The Pugnacious Pete Stark

Pete Stark early in his Congressional career.

Before I post this, I want to put my cards on the table. In the 2012 redistricting, my hometown was to fall under his district, and I voted for Swalwell over Stark and did so with gusto given his ultra-liberal reputation and his penchant for pugnaciousness. On to covering Stark:

The year is 1972 and liberal Democrats have recently taken umbrage to Congressman George P. Miller. Miller had served in his Alameda County-based district since 1945 and is now 81 years old. The central complaint they have with him is that he has proven supportive of President Nixon on the Vietnam War. Although still a liberal Democrat in many more ways than not, he voted against Cooper-Church in 1970, against the Nedzi-Whalen Amendment and the Mansfield Amendment in 1971, and against the Boland Amendment in 1972, all efforts to restrict the scope of the war or to pull out. One of his colleagues, Jeffery Cohelan of Berkeley, had lost renomination in 1970 for less to Ronald V. Dellums. Enter Fortney Hillman “Pete” Stark (1931-2020).

Stark is a banker by profession and had founded the Security National Bank in Walnut Creek in 1963, intending it as a bank for the working class. His bank was a success and opened branches in both Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, eventually becoming worth $1 billion. He was at one time a Republican, but moved into the Democratic Party in the 1960s and was vehemently against the Vietnam War. His bank printed checks with the peace sign and he had the peace sign constructed atop the headquarters of his bank, attracting liberal customers. Stark, who campaigns against Miller both on him being old and his Vietnam War record, wins the primary. Indeed, his more difficult election is the general and in the year of the Nixon landslide, he prevails by six points against Republican Lew Warden. This will be the strongest challenge he ever faces from a Republican as his Alameda County district only gets more Democratic. Upon his victory, Stark sells his shares in Security National Bank. He soon establishes a staunchly liberal record, especially on questions of foreign policy and has a record both as a serious politician but also for his outbursts. I will start with the former.

Contributions to Law

Although Stark’s field was not initially healthcare, in 1985 he was elevated to be chairman of the subcommittee on health on the Ways and Means Committee. He would be the leading Democrat on this subcommittee until 2013. In 1985, Stark succeeded in getting an amendment attached to the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), mandating numerous employers to offer continuation of coverage after a major life event and in the following year he won passage of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), requiring hospitals to treat and stabilize people in emergency rooms regardless of ability to pay. He contributed the Stark Laws, which are regulations that severely restrict healthcare providers from referring Medicare patients to institutions that they profit from.

In 1986, as part of the tax legislation he played a key part in establishing COBRA, permitting employees to stay on their employers’ healthcare plans while looking for another job. He also worked with Rep. Bill Gradison (R-Ohio) to pass the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act in 1988, which expanded Medicare benefits to include outpatient drugs and caps copayment costs for enrollees, but the law faced massive criticism in the following year and was repealed by Congress. In 2008, Stark was one of the leaders of the push to pass the Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act over President Bush’s veto.

The Stark Law

In 1988, Stark proposed a law that prohibited doctors who took Medicare patients from referring them to facilities where they or member of their immediate family have a financial stake and this was ultimately incorporated into the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 (Kolber). This was followed up with a prohibition regarding doctors who took Medicaid patients (“Stark II”) in 1993.

Stark and Obamacare

Stark was also a key figure in the drafting of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), having written some provisions of the law. He was an advocate for single-payer health care before it got the visibility it has now and unsuccessfully pushed for the inclusion of the public option, which if enacted had the potential to crowd out the private health insurance market.

Stark and Constituent Service

I have written this before, and I will do so again. If a member Congress has a reputation that is extreme or outrageous, look to constituent service as a reason they stick around. Stark had a reputation of delivering for his district, steering billions of dollars into it and assisted thousands of constituents in dealing with federal agencies (Lochhead).

Stark’s Controversies

Stark in 2002.

Pete Stark was a highly controversial figure to say the least, and he could be quite feisty. Some of this can be attributed to a core attitude of his, which in his own words in 2002 was, “I cannot tolerate individuals who are indifferent to the plight of the poor” (Schudel). I will go down the list!

