By GARANCE BURKE, Associated Press
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Democratic Rep. Pete Stark, the longest-serving member of California's largest-in-the-nation congressional delegation, offered a taste of his trademark invective.
"It's a question of choosing experience, or a novice who likes to lie," Stark told the crowd of Democratic attorneys on a recent afternoon, as the sweet smell of ribs wafted from the buffet at a barbeque house along Oakland's waterfront.
The 80-year-old Stark is used to coasting to re-election in the liberal enclave of the San Francisco Bay area he has represented since the end of the Vietnam War. Legislative gerrymandering and California's primary system virtually ensured that he would emerge victorious in November.
All that has changed this year, as Californians deal with two major political reforms that are remaking the congressional landscape and creating competitive races for the first time in decades. The results are a long list of up-for-grab seats, once-safe incumbents fighting for their political lives and tens of millions of dollars in campaign spending.
For the Democrats, California is one of three states — New York and Illinois are the others — that hold the most promise of significant gains that could help them reduce the GOP majority in the House. Winning the House outright still remains a tough haul despite better numbers nationwide for President Barack Obama.
For Republicans, California is a chance to keep Democrats in check.
Stark is a 19-term incumbent squeezed by the two political reforms — an independent citizens panel that redrew the congressional boundaries and a new primary system that sends the top two vote-getters to the general election regardless of party affiliation. Both changes were approved by voters in recent years.
Not only is Stark in a newly drawn district in which many voters are unfamiliar with him, but his general election opponent is a fellow Democrat who finished a close second in the June primary. The congressman has acknowledged that even he can no longer go on autopilot if he hopes to win re-election.
Stark's challenger, Eric Swalwell, a 31-year-old prosecutor for the Alameda County District Attorney's Office, casts himself as a native son of Stark's new district, which was redrawn to include more moderate, inland suburbs south and east of Oakland, which is no longer in the district. For years, Stark has lived in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay region and flies back to California for town halls and other events.
"I played soccer on all the ball fields in this district. I've worked as a prosecutor in all these courts and have worked with regional governments as a councilman," Swalwell, a member of the Dublin City Council, said in an interview. "I'm basically running against a ghost who has been in hiding and doesn't even come out here to defend his record."
While Stark is challenged by both of California's new political reforms, which are taking effect on a statewide basis for the first time, the outcome of that race will not change the makeup of Congress. The Stark-Swalwell race is one of eight same-party runoffs this fall caused by the top-two primary.
Independent redistricting has created competition between Democrats and Republicans in about a dozen other races, contests that could help alter the House this year or in 2014.
"California is really the central battleground for the future of control of the House," said Dan Conston, a spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that supports GOP candidates. "The battlefield doesn't look anything like what Democrats hoped it was going to look like."
Democrats, however, say independent redistricting has worked against Republicans in a state where the GOP has only about 30 percent of registered voters. Democrats also are trying to wrest seats from several Republican incumbents, including Rep. Mary Bono Mack, who represents a Southern California desert district that runs through Palm Springs.
Her challenger, Democrat Raul Ruiz, is a physician with support from a political action committee led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.