Rep. Eric Swalwell got to Washington three years ago by taking on the establishment: Instead of waiting for Pete Stark, who was 80 at the time, to retire, Swalwell went after the 20-term Democratic incumbent.
It was a bold move for a 31-year-old city councilman from the San Francisco suburbs, and Swalwell conceded in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call that he had concerns about how Stark's longtime colleagues on Capitol Hill would react to his arrival. "Oh God, they're all gonna hate me," he remembered worrying.
He said he cowered during his first interaction with Rep. George Miller, a fellow California Democrat who was then one of the most revered members in the delegation and who has since retired.
“[Miller] put his hand on my shoulder, and he said, ‘Eric, you ran against Pete Stark. Pete Stark was a friend of mine,'" Swalwell recalled. "‘But I want you to know, you’re here now, and you’re not half of a member, you’re not two-thirds of a member, you’re a full member of Congress, and we all want to work with you.’
“That sort of set the tone,” said Swalwell, who quickly found he wouldn’t be shunned after all.
A week after their introduction, Miller invited Swalwell to join him for breakfast in California. Soon after, Swalwell was taken under the wings of some other plugged-in House Democrats from the Bay Area, among them Reps. Anna G. Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren.
Another powerful Californian took notice of the young lawmaker from a neighboring district: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. She picked Swalwell to serve on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, and this year the former Dublin councilman, now 34, earned a leadership-appointed slot on the House Intelligence panel.
Last fall, Pelosi asked Swalwell to deliver one of the nominating speeches in her re-election for Democratic leader. He also cemented his status on Team Pelosi by helping whip votes for Eshoo — the minority leader's best friend — to be ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee (the job ultimately went to Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey).
Swalwell said he couldn’t speculate why Pelosi chose to mentor him over others in his 2012 class.
“I know that I really value and treasure our relationship,” Swalwell said. "And when I get on the plane and there’s an empty seat, I would be lying if I said that I don’t hope that she’s gonna be the one who comes and sits next to me.”
He said he’s used long flights to and from Washington, D.C., to get to know the leader, pick her brain and solicit advice. He said he believes he’s come to be a resource to Pelosi, whom he described as “really, genuinely interested in what the future voices are saying … and so I think she has come to me to kind of reach out and try to help her engage with that generation.”
That could be true: Swalwell’s most recent assignment is to oversee a revamped, younger voter outreach task force. It’s to be housed in the newly created Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, run by Rep. Steve Israel of New York in close coordination with Pelosi.
“Eric Swalwell is a dynamic, young leader in our Caucus whose creativity, energy and his focus on finding solutions is valued,” Pelosi said in an emailed statement to CQ Roll Call. “Congressman Swalwell is particularly well qualified to head up the DPCC’s outreach focused on sharpening Democrats’ message in engaging millennials who are the future of our country.”
Swalwell is excited about his latest project, though he said he plans to avoid using the “millennial” label because it's less a defined age bracket than a “state of mind.”
“Millennials don’t like that name,” said Swalwell, who gets lumped into that category. “I don’t like that name."
The former aspiring athlete-turned-prosecutor manages his own Twitter account and readily gives out his personal cellphone number — and he has a sense of humor about the idea he represents a link between older, established Democrats and a new generation of voters.
On the process of coming up with the new name for his outreach group, he joked, “just like any millennial group, we’re gonna kind of crowdsource it among the members.”
And asked why people in younger age brackets are waiting longer to get married and raise families, the unmarried Swalwell said it's the economy. “I don’t think it’s because we have commitment issues,” he said.
Lawmakers have since settled on “Future Forum,” the membership of which is still in flux. Including Swalwell, there are currently 11 House Democrats younger than 40, and all have been invited to participate and offer buy-in, along with a few other members north of the 40-year mark who want in on the game.
Members of the fledgling group will soon start to deliver speeches on the House floor on a semi-regular basis; in the spring, Swalwell will take the show on the road to meet with young voters — “not [to] talk to them,” Swalwell clarified, but to “listen to them.”
“I would say if you asked millennials about the issues they care about, they align most closely with the issues Democrats are leading on … but we haven’t really necessarily engaged with them,” Swalwell explained. “My job is to make sure the party of the future is connecting with the future, and I think we got a lot of room for improvement there.”
The current plan is for Future Forum to hit New York City, Boston and San Francisco, where members will take meetings with tech incubators, new media outlets such as Vice, and some colleges and universities.
Swalwell, the first in his family to go to college (he's still paying off his student loans), said the No. 1 issue for millennial-aged voters is how access to quality higher education without falling into crippling debt.
“They don’t trust that they can make a difference. They don’t even think it matters” if they show up to vote, Swalwell said of young voters.
“Show them that it matters,” he said. That is, present them with policy proposals that come directly from the Democratic Party and make them understand that voting for Democrats could make those proposals a reality.
The elections next year could yield significant change for Democrats, in the White House but also on Capitol Hill, where the makeup of the House Democratic leadership is likely to shift in some capacity. Asked if he wants a seat at the table, Swalwell demurs.
“I want to lead on these issues, like I said, that affect the next generation of Americans, and I’ll look to do that in whatever capacity I can,” he said. “Right now, I want to get this group off the ground, see how it goes and go from there, and help the leader in any way I can.
“I’m grateful that the leader has given me a voice on these issues,” Swalwell said.
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