In 1990, he called Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, a black physician, “a disgrace to his profession and his race” over disagreements on healthcare policy to which he responded, “I don’t live on Pete Stark’s plantation” (Schudel).

The following year, he called out Jewish colleagues who supported the Gulf War, referring to Jewish co-sponsor Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) as “Field Marshal Solarz in the pro-Israel forces” (Discover the Networks).

In 1995, he called Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) a “whore for the insurance industries” who got her knowledge about healthcare through “pillow talk” (from her physician husband), for which he subsequently wrote an apology (Discover the Networks).

In 1999, Stark denounced California’s welfare director, black conservative Eloise Anderson, by stating that she would “kill children if she had her way” (Discover the Networks).

In 2001, during a debate on sexual abstinence programs, Stark accused Congressman J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) of fathering all of his children out of wedlock (two were). Watts, not present at the debate, got wind that he had said this and confronted him two days later, asking why he said that and asserted that not all of his children were born out of wedlock, to which Stark retorted, “Then how many were there?”, with Watts having to be restrained by his fellow members (Lochhead).

In 2003, Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was trying to quickly pass an employer pension reform plan. Stark proceeded to heckle Thomas with vulgarities. Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) told him to “shut up” and he responded, “Oh, 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. I said you are a fruitcake” and proceeded to call him a “cocksucker” (Discover the Networks).

In 2007, in response to President Bush’s veto of a proposed expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, he said, “You don’t have the money to fund the war or children. But you’re going to spend it to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement” (The Columbus Dispatch). Republicans attempted to censure him for this remark, but Democrats were in the majority and it was voted down.

Carl Guardino, the head of the non-partisan Silicon Valley Leadership Group arranged a meeting with Stark and a few small business leaders, which according to him, went like this: “Mr. Stark walked in, screaming the ‘F word’ at those small businessmen and women and turned what should have been a civil discourse on jobs and the economy into a curse-laden tirade” (Lochhead).

In 2008, Jan Helfeld, an interviewer who employs Socratic questioning, interviewed Stark, with the Congressman expressing the belief that “the more we owe, the wealthier we are”, and after he questions this by asking “Shall we borrow another trillion so we can become more wealthy?” he got progressively more belligerent and distraught as Helfeld stays on this issue and then Stark ended the interview, saying “Get the fuck out of here or I’ll throw you out the window” (Helfeld).

In 2010, he asked a member of a militia movement at a Town Hall meeting who was supporting stricter border control, “Who are you going to kill today?” (Schudel)

When a senior citizen at a Town Hall meeting said, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining” Stark responded, “I wouldn’t dignify you by peeing on your leg. It wouldn’t be worth wasting the urine” (Tavares).

Stark and the House Banking Scandal

I have covered the House Banking Scandal in the past, and it turns out that in the California delegation, Stark had a lot of overdraws. He had 64 overdrawn checks, which was a bit galling for a banker. However, Stark was after an investigation cleared of any criminal wrongdoing and received an exoneration letter, which he commented on by saying, “It’s a dastardly political thing if some poor bastard gets no letter. I’m not a lawyer, but it doesn’t seem to me it quite follows what ought to be ethics” (Tampa Bay Times).

Stark, Reintroducing the Draft, Atheism, and Other Matters

During the War in Iraq, of which he was a staunch critic, Stark supported reinstating the draft to make it so that people in more groups would have to experience the burden of war, stating, “If we’re going to have these escapades, we should not do it on the backs of poor people and minorities” (Tavares). He was also a Unitarian and in 2007 was the first ever member of Congress to openly identify himself as an atheist. The following year, the American Humanist Association awarded him the Humanist of the Year award.

Although Stark had a lifetime ACU score of 4%, he did have an independent streak. For instance, in 2008 he voted against both versions of the financial services bailout which created the Troubled Asset Relief Program and against bailing out the auto industry. Stark also voted against “cap and trade” in 2009 as an insufficient approach to climate change.

In 2010, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) stepped down in response to pressure within the Democratic Party after a critical report from the House Ethics Committee on taking sponsored Caribbean trips was released, which would later result in a censure. Although next in seniority for the post, Stark’s infamous reputation caused them to pass him over for Sander Levin of Michigan.

