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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."