liberal lion.

Local political power structures tend to perpetuate the power of the incumbency. The Alameda County Democratic Party is no different. While speculation about Stark possibly retiring was heard in years prior to the 2012 election, no candidate came close to entering the fray. Yet the runup to the 2012 election was different.

State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, someone often viewed as Stark's most likely successor if he were to retire, was making noise about possibly running for Congress. Ro Khanna was also cozying up to Stark and was even begin to raise money for such as campaign. But county party officials intervened to stop the potential insurrection. Corbett and Khanna met privately to gauge each other's intentions and create a contingency plan in case Stark called it quits. Corbett ultimately relented to the pressure and dropped her plans for Congress. Khanna later set his sights on the seat held by Rep. Mike Honda, another long-time progressive in the neighboring 17th District.

Swalwell, on the other hand, saw opportunity in the reshuffled new congressional district, even though it meant that he would have to buck an intransigent local party that was beholden to the past and unable to see the future. The would-be challenger also recognized that Stark did not live full-time in the district, favoring his home in Maryland. The incumbent also was clearly showing his age, moreso physically than mentally. And while Stark's mean-spirited jibes such as his biting remarks about George W. Bush "getting off" by having soldiers killed in Afghanistan were wildly popular to his progressive base, Swalwell knew that they wouldn't play the same way to Tri-Valley voters.

The councilman entered the race in July 2011 with a stump speech that he would repeat for the next year and a half. "I am running for the people who want a new voice, new energy and new ideas in a new district," he said. "In these tough economic times, I think people want bold action and leadership, so that's why I am stepping up to the plate."

Stark's response was typically blunt. Shortly thereafter, he told the San Jose Mercury News: "He called me some time ago and said he was thinking about it, and I told him then I hoped that he wouldn't. I think I'll beat him handily."

Swalwell hit Stark on his residency, called him out of touch with the district, and insinuated that the congressman was too old for the job. Swalwell mocked Stark for not debating him, introducing yellow rubber duckies to represent the congressman's reluctance to meet face-to-face. Swalwell went after Stark's young children for receiving Social Security benefits. And all the while Stark imploded on his own with a series of gaffes that the local media was all too eager to highlight.

The candidates met in an organized forum just once during the entire campaign. It occurred on a stormy night in Hayward during the primary, and was hosted by the League of Women Voters. Stark called Swalwell a "pipsqueek," a "slimeball," and a "Junior Leaguer." Stark also accused Swalwell of taking bribes from a wealthy family that controls large tracts of land in Dublin and throughout the Tri-Valley. Stark said Swalwell had accepted "hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes" from the developer. "If I were a lawyer, I would call that bribery," the congressman said. Taken aback by the allegation, Swalwell shot back, "As far as I know, I have not accepted any bribes," he said. "I don't know what Congressman Stark is talking about. Maybe the F.B.I. is waiting for me outside." When the forum concluded, Swalwell shook Stark's hand, but not before the congressman called Swalwell a "fucking crook" and told him "you're going to jail."

The comments were heard by the Republican candidate in the primary and corroborated later by Swalwell. Stark never fully explained what he was talking about and his campaign essentially mothed-balled him for most of the remaining campaign. A demand by Swalwell to apologize for the bribe comments received far more attention from the local press than any attempts to figure out if they were true. But in 2017, James Tong, who is part of the development company that Stark referred to his allegation, was indicted for illegal campaign contributions to Swalwell's 2012 campaign. Tong made more than $10,000 in illegal donations to Swalwell by using the names of family members. Two years earlier, Tong had been fined $650,000 by the U.S. Department of Game and Wildlife for forging $3.2 million in receipts used to obtain credits to offset environmental damage for a development project in Dublin.

In June 2012, Swalwell finished a strong second to Stark in the primary, but the writing was on the wall for Stark. Swalwell easily won the General Election in one of the biggest upsets in East Bay political history.

While there was celebration in much of the district, Alameda County Democratic leadership was bitter. "When you run a campaign on lies and innuendo and the media only covers the sensationalism rather than the facts, we all lose," said Robin Torello, chair of the Alameda County Democratic Party said Election Night. She predicted the "spigot is closed" when it comes to future federal funding for the district.

