WASHINGTON — Pete Stark is sitting in a gilded meeting room in the House of Representatives. It is home to the powerful Ways and Means Committee that the Northern California Democrat might never chair, precisely because of the sort of verbal exchange he is attempting to explain at the moment:
"He said to me, 'Don't pee on my leg.' And in a sense I said, 'I won't.' "
Stark, nearly 78, is dissecting the latest in a hit parade of outbursts, this one pertaining to the likelihood of California's longest-serving congressman relieving himself on a constituent.
His colorful tirades don't offend the working-class Fremont district that has sent him to Washington 19 times. Now, though, Stark's temper threatens to cost him one of the most prestigious seats in Congress -- chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The job could come open if a pending House investigation finds that the current chairman, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, broke ethics laws by failing to report thousands of dollars in taxable income even while he was head of the tax-writing committee.
Next in line for the post is Stark, long known as an antiwar crusader and champion of the disadvantaged, but also for, as the San Francisco Chronicle put it, "spewing personalized invective that might get him punched in certain East Bay taverns."
He once called the American Medical Assn. a bunch of "greedy troglodytes." He assailed one Republican colleague as "a whore for the insurance industry," called another a "fascist" and a third a "fruitcake." Recently, when a pesky journalist asked the same question too many times, Stark threatened to throw him out the window.
"Oh yes, oh yes, I personalize it and I shouldn't," Stark says, slouched in a chair, confronting what he calls "my outbursts" like a chagrined schoolboy who might do it again anyway. "A member has a right to have a position different from mine without my challenging their mental capacity, their integrity, their manhood, their womanhood."
Elected in 1972 on an antiwar platform, Stark built a reputation as a tax law reformer and a fierce champion of universal healthcare. Among his legislative achievements: the COBRA law that lets workers keep health insurance coverage for a time after leaving a job; improved unemployment compensation; and legislation banning emergency rooms from dumping patients who can't pay.
Stark seems to thrive as the odd man out, the only self-declared atheist in Congress, a septuagenarian soccer dad and grandfather of eight. (He has four grown children from his first marriage and three from his second -- a 14-year-old and 8-year-old twins -- what he called his "second litter.")
Lately, his health hasn't been the best. He is still wheezy from a two-month battle with pneumonia. Neuropathy locked up his left ankle and gave him a limp. His 6-foot-2 frame is now just a hair over 6 feet. "As you get older, you shrink," he says.
But not from any fights.
This brings us to how an MIT-educated ex-banker and retired Air Force Reserve captain wound up in a testy exchange this summer at an otherwise uneventful town hall. There, an angry voter spent several minutes telling Stark the government messes up everything it touches and should not be trusted to run a public health insurance program.
"Mr. Congressman, don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining," the voter said.
"I wouldn't dignify you by peeing on your leg. It wouldn't be worth wasting the urine," the congressman replied.
"I don't know. It's difficult for me," says Stark, a mild-mannered gentleman this afternoon, acknowledging that his colleagues faced similar attacks and mostly sucked it up. "I don't do it on taxes, that doesn't bother me. But on issues I think are harmful to the disadvantaged, I lose patience. So, I do what I shouldn't do, in other words; rarely is it planned."
That's what worries some Democrats in Washington who think replacing Rangel with Stark could mean swapping one public relations minefield for another.
The Democrats came to power promising to "drain the swamp" of Washington corruption, only to see Rangel come under a House Ethics Committee investigation. At issue are four Harlem apartments he rented for thousands below market value in what might be an illegal gift. He later revealed owing thousands in back taxes on rental income from a Caribbean villa that he never reported.
Party leaders are waiting for the inquiry to wrap up before deciding whether to oust Rangel. Meanwhile, Washington's eyes inevitably turn to the heir apparent and a long resume of rants. His fans cheer the tirades as courageously candid; his foes suggest he "take his medication." The targets are usually Republicans who, as he sees it, put the wealthy before the poor, send other people's children off to war or fail to practice what they preach.