Few modern politicians served the East Bay longer and with more distinction than former Rep. Pete Stark. During his four decades representing congressional districts that variously represented Oakland, San Leandro, Hayward, the Tri-Valley, and Fremont, Stark’s brand of progressive politics proved to set the stage for the region’s leftist ideology.
Stark, a Walnut Creek community banker who parlayed his opposition to the Vietnam War into an unprecedented 40-year run representing the East Bay in Congress, died Friday at his home in Maryland, the family announced. He was 88.
He was an early advocate, going back the early 1970s, of issues that still resonate in the nation’s current political discourse: improving health care for all and curtailing the country’s seemingly endless military entanglements. In addition, Stark was a strong early supporter of LGBT rights, and always a defender of minorities and the poor.
Stark first became known to the public when he erected a peace sign on the roof of the Walnut Creek bank that he had founded. He began his political career when he defeated long-serving East Bay Democratic Congressman George Paul Miller of Alameda in the primary, and then beat Republican Lew Warden in the general election. Miller supported continuing the Vietnam War, which Stark disagreed with.
Stark’s 1972 victory was part of a broader wave of freshman congressmembers who also had opposed the war. His opposition to wars of any kind was a constant theme during his time in Washington. In the aftermath of the Iraq War, Stark supported reinstating the draft out of a belief that those with means would likely avoid the personal consequences of war. “If we’re going to have these escapades, we should not do it on the backs of poor people and minorities,” he said.
Following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stark took heat for suggesting during a speech on the House floor that President George W. Bush enjoyed sending to troops to get killed. “You don’t have money to fund the war or children,” Stark said. “But you’re going to spend it to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.” Republicans in the House tried unsuccessfully to censure Stark for his remarks.
It was not the first and not last incendiary comment Stark would make. That comment and others like it may have led to Stark serving as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee for just one day in 2010.
But his tell-it-like-it-is rhetoric was often music to the ears of progressives in his district and the nation, while infuriating his opponents. During a congressional town hall in Fremont, an upset, likely conservative senior, berated Stark and told him, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me its raining.” Stark quickly responded, “I wouldn’t dignify you by peeing on your leg. It wouldn’t be worth wasting the urine.” To East Bay progressives, it remains a classic Stark retort that embodied his fighting spirit. For conservatives, it was an example of Beltway superiority and divisive politics.
Stark often had little patience with those who stood in the way of his ideas for providing greater health care and social services to not just the neediest of Americans, but all of them. Long before “Medicare for All” was a progressive talking point, Stark supported a universal single-payer health care program. His advocacy over the years provided the building blocks of what led to the Affordable Care Act being signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010.
In 1986, Stark authored the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. It’s better known to employees as COBRA, the law that allows workers to remain on their former employer’s health insurance until they find another job. Stark also was the guiding force behind passage of legislation that required hospitals that receive Medicare reimbursements to provide treatment to anyone who enters an emergency room regardless if they have health insurance.
Earlier, he led the effort to prohibit doctors from referring patients to clinics in which they or a family member had a financial interest. The anti-kickback legislation is named the “Stark Law.” However, the Trump administration has recently attempted to weaken it.
“He never back away from a fight,” said Jason Teramoto, a long-time aide in Stark’s congressional district office. “He was everything people said about him. Brilliant, ethical, and passionate. He was funny as hell.”
Stark’s progressive platforms fit perfectly with people he represented, Teramoto added. “He lived and fought for the soul of the East Bay. They were symbiotic. They needed him and he need them.”
Following his death, he was lionized by a host of Democrats.
“Today, America has lost a champion of the people and a leader of great integrity, moral courage and compassion,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Friday night. “Congressman Pete Stark was a master legislator who used his gavel to give a voice to the voiceless, and he will be deeply missed by Congress, Californians, and all Americans.”
Alameda Councilmember Malia Vella, who worked on Stark’s last campaign in 2012, said “he was instrumental in the lives of everyone who’s anyone in East Bay politics. If you don’t have a Pete story you aren’t important or relevant politically.”
Stark’s congressional career did not have the ending many progressives in the East Bay believed he deserved. When California approved the use of an independent congressional redistricting commission to redraw its borders in 2010, the decision to cobble together the Hayward and Fremont areas of Central Alameda County with the Tri-Valley proved to be Stark’s demise.
Eric Swalwell, a virtually unknown first-term Dublin councilmember successfully used Stark’s age and the lengthy list of insults, quips, and commentary against him. Stark was also somewhat of an unknown quantity to Tri-Valley residents in the new 15th District. While Stark won the June primary in 2012, Swalwell won the general election rematch in November.
Yet even Swalwell was quick to remember his predecessor as a Congressional lion. “Pete Stark gave the East Bay decades of public service as a voice in Congress for working people,” Swalwell said in a statement. “His knowledge of policy, particularly health care, and his opposition to unnecessary wars demonstrated his deep care and spirit. Our community mourns his loss.”
Rep. Barbara Lee, who worked along side Stark as a formidable pair representing the Democratic Party’s left flank, and who furiously opposed war, bad farewell to him on Twitter on Saturday morning.
“Pete Stark was a powerful voice for everyday families in the East Bay and around the country,” Lee said. “His tireless work on health care & his fierce opposition to war helped make our country a better place. He will be missed.”
Fremont and Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna, who in many ways has taken up the progressive mantle left by Stark in Central and Southern Alameda County, praised his service and political foresight.
“Pete Stark was a giant,” Khanna said. “He opposed the Vietnam and Iraq wars. He was for single payer before it was popular. He was a friend and mentor and helped build the progressive movement, even when it was lonely.”
In Congress, Stark was indeed lonely, at least, on the spiritual front. In 2007, he revealed that he was an atheist, making him the first member of Congress to acknowledge he did not believe in a supreme being.
Fortney “Pete” Stark was born in Milwaukee, Wis. in 1931. He graduated from M.I.T and served two years in the Air Force. Afterwards, he received a MBA from U.C. Berkeley.
He is survived by his wife, Deborah Roderick Stark, seven children, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.