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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?



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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.


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