Like many others, Torello sees a different Swalwell today. "He was young," Torello remembers after meeting Swalwell when he ran for the Dublin City Council and following him through the 2012 campaign. "He did his homework. He can across as very polished for his age. ... Obviously he had good instincts. Nobody thought he could do it and he did because he worked hard." But apprehension remained. "Who did we get now that Pete Stark is gone?" she remembers wondering. "It was a worry hard to dispel."

And part of the way that Swalwell accomplished his big win would later hinder his nascent first congressional term. Running against a well-financed incumbent is expensive and Swalwell was virtually unknown. Luckily, starting around 2010, there was very vibrant undercurrent of anti-congressional sentiment in the Tri-Valley and Contra Costa County, as well as elsewhere across the country. The Tea Party had just been born and conservative activists were storming congressional town halls everywhere. Stark's town halls were packed by Tea Party enthusiasts carrying signs and choice words to hurl toward the dais.

Behind the scenes, Swalwell cultivated these angry voters, while also attracting a coalition of businesspersons unhappy with Stark's politics who could help seed his campaign coffers. A September 2012 profile in The New York Times on Swalwell's insurgent run illustrated how well he had cultivated these conservative voters. "I'm Tea Partyer; I'm voting for you," a Pleasanton voter told Swalwell, according to the Times. During the stretch run to the November 2012 election, Swalwell's campaign enlisted the Tri-Valley's former Republican Assemblymember Guy Houston to record a robocall for moderate and conservative voters. "Eric is a moderate," Houston said. "I believe our best and only choice is Eric Swalwell on Nov. 6."

The divide among Alameda County progressives and moderates also was perpetuated during Swalwell's first term by former state Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett. Viewed as more attuned to Stark's far-left platform, Corbett was a natural vessel for remaining Stark loyalists, especially in labor, to support. Just days into Swalwell's first term, Corbett was already signaling to her supporters that she would challenge Swalwell's re-election in 2014. "I've been through all the ups and downs of the district and I have great support. It's nothing personnel about Eric, but I've been doing public service all my life," she said in January 2013. When the 2014 election rolled around, Corbett was able to tap into progressives' uncertainty by blocking the endorsement of Swalwell's re-election by Alameda County Democrats.

In early 2014, Corbett was indeed a viable threat to Swalwell's re-election. But once again, Swalwell was greatly aided by Tri-Valley moderates and conservatives who now worried about Corbett returning Stark's progressive ideology to the district. An unknown Republican named Hugh Bussell was tapped by local GOP leaders to enter the race. Sue Caro, then-chair of the Alameda County Republican Party, said Bussell's candidacy was intended to help Swalwell avoid facing Corbett in November. The party's strategy was based on a hunch that higher Republican registration in the Tri-Valley could draw enough support for Bussell to edge Corbett out of the June primary. "We believed we could keep Ellen Corbett out of the November election," Caro said. "We viewed Corbett as too progressive. She was also the heir apparent to Pete Stark and we didn't like that."

Meanwhile, many Republicans in the district were impressed by Swalwell's personality and his work ethic, she added. Swalwell's congressional campaign website and social media posts kept constituents updated about how many times he flew back and forth from the East Bay to Washington, D.C., along with a running tally of how many miles he had flown. To bring attention to Swalwell's weekly back-and-forth trips from his district to Washington, D.C., he posted photos of his shoes just as they passed the threshold of the airplane cabin along with the Twitter tag #Swalwelling. Republicans also liked that his parents were Republicans and that he had a background in law enforcement working as an Alameda County prosecutor, said Caro.

The Republicans' gambit worked. In a stunning upset, Bussell narrowly advanced to the November 2014 General Election by narrowly edging out Corbett for second-place in the top-two primary.

But today, Tri-Valley Republicans feel betrayed by the path of governance Swalwell has chosen ever since. "They have buyers' remorse," Caro said. "Republicans helped him. They feel like he's owes them."

