“I haven’t learned this much in a single year in my entire life.”
That’s how Rep. Eric Swalwell describes his first 12 months as a congressman.
The East Bay Democrat was sworn in on Jan. 3, 2013 after defeating 40-year incumbent Congressman Pete Stark by a surprisingly easy margin in the November 2012 election.
Since his inauguration, the 33-year-old Dublin High School alum has taken on the Tea Party, formed a bipartisan caucus to work with Republicans, co-sponsored an assault weapons ban, introduced a payroll tax deferral bill to help local businesses and steered a number of federal grants to the 15th congressional district.
Mostly, he says he’s learned how complicated the machinery of government really is.
“I’ve come to appreciate that when you peel back the veneer there is very complex wiring that keeps this whole country going,” Swalwell said during an interview with Patch in his Pleasanton office.
Swalwell can’t afford to spend too much time looking back. He also needs to look to the immediate future.
The freshman congressman is facing a re-election challenge this year from State Sen. Ellen Corbett.
Corbett, the Senate majority leader, plans to spotlight her 20 years on the San Leandro City Council as well as in the state Assembly and the state Senate.
Corbett, who is termed out this year, says she has been working for the towns in the congressional district for years now. She feels she can represent them better than Swalwell.
The incumbent, however, points out he has delivered $700,000 in federal funds back to the district in his first year. His office has also handled 46,000 pieces of mail and 1,000 pieces of case work.
“The legislative agenda and the policies are important,” said Swalwell, “but at the end of the day our phone rings dozens of times every day and we get over 1,000 pieces of mail every week and those people expect immediate results.”
Swalwell says his biggest surprise during his first year in Washington, D.C., is how much independence individual members of Congress really have.
The only time, he says, a Democratic leader has spoken to him is when he broke House rules by recording one of his votes on his mobile device.
“The truth is I’m the one who puts that voting card into that voting machine and pushes the button,” said Swalwell. “I’ve never had anyone come to me and say I can’t believe you voted that way.”
His biggest disappointment has been how slow the process moves in Washington. Swalwell noted Michigan Democrat John Dingell told him he introduced health care reform in his first year in office and it only took 56 years to happen.
“Congress is an institution that is slow to move and slow to change,” said Swalwell.
Swalwell said the halls of Congress are quite polarized, no surprise to anyone who follows politics.
He said the country is different from state to state, so it can be difficult to find common ground. Swalwell first discovered this fact when he tried to drum up support for an assault weapons ban last January and ran into Democrats from the South and Midwest who were limited in what they could do because of their home districts.
“I appreciate that this country has 50 very different states and it was designed by great minds over 200 years ago who didn’t want changes that were too fast or too unchecked,” Swalwell said.
In particular, Swalwell has been critical of the Tea Party. He has called them “anarchists” and in a House floor speech last September Swalwell told the Tea Party to wake up from its “radical, ideological wet dream” to defund the Affordable Care Act.
“I see them just looking to burn bridges and I don’t think that’s constructive,” said Swalwell. “I understand we’re not going to agree on all the issues, but you have to come to the table.”
In response, he and 29 other new members of Congress in both parties have formed United Solutions Caucus to build a more compatible future.
“We’re not naive. We know that overnight we’re not going to change the course of Congress,” said Swalwell, “but I think continuing to have the dialogue and build the relationships puts that foundation in place for when we are in more senior positions that we can strike deals and get things done.”
Swalwell said the two-year congressional budget deal reached last month was encouraging and he hopes it can lead to immigration reform and increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour later this year.
Some observers have said that Swalwell’s voting record during his first year is more liberal than the one he campaigned on during 2012.
Swalwell said he has sided with liberals on issues such as the minimum wage, gay rights and the Affordable Care Act. However, he said he has broken with Democratic leaders on issues such as the National Security Administration and Syria. He said he also has been a strong supporter of the business community and the military.
In particular, he notes the Main Street Revival Act he co-sponsored that allows some small businesses to defer payroll taxes during their first year of operation.
Swalwell noted he grew up in a middle class family. His parents were renters most of his childhood and he was the first person in his family to go to college.
“I saw first hand growing up how hard it can be on middle class families to make it in America,” said Swalwell. “I still have an independent streak in me, but I’m guided by my Democratic values.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) endorsed Stark over Swalwell in the 2012 election. Now, she has high praise for the first-year congressman.
In a statement sent to Patch for this story, Pelosi said Swalwell has established himself in his first 12 months in office.
“In short order, Congressman Swalwell has made a big impact in Washington on behalf of the working women and families of California’s 15th district. He is a champion and key ally in the fight to strengthen the middle class, increase investments in the education of our children, and to create an economy that works for all Americans,” said Pelosi. “When Eric ran for Congress, he promised to be an uncommonly accessible representative for his constituents. In office, he has more than upheld that vow and set a new standard for using technology to engage and serve his constituents.”
For the 2014 campaign, Swalwell is not the challenger trying to oust an incumbent. He is the incumbent. So he has adopted the slogan “keep moving forward.”
“In this past year, I think we have redefined what people can expect from their member of Congress in this area,” Swalwell said. “Having a member of Congress who is thinking creatively and innovatively is what this district expects and needs.”
Swalwell says he isn’t taking any cities in the district for granted in this election. However, Hayward appears to be a key community since it is the largest city in the district and perhaps the most persuadable.
Swalwell said Hayward needs assistance with its schools and its economic development.
“Hayward, I think, needs a lot of attention and we’re going to run hard there,” the congressman said. “We’re going to go out into the entire district and earn every vote that we can. I don’t think of my work as being done. There is a lot more to do.”