The Diablo Interview: Congressman Eric Swalwell
The high-profile politician discusses his legislative priorities and his (potential) upcoming run for the White House.
"I could offer a vision that could help the country. ... I think I could make the country better, and I think I could win." —Eric Swalwell
On a recent Saturday, U.S. Representative Eric Swalwell addressed hundreds of constituents at a town hall meeting at Dublin High. The audience, for the most part, treated him more like a rock star than an elected official, frequently breaking into applause as Swalwell discussed a Democratic agenda that is decidedly pro–health care, pro–gun control, and opposed to the priorities of the current administration.
Swalwell’s life has changed considerably since he was a high school soccer star with no political interests in the mid-1990s: He has prosecuted murderers while serving in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, upset longtime Democratic Congressman Pete Stark in 2012, and become a rising star in national politics, thanks to his roles on the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees and a near-daily string of appearances on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
Swalwell, 38, commutes to Washington, D.C., from his Livermore home, where he lives with his wife, Brittany, toddler son, Eric (who goes by Nelson), and infant daughter, Kathryn. Diablo sat down with Swalwell to talk about his meteoric rise—and where he hopes to go from here.
Q: Your family moved to Dublin when you were 11. How has the area changed since your formative years?
A: My parents kept changing jobs, to put us in better communities. Their dream for me was to be the first in the family to go to college. Dublin is where we ultimately settled, and it represented stability. It was still very much a bedroom community, and it was a better school district than where I’d been prior. It had mostly fast-food restaurants, no large employers.
Through the late 1990s—and then when I came back from law school and worked as an arts commissioner and a planning commissioner and a city councilman—a transformation was happening in Dublin. City leaders started to plan for the future.
They made investments in the schools. My dad was a school board member when I was in college and law school, and they built a new high school that improved the dilapidated high school that I graduated from, where only a third of our graduates went to a four-year university. Today, it’s more than twice that.
We were able to invite high-end employers to come to town. We have improved facilities. We built a senior center, built a new community center, and Dublin became a gem in the Bay Area. Today, the biggest complaints people have are traffic and that it’s hard to get into the schools. There are waitlists for the schools, which is frustrating—but I would have loved to have had those problems when I was a kid growing up.
And now we have a Whole Foods that I still can’t afford to shop at.
Q: If I’m doing the math correctly, the first presidential election you were eligible to vote in was Bush versus Gore in 2000. What were your politics like at that time?
A: I don’t remember if I voted in that or not. I really was not into politics. I did go to the inauguration for Bush though, during my first trip to Washington, D.C. I wasn’t sure if I was a Republican or a Democrat at that point; a friend of mine who was a Republican had tickets, so I went to the inauguration and went to some of the parties afterward.
Q: It’s surprising to hear from someone who is a leader in the Democratic party that you weren’t sure what party you would be affiliated with as a young adult.
A: That’s because I really couldn’t see beyond the next soccer game. But when I got injured in the spring after my [college] sophomore season, [a former] high school teacher suggested that I go to Washington, D.C., and take an internship for [former U.S. Representative] Ellen Tauscher, who was a Democrat. I knew that I liked Washington, and I wanted to know more about how it worked.
I saw [Tauscher] talk to Republicans as much as I saw her talk to Democrats. I saw someone who truly believed in a bipartisan way. I thought, That’s how Washington is supposed to work.
The first four years of my work in Washington were, I think, defined by creating a group that was bipartisan and getting bills passed and signed into law—even though I was in the minority. All of that changed with the Trump presidency and the Russia interference campaign. But, I still will strive in the new Congress to go back to what I learned from Congresswoman Tauscher: to work in a bipartisan way, keep those friendships, and use them to help your constituents.
Q: What are the top priorities for the House now that the Democrats hold the majority?
A: Hopefully, in the first month, you will see HR1 passed. This is the voting-rights bill that also addresses, to the degree we can, the Citizens United ruling that says corporations are people and they have unlimited abilities to contribute in a non-transparent way. We want to require any corporation that is publicly traded to disclose to its shareholders the money it spent in elections, so consumers know what the companies they buy goods and services from are doing.
We would have a low-dollar, federally matched contribution system to reduce what the contributions to candidates would be and have a small-dollar, public-financing match.
Then, restore the Voting Rights Act that was gutted by the Supreme Court. The Court found that some of the historic issues with the Voting Rights Act did not exist anymore, so we need to lay out the record of discrimination and suppression at the polls. We hope this will be passed swiftly.
Infrastructure will take longer. We’re talking about a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. That’s a lot of money, and my hope is that you can address climate change there. I see infrastructure as not just bridges and roads, but also utilities and solar and wind and energy resource and investments that the Department of Energy can make in research.
Q: What are the priorities that your constituents want you to address?
A: It’s really the day-to-day issues. Commuting. Congestion. Cost of housing. Those are the biggest issues in the Bay Area. In our district, that’s just the reality.
There is an economic boom that’s taking place, but that boom isn’t reaching everybody. You are commuting an hour and a half each way to reach your job, but the wages are staying flat. If you see yourself as being a lifelong renter and not able to own a piece of the American Dream, then the promise of America hasn’t reached you yet. I want to make sure that happens in the way that we invest in schools and job training and infrastructure to move people around, particularly extending the Dublin-Pleasanton rail.