The feeling is highlighted by Swalwell's support for undocumented immigrants and gun control, and his general lack of bipartisanship, an original promise he made to voters going back to his first run for congress. Even worse, Caro added, "They see him cozying up with Nancy Pelosi."

The 2014 election victory was a turning point for Swalwell, virtually ensuring that he would not face a credible Democratic challenger for the foreseeable future. And the realization that the Swalwell Era was here to stay also started a noticeable shift for East Bay Democrats, who began to embrace him in droves.

With room to finally breathe, Swalwell entered a period that would lay the groundwork for his rapid rise in the national political consciousness. His earlier work in forming the Future Forum, a bipartisan group of young legislators like himself, led him across the country. Swalwell gave speeches and attended forums touching upon the vexing issues that plague younger people, primarily student debt, but also Washington's inability to pass any type of meaningful gun control legislation. His advocacy only further burnished his image as a hard-working young congressman who could possibly give the aging House Democratic leadership a lifeline to the younger generation. Pelosi quickly began absorbing Swalwell into the House leadership, naming him to a plum committee spot on the House Intelligence Committee.

Swalwell also was an early forerunner of the type of social media usage that has fueled the next wave of young congressmembers. In 2016, the newspaper The Hill named Swalwell "Snapchat King of Congress." Before that, Swalwell was particularly adept at using Vine, a short-lived, but popular app for short social media videos. In fact, Swalwell got busted for posted a Vine video that showed him casting a vote on the House floor, a potential violation of the House code of conduct. Today, Swalwell's Twitter page has more than 467,000 followers — and seemingly just as many tweets.


However, the Swalwell that many Americans know today was born with the election of Donald Trump. Swalwell, in fact, had a front row seat to Trump's inauguration, sitting at the podium while representing House Democrats. Consumers of cable news were already receiving a small, but steady diet of Swalwell appearing on MSNBC, CNN, and even Fox News before Trump's victory. But the frequency was growing with every well-crafted critique Swalwell lobbed over topics such as Trump's tax returns and early signs of Russian collusion in the presidential election. Numerous attack lines raised Swalwell's profile among anti-Trumpers, but an early one that really moved the needle was a comment to Yahoo News in February 2017 in which Swalwell bluntly referred to the president's relationship with Russia by asking, "Who are his loyalties with?" A star of cable news television was born.

"He been doing a good job of triaging what Trump brings everyday," said Crystal Araujo, a member of the East Bay Young Democrats of South Alameda County, in addition, to a local campaign consultant.

The Bay Area News Group story ran a tally of Swalwell's national television appearance. It found that Swalwell made 282 appearances in 2017, and another 233 during the first eight months of 2018. A quick perusal of Swalwell's IMDB page reveals the astonishing breadth of his "filmography," encompassing multiple appearances on virtually every televised government affairs program. And that's not accounting for the numerous segments on local television newscasts. The pace is certain to be exceeded this year, as Swalwell is on the tube on daily basis. "He now had a stage that was front and center for the resistance of Trump and he's risen to the task and speaks for the resistance," said Torello.

The immense volume of media coverage has gained Swalwell a significant following, but also created detractors on social media. Since being elected to Congress, Swalwell has offered unwavering support of Israel. He's attended trips to Israel funding by an educational offshoot of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). When Republican Speaker John Boehner controversially invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress in 2015, a slight that angered President Barack Obama, Swalwell attended while other Democrats protested. He told the San Francisco Chronicle, "I will be there; I will listen. I don't think two wrongs make a right. I'm not going to be disrespectful toward a head of state from a country that is so important to us, but I think we could have accomplished getting updated by the prime minister in a way that worked with the White House."

Just as Israeli forces were trading rocket fire with Hamas-backed rebels in Gaza, six months earlier in July 2014, Swalwell was heavily criticized for a Facebook posting in which he voiced more concern for victims in Israel, even though at the time three Israelis had perished, but more 2,000 Gazans had been killed by Israeli missiles. The posting included a graphic with the Israeli flag and the words, "I stand with Israel for peace and Security," he wrote. "Innocent civilians in Israel have been under constant attack from rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza. These attacks have recently escalated, with over 500 rockets fired at Israel in just the past month. I stand with Israel as it seeks peace and security in the region." Palestinians activists subsequently crashed a town hall in San Lorenzo, dominating the 90-minute event. When they questioned Swalwell's support from pro-Israel groups, he responded, "You're right. I have voted for and supported aid to Israel. I have supported aid for the Palestinian people."

