Swalwell's graceful exit preserves bright future in politics

Swalwell’s graceful exit preserves bright future in politics

Rep. Eric Swalwell, having just dropped out of the 2020 presidential race, laughed when I asked: Does he envision making another run at some point? He is, after all, just 38 years old. “You know, a lot of people would say, even as they were hosting me in their homes, ‘If he’s not president this time, he’s going to to be president one day,’” Swalwell said in a phone interview. “And that’s cold comfort because you’re running really hard.” He did not answer directly. Instead, he suggested he would be guided by the advice he gives to Capitol Hill interns, many of whom hold dreams of being elected to Congress. “First get involved in the issues you care about,” he tells them, “and then you’ll find the right office and the right way to serve.” Swalwell had to know his bid was an extreme long shot from that sun-splashed April campaign kickoff rally at Dublin High School. Unlike Sen. Kamala Harris’ grandiose opening in downtown Oakland, drawing 20,000 by organizers’ account, Swalwell’s few hundred supporters had to be urged to move closer to the stage to give the event a better look on TV. Vice President Joe Biden was not yet in the race and the Pete Buttigieg phenomenon was just starting to incubate, but Swalwell began well behind other contenders (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke) in name recognition. As Swalwell noted at the time, only one U.S. House member — James Garfield, 1881 — has advanced straight to the presidency. He carried no illusions. Swalwell did not have a monopoly on the matter — every other Democrat was pushing for expanded regulation — but he took it further than any of the others in calling for a ban on assault weapons, along with a plan to buy back those already in circulation. He vowed to make gun control his campaign centerpiece. Prospective voters peppered him with concerns about every cause imaginable, most notably health care. But not a single American challenged him about his position on guns. No one demanded, “You’re not taking my gun,” he said. This for the congressman who gets trolled so regularly and viciously on social media that even his Facebook post about his son Nathan’s first birthday elicited a flurry of hate from gun advocates. “Front and center, eyeball to eyeball, is not the same as online,” Swalwell said, adding at another point, “What I learned was that (gun control) is not the hot stove that we’ve always been told.” The congressman said he found it gratifying that other candidates — notably Sanders and Harris — have stiffened their gun control positions as the nomination fight advances. As the first major candidate to drop out, Swalwell has been praised not only for his acceptance of reality — if only others in the bottom tier should take note, pleaded columnist Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post — but for the classy way he did it. Unlike so many politicians in defeat, he issued neither excuses nor shots at the remaining contenders, on or off the record. At his farewell news conference, he thanked the news media he encountered along the way. “They ask the tough questions we expect in a democracy,” he said. In retrospect, the three-month campaign was a no-lose venture for a young congressman on a leadership track. His role in the Russian investigations will surely keep him on the cable news circuit, and his campaign’s emphasis on gun control will make him a go-to source on that perennial issue. As Swalwell departs the race, another candidate from the San Francisco Bay Area jumped in. Tom Steyer, a former hedge fund investor who became a leading benefactor of liberal candidates and causes, will try to position himself as a populist outsider. Steyer has never held elective office, but he will be taken seriously from the start due to the $100 million he plans to pour into his campaign. His personal fortune is likely to be a blessing and a curse in a Democratic primary where the words “Wall Street” and “billionaire” are popular pejoratives. It will buy him an abundance of advertising and staff, but it also will raise questions about how he earned it. The Los Angeles Times was fast on the heels of his announcement with a story describing his hedge fund’s history: from his letter advising clients how to use offshore investments to avoid U.S. taxes to his fund’s investments in coal and private prisons. Steyer has been a champion of climate change action and the impeachment of President Trump — but that hardly distinguishes him in a field where those positions are de rigueur. San Francisco has long been a place that fuels presidential races with money, not candidates. There has never been a year quite like this, with the city’s former district attorney, Sen. Kamala Harris, rising in the top tier and two others with local pedigree, Swalwell and now Steyer, taking a shot at the big prize. “I’m the first one out, so I wouldn’t say our campaign is the model for any others,” he said with a laugh. “But one thing I stuck to rigidly was to not follow the herd mentality … be confident in yourself.” It’s not easy in today’s 24-hour news cycle to avoid being drawn into the latest poll, opponent’s statement or incremental development in the news. “You go up and down, up and down, almost every hour,” Swalwell said. “The biggest challenge is how do you stay constant.” Before joining the opinion pages, he directed the newspaper’s East Bay news coverage. He started at The Chronicle in 1990 as an assistant city editor. John began his journalism career as a reporter for the Red Bluff Daily News. Two years later, he was promoted to the Washington, D.C., bureau of the newspaper’s parent company, Donrey Media Group. After that, he worked as a general assignment reporter for the Associated Press in Philadelphia and as a statehouse reporter and assistant city editor for the Denver Post. He graduated from Humboldt State University in 1977 with a degree in journalism. He received a Distinguished Alumni Award from HSU in 2009 and was the university’s commencement speaker in 2010.
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