Q: Your constituents had more questions and comments about guns than any other subject. In fact, when you suggested making universal background checks mandatory, the audience gave you an applause break.
A: I noticed that. Every time I hear applause for background checks, it reminds me how much people care about this issue. We are a little shy about talking about gun-safety solutions, fearful that people may see it as a divisive issue. But I think people care about protecting their communities. They realize that [gun violence] can come from anywhere. No place that we thought was safe is safe.
The most consensuses are over universal background checks. There is a lot of consensus about funding the scientific research about firearms; we’ve been able to lift the ban on scientific research, but it was not funded at all. I think you will see funding to treat gun violence as a public health crisis, an epidemic.
I am going to seek to go further and [push for a ban] on assault weapons. The debate is whether you ban future sales and manufacturing. I think you can’t solve the problem that way. I think you have to also buy back the [roughly] 15 million [assault weapons] that are still out there. And you are going to have to have funds for that buyback.
I personally believe that’s the way to go.
Q: What is your top priority in terms of health care?
A: To protect the Affordable Care Act. [We need to] make sure the administration is enforcing protections for people with pre-existing conditions. We learned [in 2018] that the Department of Justice will no longer [prosecute] if an insurance company charges someone more if they have a pre-existing condition. So, they are defying the law.
I see these next two years as the “protect mode.” Protect health care. Protect paychecks from additional tax cuts [that go to the wealthiest Americans]. Protect democracy from corruption. And then, in short order, the 2020 field is going to define what the advance mode would be if we had the White House, the Senate, and the House.
Q: You are on cable news shows almost every day, challenging President Trump. What feedback do you get from constituents who are Trump supporters?
A: I see the tweets and I see the Facebook messages. Some of my friends who have helped me and supported me don’t necessarily like that I stand up to the president because they support the president. I just ask that they talk to me about it.
I think even if we have a different viewpoint on Trump, we probably still have the same viewpoint that this should be a country where if you work hard, it means something—that it adds up to doing better for yourself and dreaming bigger for your kids.
I also look at my reelection numbers, and we won with more than 70 percent of the vote. I wasn’t uncontested; a Republican ran against me. Overwhelmingly, my constituents are for me. Because of those national TV appearances, they know what I’m doing. It’s not like they don’t know what their representative is up to. I’ve put myself out there. I sense that they are behind me.
Q: You say that President Trump uses lies as both a shield and a sword. How does that kind of dishonesty damage the national discourse?
A: It’s destructive when you have someone so willing to lie. I think most people would like to give the president the benefit of the doubt and trust that [he is] being truthful.
The lies just wear you down. [Trump] tells them often just to protect himself from the truth and what people think of him and what they would do to his power if they knew the truth. The barrage of lies grinds you down because you are just constantly trying to correct them. If I try and correct him, I’m giving him oxygen, but if I don’t correct it, it’s just out there and that’s the state of the evidence.
A winning case, whether it’s subtle or direct, for a 2020 candidate will be, “I will promise you that you will be able to go back to doing your job and not have to worry about me doing mine.” I do think that is a message that will be subtly delivered in 2020, because people [will be] ready to trust the commander in chief to do their job and not worry about all of the drama.
Q: There is talk that you may run for president. What would President Swalwell give the American people that they aren’t getting now?
A: I believe I could offer a vision that could help the country. I believe I have the experience of six years in Congress, serving as the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, being the youngest person in House leadership, being a prosecutor and city councilman, and being an American who is connected to the middle class by way of being the first in the family to go to college. I am connected to the everyday struggle that people have: I have a young family, aspire to be a homeowner, and have student loan debt.
I think I could make the country better, and I think I could win.
Q: What does your family think about you making a presidential run?
A: That’s really what it’s about: What is the cost to the family? My wife has a full-time job; she was one of the top directors of sales in the whole Ritz-Carlton brand last year. She wants to continue to do well in her career and grow. We have a 3-month-old and a 20-month-old, and I don’t want to be a stranger to them. And I have brothers who have [“Swalwell”] stitched across their police uniforms, so I don’t want to do anything that would make their jobs more difficult.
I know my wife is in for the sacrifice that it takes. When we had our son, we went to John Muir Health for her OB appointments. The week he was supposed to be born, my wife told the doctor that she was so excited that I would be there for the birth.
The doctor, who had never acknowledged what my job is, looked at me and said: “You’re going to miss votes this week? Aren’t they going to bring up the repeal of the Affordable Care Act?”
I said, “Yes, but I’m not going to miss the birth of my son.”
My wife looked at me and said, “They’re going to do that this week?” I said, “It could come up again.”
The doctor looked at my wife and me, and said, “Why don’t I make you guys a deal? I will do my job. You do yours. I will see your wife every day this week, and I promise you won’t miss the birth of your son. You go back there and make sure they don’t take away my patients’ health care.”
My wife insisted that I go [back to Washington, D.C.], and I did. I saw, in that moment, that my wife was willing to sacrifice me missing the birth of our son. She got it, and she saw from that doctor worrying about her patients, how this job impacts the lives of people. She wants to be part of helping.
By the way, I made it back with about three hours to spare.