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Democrat vs. Democrat in California's 15th District


For the past 39 years, the California’s 15th Congressional District has been represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by 81-year-old Pete Stark. He has gone mostly unchallenged until this year.

Eric Swalwell – a member of the Dublin City council – is running against Stark. Swalwell is quite a contrast: he's 31 years old, a soccer coach and a prosecutor. He’s also a democrat, which makes this race Dem v. Dem. This is the first time that two candidates from the same party can run for the same seat, a reform made possible by voters in 2010.

One party, two candidates

At the United Democratic Campaign offices in Newark, about ten people are on the phones in a large room where the walls are plastered with Democratic candidate posters, including those of Pete Stark. There’s no Eric Swalwell sign anywhere, and the campaign callers are asking people to vote for the incumbent.

“We'd very much like your support for the Democrat ticket, for Congressman Pete Stark,” says phone volunteer Sean Manolo.

Manalo says he’s gotten mixed responses.

“There’s lots of fans of Pete Stark, ‘cause we’re in Fremont, but I’ve also had instances where people are Swalwell all the way and they actually have some really nasty things to say about Pete Stark, so it keeps the race even more interesting!” says Manalo.

On this day, 20th California District Assemblyman Bob Wiekowski is here to greet the phone volunteers. Wiekowski is not surprised the party endorsement went to Stark.

"This is a rather liberal area and Pete Stark has been the grandfather of Medicare and social security. He’s served on the Ways and Means committee with distinction and anti-war vote. We feel an obligation within the party to return him back – one because of his seniority, but also because of that consistent vote that is reflective of our values here in the area," says Wiekowski.

Eric Swalwell says he isn’t running against Stark – he’s running against his performance.

"I saw a congress that is gridlocked and I saw an incumbent that’s largely been absent has missed more votes than 80 percent of his colleagues and doesn’t live in his congressional district, and I thought it's time for new 

energy and ideas," he says.

That “new energy and new blood” seems to be the reason Eric Swalwell is resonating with many 15th District voters, like Scott Segal of Union City. He says it’s time for someone new.

"At this point I'm going with Swalwell. I was leaning Stark, but then a lot of the stuff that Swalwell said I actually read into and followed a bit further and found that a guy with Starks rantings. I think its time to get some young blood in there," says Segal.

Other voters say, 'if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.'

"Maybe if we were unhappy with Pete, but we’re not unhappy with Pete. We're not looking for anything new. I really like Pete Stark but what I really like about him is he's the only Atheist in Congress, and that's why I’m voting for him," says Lauren Herrington.

The open primary system that voters approved in 2010 allows for voters to consider the top two contenders, regardless of party affiliation. That can create a dilemma.

When you’re a Democrat, the decision of who to vote for is easy in a traditional Republican versus Democrat race. But when both candidates are Democrats, voters have to actually consider what distinguishes each candidate’s platform.

Swalwell supporter Scott Segal went through that.

“A fresh new face is not all he has to offer. He will be, he says, what Stark hasn’t been,” says Segal.

The Stark campaign didn’t respond to calls to answer those points. Still, Swalwell realizes it’s not an easy race, and that he needs to distinguish himself from his competitor. So other than the 50-year age difference, the question many voters are asking is what concretely sets him apart from Pete Stark?

Eric Swalwell answers that question this way: "One, he voted against the auto rescue plan. I would've voted in favor. The president saved Detroit and GM, we lost NUMMI. I think he was asleep at the wheel when that happened. He has supported No Child Left Behind and I would work to repeal it."

Eric Swalwell also realizes he is running against a candidate with heavy political star power support. Stark has been endorsed by Congresswomen Feinstein, Barbara Lee and Boxer, House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and even President Obama. It makes this race seem like a David versus Goliath race, but that doesn’t seem to sway Swalwell. He says sure, Stark has the big names, but he has the relevant ones.

"While I love the president, I love Senator Feinstein and Barbara Lee, I am deeply  honored to have the support of people who can vote for me, and I think that's the difference,” says Swalwell.

That local support includes multiple East Bay Mayors and city council members, police departments, the Alameda County Sheriff, and the whole city council of Union City. Whether that will get him enough votes to beat a 40-year incumbent, we will find out on Tuesday night.

For people like Lauren Herrington of Union City, the new system has created a first time political conflict within her own liberal family. 

“We have competing yard signs,” she says.

Click the audio player above to listen to the story. 

Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.