Last November, Swalwell engaged in a thread of tweets with a gun-rights' supporter, who suggested gunowners would wage war against the federal government in response to the gun-control measures Swalwell was proposing. "And it would be a short war my friend," the congressman tweeted. "The government has nukes. Too many of them. But they're legit. I'm sure if we talked we could find common ground to protect our families and communities." The Twitter gun lobby exploded. Swalwell later said the tweet was sarcasm. But if he had intended to bait the right with his comments, he succeeded. The National Rifle Association and other gun rights' activists made Swalwell a high-profile target of their enmity. In return, Swalwell turned the reaction into a campaign fundraising plea.

Swalwell's advocacy for strict gun control measure is not new. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting, he joined the debate on Fox News with conservative pundit Sean Hannity just a week after joining Congress in January 2013. Swalwell called for a ban on assault weapons and offered his support for legislation prohibiting the sale and transfer of ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Last year, Swalwell proposed a total ban on assault weapons, along with a buyback program paying owners of semi-automatic weapons up to $1,000 for each gun. Some viewed the proposal as additional evidence, along with the repeated visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, that Swalwell was seeking higher office.

It's difficult to pinpoint the origin of Swalwell's intent to run for presidential. But there were already signals just shortly after Trump was elected. Those whispers came to life after Swalwell visited Iowa twice in December 2016 and a month later. Over the next two years, he visited the early caucus state more than 15 times, at last count. He stumped for Democrats running for office in Iowa, spoke before Democratic clubs all over the Hawkeye State, a made the compulsory food-related appearances at the Iowa State Fair and headlining the Presidents' Day Soup Supper last month. Swalwell's comments since at least August has shown an unwavering conviction to eventually enter the presidential primary. "I'm ready to do this," he told Politico last month. Swalwell's campaign has been hiring workers in Iowa and New Hampshire and he recently began branching out to South Carolina, another early primary state.

An announcement appears imminent. Over the past month, Swalwell appears to be testing some basic campaign taglines and platforms. Variations of the phrase, "Go big, be bold, do good," have crept into his speeches and remarks recently. Numerous reports in the national media suggest Swalwell believes he rates high on voters' mind on the "likability" scale. He appears to be showing interest in offering solutions to kitchen-table issues such as income inequality, housing, and especially student debt. Earlier this month, Swalwell said he supports Medicare-for-All, although he offered no specifics of how to pay for such a program. But most political strategists believe Swalwell will target his campaign toward the center. It's an area of political spectrum that is somewhat bare at the moment with only Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Beto O'Rourke, but likely to soon include former Vice President Joe Biden.

Whether or not Democrats are interested in backing a centrist candidate in 2020 is a big question. The left's energy appears to lie with progressives who were energized in 2016 by Bernie Sanders and now are buoyed by figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Swalwell, though, may be banking on the tried-and-true centrist approach that worked for recent Democratic presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. But a common refrain often heard from Democrats and pundits is that the outlook for a Caucasian male nominee is bleak.

In any case, Many East Bay Democrats are not excited about losing Swalwell as their representative in Congress. Torello acknowledges there are quite a few insiders who question why Swalwell would give up his incredibly safe seat in Congress for a long-shot run for president. Swalwell has been quite clear that he will no seek re-election to his congressional seat in March 2020, if he runs for president.

Torello, the former skeptic, acknowledges that the dialogue is born out of a desire to keep Swalwell's representation. "I think what they're saying is, 'It's too soon to give up the seat,'" she said. Then she added, "People have to do what they think they need to do. If he has the capability to run for president, he needs to follow that trail, but we lose an important voice."

Asked to predict whether Swalwell's presidential campaign will be successful, Torello said there's no true frontrunner and no debates yet to compare the candidates. "Anything is possible."

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