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Rep. Pete Stark: ambition vs. a big mouth

COLUMN ONE

One of Congress' most impolitic politicians is next in line for a plum leadership role. Stay tuned.

October 26, 2009|Faye Fiore

There was the 1994 subcommittee hearing where Stark suggested that Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a Connecticut Republican married to a doctor, got most of her healthcare knowledge from "pillow talk." Thirty-two female House members demanded an apology, which Stark delivered in a sealed envelope; he called Johnson an insurance industry "whore" a year later.

In 1999, he said former California welfare administrator Eloise Anderson would "kill children if she had her way." She said he was "totally out to lunch."

At a GOP-led hearing pushing abstinence in 2001, he noted that two of the party's leaders had confessed to extramarital affairs and said that all the children of a third were "born out of wedlock." (When it came to Stark's attention that only one of Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts' five children was born before Watts' marriage, Stark's office apologized for "overstating the number.")

At times, his defenders would say, Stark was provoked. Like in the summer of 2003, when Republicans dropped a draft of a complicated pension reform bill after midnight and called an early morning meeting to discuss it. Democrats huddled in a back room to strategize, leaving Stark to stall for time, which he did by demanding the bill be read word for word.

Tempers flared. Republican Rep. Scott McInnis of Colorado told Stark to "shut up," prompting Stark to remark: "You think you are big enough to make me, you little wimp? Come on. Come over here and make me, I dare you. You little fruitcake."

Police were summoned. McInnis said he thought Stark might hit him, a charge the then-71-year-old congressman called ridiculous. "I'm an elderly gentleman. . . . Look, I fall over trying to put on my underwear in the morning."

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Growing up in Wisconsin with Republican parents, Stark shared their politics even while his liberal leanings simmered. The aptitude tests he took as a teenager told him to become a social worker. "It didn't take a kid very long on my block to see the guy at the YMCA drove a Model A and the banker on the next block drove a Buick," he says. "So I became a banker."

A graduate degree from UC Berkeley brought him to the Bay Area. Vietnam changed his politics. Stark switched to the Democratic Party to back the 1968 protest candidacy of Eugene McCarthy. He put little peace signs on the checks of his Security National Bank and plastered a giant one on the roof of its Walnut Creek headquarters; the resulting attention launched his political career. He sold the bank -- it made him a millionaire -- and has been an outspoken war critic ever since.

"McChrystal is one of the best killers in the world, as he proved in Iraq, but I don't think he knows squat about diplomacy," Stark says of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. "I mean, if he didn't have a gun, he'd be useless."

One of only two House members who voted in favor of a draft, Stark reasoned that his colleagues would think twice before sending their own children into combat. "It's great to wave the flag and say go get 'em, but if their kids were going to go, they might think differently."

Years of Beltway brawling only seemed to raise Stark's stature in his largely blue-collar district, a Democratic stronghold wedged between Oakland and the Silicon Valley that last year gave him his biggest win yet, 77%.

"People who know him, some shrug and say, 'That's Pete.' Others say, 'Go get 'em,' because for these people, taking on the institution and the sacred cows when others shy away is admirable," said San Jose State University political science professor Larry Gerston. "The House has so many crazy characters, I'm not sure he stands that much apart."

But some believe the displays that spawn headlines like "Stark Raving Mad" would deepen the ideological divide in a key committee charged with finding the ways and means to pay for what the federal government does. Then there's the likelihood that his antics would boost the Republican Party.

"From a GOP point of view, you just stand back and watch," said Kevin Spillane, a party consultant in Sacramento who called Stark a "deeply offensive and toxic personality" and "a great fundraising tool."

Bypassing Stark for the chairmanship would not be simple. The Democrats like to honor seniority (the GOP got over that under Newt Gingrich). Then again, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Beverly Hills did just dethrone Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan as head of the Energy and Commerce Committee, so perhaps anything goes.

As for Stark, he wants the job. "I figure there's not a bill where I couldn't put a group together and get it done. And I think I'm a very fair presider."

He realizes he would not win the hearty endorsement of his fellow Democrats. It did not help matters when he recently called his party's moderate Blue Dogs, who are wary of healthcare reform, "brain-dead."

"I don't suffer people who disagree with me that well," he says.

He cites his mentor, the late Rep. Phil Burton, the famously volatile and brilliant powerhouse from San Francisco who lost a leadership election by one vote, then went on to forge landmark wilderness preservation. "You always find something to do," Stark said.

Still, he'd rather lead the committee he loves -- a sentiment he expresses, not surprisingly, with extra salt as the wall clock buzzes to summon him to another afternoon vote.

"In politics, winning isn't everything, but being second is pretty" . . .

Well, let's just say crappy.

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faye.fiore@latimes.com

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