Published April 16, 2013
Volume 21, Number 4

Congressman Eric Swalwell Makes It Work   

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

Newly elected Congressman Eric Swalwell knows how to “make it work.” When he was passed over for the Little League All-Star team, he redirected his passion into soccer, took a part-time job to pay for private coaching, and became a star player. When his soccer career was sidelined by an injury in college, he shifted course and took an unpaid internship in Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher’s Washington, D.C., office. As a transfer student at the University of Maryland, he bolstered the relationship with the College Park City Council not by running for office but by creating a student representative position so each constituency had a chance to hear the other’s point of view.

Less than two months into his Congressional term, Rep. Swalwell joined 39 other members of the freshman class in the newly established United Solutions Caucus, “a bipartisan group dedicated to finding common ground to solve the nation's problems.” Announced on Valentine’s Day last month and billed as “a little inter-party love,” the Caucus members’ 500-word statement pledging to abide by shared values should “give the American people confidence that 40 members of Congress respect each other and talk to each other in a bipartisan way,” he says.

Swalwell does appear to have a gift for finding common ground. “It’s the way I was raised,” he notes, pointing out that he was the sole Democrat in a Republican household that included both parents and three younger brothers. Standing out as the exception taught him the fine art of compromise. “My parents will tell you that talking to me as a child was not a conversation, it was a negotiation. I learned early that to get along you have to go along.”  The same logic stands behind his posture today: “Republicans have different beliefs about the best way to run the country. My instinct is to bring us together.”

 (Courtesy  Office of Congressman Eric Swalwell)

A 1999 graduate of Dublin High, the Congressman credits his achievements and positive outlook to several close relationships in addition to his own family. “There are a lot of people in the Tri-Valley who believed in me. Someone local was always looking out for my best interests,” he remarks. 

As a high school senior he was fortunate to strike up a friendship with a young teacher just starting his career, Tim Sbrante, now Dublin’s mayor. Already an outstanding soccer player with bright prospects, the self-described “jock” heard a different message from his economics teacher. “Tim inspired me to think beyond athletics. I cared about going to college, and I knew soccer was my ticket since my parents couldn’t pay for me. Tim pushed my thinking and got me involved in public service.” Swalwell’s first dive into local politics was working on a City Council campaign.

Later, it was Sbrante who encouraged Swalwell to apply for an internship in Tauscher’s office, a “life-changing” experience that led to law school. On graduation, Sbrante advised the newly minted attorney to return to Dublin. “It was like a compass that directed me home.”

Swalwell went to work in the Alameda County District Attorney’s office while setting his sights on the Dublin political scene. Once again his mentor stepped in, counseling patience. Sbrante recommended Swalwell get his feet wet on a commission before running for City Council. Instead of the high-profile Planning Commission, the Heritage & Cultural Arts Commission would be a better start. It was an interesting assignment. The Commission was working on the Dublin Heritage Museum, and Swalwell, always interested in history, was eager to be part of the project to celebrate the city’s roots.

A few years later Swalwell moved on to the Planning Commission. Still working in the D.A.’s office, he negotiated with his boss for permission to juggle the ensuing heavy work load. “I promised I would put the same energy into being a prosecutor as I would if I weren’t on the commission,” Swalwell says.

Characteristically, he made it work, at least in part because he is one of those rare, high- energy individuals who can get by on little sleep. “I aim for five hours a night,” he allows, adding, “I always had a sink-or-swim feel for things. We have a limited time on earth, and it’s up to each one of us to make the most of it. You can sleep when you die. Now is the time to work.”

A natural flair for the dramatic has also served him well. As a youngster Swalwell acted in school plays and was a frequent participant in mock trials. His theatrical gifts emerged later in the political arena, for example in Maryland when he showed up in tropical clothes as “Bahama Bob” to lead a rally protesting the governor’s leaving on a Caribbean vacation before resolving the state’s education budget. In last year’s Congressional campaign, as Swalwell challenged 19-term veteran Pete Stark, a fellow Democrat, he countered the incumbent’s refusal to participate in debates by staging mock events and playing tapes of Stark’s past comments in response to questions.

Again, Swalwell traces the theater back to his upbringing. “When you are one of four boys, you do everything you can to capture your parents’ attention. You learn to be a little more creative in your approach.” He has developed effective communication tools. “I always enjoyed finding new ways to persuade the judge or a jury in a case. People learn in a variety of ways, so I always try to use a variety of media to make a point.”   

Choosing Hacienda as the site of his office reflects Swalwell’s emphasis on local economic development, which he has declared time and again to be his highest Congressional priority. Noting the area’s growth, especially with east Dublin and the Livermore outlet stores coming on line, “I saw this office as putting us right in the center of it. It’s a good place to take the temperature of the Tri-Valley.” A satellite office in Hayward is in the works, but “the hub will always be in Hacienda.” 

Energy is another legislative focus. “We are at the tip of the iceberg on harnessing renewables. They can’t be our sole energy source because by their very nature they provide intermittent supply, but a balanced approach is the most responsible way to provide for our energy needs.”

While he is thriving in his new role, he does not plan to make politics his lifelong career. “I’ll continue to serve as long as I can be productive and add value,” but, mindful of the risks of getting too comfortable, he’s open to new possibilities in the future. His dream job? General manager of a baseball team. He admits “it will probably never happen,” but he might get close. Swalwell has established a monthly program, In Your Shoes, where he spends a day working alongside a constituent. So far, he has been a paramedic and an assembly line worker. The program just might be the vehicle to realize his dream. “Maybe I could manage for the A’s if they’re willing to lose a game or two,” he quips. Yet another creative way of making it work.

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