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.”

But when it comes to the war in Iraq, some observers suggest that the 72-year-old Stark may be out of step with his constituents on Iraq — a situation that seems to be the opposite of his district’s situation in 1972. “If a recent poll showing that, as of about April 1, most Bay Area residents supported the US and coalition military action in Iraq is correct, then Stark is to the left of his constituency on that issue,” Barone says. That field poll showed that 63 percent of Bay Area residents supported a US strike to remove Saddam Hussein.

However, Stark’s criticism hasn’t wavered in the face of public attention, or now that Bush has officially declared the war over; he remains fiercely critical of the government’s actions in the Middle East. “They haven’t found Saddam, and the sick part of this is it gives them an excuse to go into Syria — they say he must’ve gone there and taken his weapons with him,” he says. “Then they’ll say let’s go to Iran and Saudi Arabia and on and on. All this has me shaking my head in frustration and wonderment that people can be so cruel.”

Stark is not the sort of guy to back away from his comments just because they may be unpopular in some quarters. “I was trying as best I could to tell everybody that the emperor has no clothes, to say ‘Wake up, America,'” he says in explanation of his original “terrorism” remark. “I know enough about the military to know they don’t have three thousand of anything that will hit their target 100 percent of the time. You have to figure that 10 percent of them are going to go astray: That means you’re dropping three hundred damn big bombs on a highly populated area. The Bay Area is five, six million people — about the size of Baghdad with a little water in between. If you dropped three thousand bombs on the Bay Area, would that be an act of terrorism or not? I think it would.”

He says he was careful to make sure his quote would not be construed as calling the president a terrorist. “I said we as a nation committed a terrorist act,” Stark says. “What was ‘shock and awe’ if they weren’t going in trying to scare everybody into surrendering? And what do terrorists do but scare the population?”

Stark remains equally outspoken about the domestic issues that he worries may be ignored as funds are dedicated toward rebuilding Iraq. “We’re going to go over and create two million jobs in Iraq for infrastructure, bureaucracy, and peacekeeping, but we have two million people in this country whose unemployment benefits expire by the end of this year,” he says. “We’re going to provide health care to every Iraqi, but we have 43 million Americans without health care, 12 million of them children. We’re going to rebuild their schools and we have a lot of schools in our community that are not earthquake-proof. … All these wonderful things we’re going to do in Iraq we could be doing here had we not invaded in the first place.”

Is there a political price to pay for being such a presidential heckler? Spillane notes that Stark’s actual legislative record isn’t that shocking — he tends to vote in line with the rest of the Bay Area delegation — but that his style has made him more of a sore thumb than East Bay colleague Barbara Lee. “Ironically Stark’s style is what has made him even more controversial than her in some ways,” Spillane says. “He has embarrassed himself with his comments repeatedly and has become a lightning rod in the House as one of the more obnoxious and least credible members of the party.”

But Stark doesn’t have to be elected by all of the nation’s voters: He just has to impress those at home. Barone believes that even Stark’s most biting comments about the war or the president are unlikely to repel most Thirteenth District voters. “There is a large core of Democratic primary voters who believe that Bush is an illegitimate president, a moron, a mindless warmonger,” he says. And Gale Kaufman, head of Kaufman Campaign Consultants, which has run prominent Bay Area Democrats such as Lee, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, and Assemblywoman Liz Figueroa, says liberal voters are unlikely to hold Stark’s comments against him. “I think it’s naive to believe a view like that would take anybody out in a Democratic district,” she says. “People are much more tolerant as long as you’re clear on your view and why you take it. There was that moment of discussion people had about running against Barbara Lee on those grounds, and that was over very quickly because they found that whether voters agree with her or not, they were adamant in her right to have her opinion.”

Is there any truth to California Political Week‘s claims that Klehs and Eastin are being recruited to unseat Stark? Spokespersons for Berman and Lockyer, the putative recruiters, dismiss the rumor as “total fiction” and “completely wrong,” respectively. Nathan Barankin, spokesman for the attorney general, also refutes the claim that there’s any bad blood between Stark and his boss. “Their friendship runs long and deep and it’s Lockyer’s hope that Stark will, as he has consistently done over the last couple of decades, win re-election,” he says.

As for the touted challengers themselves, Johan Klehs says firmly that he has no plans to run; he has already filed to run for the state assembly next November for the 18th district seat soon to be vacated by termed-out Rep. Ellen Corbett. And both Klehs and Stark already have endorsed one another for their respective 2004 races.

Eastin, who is now the executive director of the National Institute for School Leadership, is up front about her future interest in Stark’s position. “If Stark retired, I would consider a run for the seat, but I’m not going to challenge him,” she says. “I’m not interested in having a family feud.”

Stark seems unfazed at the thought of a primary challenge if a candidate does manage to turn up, and good-naturedly points out that it would be folly to ignore the possibility of competition from his own party. “All of us in the House, we’re aware that the best group of politicians in California go to work in Sacramento every morning and they’re all in some kind of term limit situation,” he says. “If they love politics as much as I do, they’re going to be looking around for jobs.” But he also points out that he got his job in a year in which a dozen candidates ran against the incumbent, splitting the vote, a situation unlikely to repeat itself. The congressman has won the last several election cycles by healthy margins.

Stark says the letters his office has received have been favorable by a ten-to-one margin, although he acknowledges his outspokenness has drawn some fire. “Does that do me any good come November of ’04?” he asks. “Probably not. But I guess that I am so happy with the people I represent and feel so much a part of that community where I’ve lived forever, it seems they’d be disappointed in me if I did anything less.” He feels firmly in step with his constituents and with the greater Bay Area, which has played such a large role in protesting the war. “We’ve got libraries that are refusing to turn over lists to the FBI, God bless ’em, and a couple of cities refusing to gather information on people with funny last names,” he says proudly. “Where else would you find those kinds of people?”

Stark doesn’t see his emerging role as the East Bay’s voice of antiwar dissent as a major impediment to reelection, nor as something likely to affect his abilities to pass legislation, given his membership in the current minority party. “That’s what you do when you’re the opposition — you call attention to the foibles and weaknesses and bad policy the majority is making,” he says. “I really see that as our duty. It would be less than patriotic to do anything else.”

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