By many accounts, Rep. Pete Stark's re-election campaign should've been a cakewalk. But with less than five weeks to go before the primary election, his recent gaffes have left some wondering whether he's got a real race on his hands.
The 80-year-old Stark, D-Fremont, has a long-standing reputation for (ahem) direct language. In 2003, he called a GOP congressman "a fruitcake." Three years ago, when a constituent asked him not to "pee on my leg and tell me it's raining," Stark replied that he wouldn't waste the urine.
But those and other incidents tended either to be rhetorical ripostes or angry differences of opinion, not easily disproved falsehoods like his recent pronouncements.
Just in the past few weeks, he's publicly and falsely accused a challenger of taking bribes, a felony. And he falsely accused a San Francisco Chronicle columnist of contributing to that challenger's campaign, which in journalism would be an ethical breach and perhaps a firing offense. He has since apologized for both incidents.
Stark is being challenged this year by fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell, a Dublin city councilman and Alameda County prosecutor, and by Hayward businessman Chris Pareja, a conservative independent. Another Democrat, Ro Khanna, has raised a ton of money but is supporting Stark with an eye toward succeeding him when he retires.
But the congressman might have more to overcome than his challengers.
"Stark is running against Stark," said James Morehead, 45, a decline-to-state voter from Dublin. "He's made this particular race interesting by putting a big spotlight on himself."
Morehead, a software company executive and editor of the OneDublin.org education blog, said he'd gone to an April 10 candidates' forum in Hayward knowing very little about Stark -- and left with a bitter taste in his mouth.
"He came off as being sort of annoyed that he has to run ... as someone who felt entitled to one more term in office and to whom this whole thing is just an irritation," he said. "But at the Chronicle thing, he really looked out to lunch."
It was at the April forum that Stark accused Swalwell, 31, of taking "hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes" from real estate developers in exchange for favorable zoning votes. Stark also accused Swalwell of having a spotty voting record.
Neither was true, and on April 18, the congressman apologized and said he "misspoke."
Yet in that same statement, he expressed "concerns" that Swalwell has voted in support of developers "who have been raided by the FBI, have pleaded guilty to destroying natural habitats, and has taken numerous contributions to fund his campaign which he consistently utilizes with negative attacks."
With Swalwell sitting beside him Thursday at a Bay Area News Group editorial board meeting, Stark began reading a list of developers who've contributed to Swalwell's campaign -- before acknowledging that he also lacked evidence to back his April 18 claims.
"I'll concede to that, apologize for it, and let's get back to issues," Stark said.
Earlier this week, he accused San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders at an editorial board meeting of having contributed to Swalwell's campaign. Asked for evidence, he came up blank and apologized.
On Thursday, he explained that he'd gotten some names confused.
"It was a series of mistakes for which I've apologized," Stark said. "But based on the record of my accomplishments in Congress, there's no question I'm eminently fit to continue to serve this district. You will not find many members of Congress who have provided more good programs for their district and for the people of this country."
Stark was an Air Force veteran and banker before defeating a 14-term incumbent for his House seat in 1972 on an anti-Vietnam War platform. Now California's longest-serving member, he's also Congress' only avowed atheist.
A son from his first marriage is an Alameda County deputy district attorney. He also has a 16-year-old son and 10-year-old twins from his current marriage.
In the past decade, Stark has had only one primary challenger -- whom he dispatched in an 84 percent landslide -- and has won all his general elections with more than 70 percent of the vote, even when facing as many as four November challengers.
Unseating a well-funded, party-supported, 20-term incumbent can be like taking on an army with a popgun. But Swalwell hoped that new district boundaries and the new top-two voting system -- in which voters of any or no party can cast ballots for any candidate, with the top-two vote-getters advancing to November's general election regardless of party -- would give him a leg up. Now Stark's gaffes seem like a godsend to the publicity-hungry Swalwell, whose main campaign contention is that Stark has been in Washington, D.C., for too long and has lost touch with his constituents.
Swalwell on Thursday called Stark's pronouncements "bizarre" efforts to deceive voters by someone who hasn't had a serious challenger in decades.
"Now that a light is shining brightly on him, the voters are learning just what he's willing to say to get elected," Swalwell said.
Stark's words are resonating well beyond the 15th Congressional District's boundaries.
"Absolutely, there is serious concern," a Capitol Hill campaign operative said this week on condition of anonymity, because his job is to support incumbent Democrats. "With Pete Stark's long and distinguished career, it's difficult to watch these episodes, which are occurring with increasing frequency."
Khanna, a former Obama administration official who raised an eye-popping $1.2 million in 2011's final quarter for his eventual bid to succeed Stark, co-hosted a fundraiser for Stark on Monday night in Hayward. He said 80 to 100 local elected officials, Democratic activists and other Stark supporters were there.
"He's as sharp as ever in discussing issues ... and I think people who heard him speak at the event in Hayward would also confirm that," Khanna said Wednesday. "My conversations with him usually concern manufacturing policy ... and I've talked to him about the student-loan issue, on which I know he's working on legislation. He's definitely deeply engaged on a policy level and as passionate as ever."
Asked about the recent gaffes and apologies, Khanna called for a return to discussion of issues and policy ideas. He also said Stark "should be accorded some dignity of respect just out of the sheer fact that he's dedicated his entire life to service to the country."
Josh Richman covers politics. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman.