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Stark's Revenge: Bad Blood Lingers With Former Foe

To avenge his defeat, former Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., has promised to put his financial means and political mettle toward ousting his successor.

Last November, Rep. Eric Swalwell upset the 20-term Democrat by a slim margin. Their race proved to be one of the state’s most bitter battles between two Democrats, thanks in part to California’s new primary system.

As a result, Swalwell started the 2014 cycle with a bull’s-eye on his back, and powerful California Democrats eyeing his defeat. State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett began to quietly run for the 15th District before Election Day 2012.

Corbett is a seasoned politician, but her campaign and fundraising have proved meager so far. However, she will have help from the wealthy Stark, who is backing her bid.

“Hopefully Eric will lose, and I am doing everything I can to see that Ellen Corbett wins that primary election,” said Stark, 82, in a Wednesday phone interview with CQ Roll Call. “I remember Eric, during the campaign against me, suggested that I was too old and inept to be of any value in the political process, so I am going to see if I can prove that to be wrong.”

Corbett will almost certainly secure the second spot on the November 2014 ballot.

The state’s primary system allows the top two vote recipients, regardless of party, to advance to the general. President Barack Obama captured 68 percent of the vote last year in the East Bay-based district.

“As I said in my last campaign, no member of Congress is entitled to his or her seat,” Swalwell said in a Wednesday phone interview with CQ Roll Call. “Pete Stark wasn’t, and I’m not either. So I still feel the best way to keep your job is to do your job, and I’m not going to take anything for granted.”

For Swalwell, the new system means he has no shortage of future Democratic opponents. Attorney Ro Khanna considered challenging him before he decided to run in the neighboring 17th District against another Democrat, Rep. Michael M. Honda.

That gives Corbett a long, clear shot at the 33-year-old lawmaker, assuming no other candidates jump into the race before the June primary.

“This is the poison of top-two primaries,” said Contra Costa County Democratic Party Chairman Chuck Carpenter. Swalwell is “an impressive young man, and I love Ellen. It’s hard for those of us who are in the middle of it.”

On paper, Corbett makes for a formidable primary foe. She’s been a state lawmaker since 1998, serving in both the state House and Senate. She’s risen to majority leader, but term limits prohibit her from running for her seat again in 2014.

Corbett said her legislative district overlaps with about 80 percent of the House district. Operatives add that she’s well-known in the area, although there’s no recent public polling on the race.

But despite her tenure in politics, Corbett had raised just $65,000 for her House bid through Sept. 30. As of that date, she reported having $143,000 in the bank.

In an interview, Corbett said she has kicked her campaign into high gear since the state legislative session wrapped up this fall, promising a more robust fundraising number in the last quarter of the year.

“My opponent is not as well-known,” Corbett said. “His record is not as long and as strong as mine, and I do know that.”

Swalwell, on the other hand, raised $781,000 this year through Sept. 30. That’s just $40,000 less than he brought in for his entire 2012 campaign, when he defeated Stark by almost 5 points.

On Wednesday, Stark vowed to spend some of his vast personal wealth to boost Corbett’s campaign.

“I know that Eric used to say that I had $30 million. I wish he was correct,” Stark said. “But I have at least half that much at my disposal, and so I intend to broadcast far and wide his ethics problems and his inexperience and his failure to accomplish much in the Congress.”

Swalwell is also conjuring images of Stark in his bid.

Last month, Swalwell sent a fundraising email to supporters calling Corbett “Pete Stark’s hand-picked successor” and painting her candidacy as “a step backwards we can’t afford,” according to the local East Bay Citizen blog.

Swalwell said he is taking Corbett’s primary seriously. He said he’s already been knocking on doors in the district and is spending as much time with constituents as he can.

“I certainly still feel the pressure, and I’m not going to take anything for granted,” Swalwell said. “The second that you take your seat for granted is the moment I think that you’re truly vulnerable.”

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