By 2012, Stark was, like Miller before him, getting on in years. In fact, he was going to be turning 81 in November, the same age that he had campaigned against Miller based on age. What’s more, he had been redistricted into a district that had only half of his original constituency. Folks in places like San Ramon, Dublin, Pleasanton, and Livermore were not so friendly to Stark’s political hot takes. What’s more, although his primary residence was in Alameda County, he had been spending most of his time in his other home in Harwood, Maryland and a controversy came about over whether he had improperly filed for an application for a homestead exemption for this home (Sherman). Enter Dublin City Councilman Eric Swalwell to challenge him. Stark attacks with him with both barrels, and falsely accused him of taking bribes from developers, which he ended up apologizing for (Lochhead). He also characterized him as a “Tea Party” candidate, a characterization that has aged like milk. Stark also mixed up the defunct Solyndra with Tesla Motors, both companies that had involvement in his district, proclaiming that he would love to buy one of the company’s new “S” cars (Lochhead). Although Stark won the primary, Swalwell could still run against him in the general election as California had recently adopted the open primary system and he prevailed by four points on Election Day. This made Stark the second longest serving member of Congress to ever lose reelection.

Stark died of leukemia on January 24, 2020. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi eulogized him, saying, “Today, America has lost a champion of the people and a leader of great integrity, moral courage, and compassion. Congressman Pete Stark was a master legislator who used his gavel to give a voice to the voiceless, and he will be deeply missed by Congress, Californians, and all Americans” (Tavares). As for what I think of the man, I think he was a partisan bomb thrower with a nasty streak and had some ability as a legislator. I have no regrets about voting him out, but one thing I will say for Stark is that he had the sense not to run for president! Why Swalwell even ran in the Democratic primary in 2020 is to me a mystery for the ages.


70 in House bank scandal are cleared. (1992, September 10). Tampa Bay Times.

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Helfeld, J. (2008, August 23). Pete Stark Blows Up Over National Debt. YouTube.

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Kolber, M.J. (2006, April). Stark Regulation: A Historical and Current Review of Self-Referral Laws. HEC Forum 18(1): 61-84.

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Lochhead, C. (2012, August 16). Pete Stark’s burned bridges have cost him. SFGate.

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Novak, R. (2003, July 24). Thomas’s ‘police state’. CNN.

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Pete Stark. Discover the Networks.

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Republicans blast Rep. Stark for war-funds remark. (2007, October 19). The Columbus Dispatch.

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Schudel, M. (2020, January 25). Pete Stark, long time East Bay congressman, dies at 88. The Washington Post.

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Sherman, J. (2010, March 1). Pete Stark’s bizarre ethics interview. Politico.

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Tavares, S. (2020, January 29). Why Pete Stark Mattered. East Bay Express.

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Why Pete Stark Mattered

7 thoughts on “The Pugnacious Pete Stark

  1. What A Dismal District…Stark Versus Swalwell! IN A Race For The First Congress, Virginia Gave US James Madison Versus James Monroe. My How Times Have Changed…I Forgive You For Your Vote. Tea N Sympathy From Dave IN TEXAS.

    1. I had no delusions that I wasn’t voting for a staunch Democrat in Swalwell, I just figured he was the best shot at getting Stark out. I understand Beto O’Rourke’s candidacy a bit more than Swalwell’s…simply because Beto came within three points of defeating Ted Cruz, who is a bête noire for Democrats possibly second only to Trump.

      That being said, Beto was only a marginally better candidate than Swalwell and he at least gave us a moment of levity when he spontaneously spoke Spanish in the Democratic debates to the visible consternation of Cory Booker, who seems to have been planning to do so first himself.

  2. Why Do People Climb The Matterhorn? Because It’s There! Swalwell & Co. For President… My Friend. Thanks From Dave IN TEXAS.

  3. There used to be a video (maybe it’s still there) on you tube of Stark threatening to throw a young conservative journalist over the railing to the floor below.

  4. “In 2003, Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was trying to quickly pass an employer pension reform plan. Stark proceeded to heckle Thomas with vulgarities. Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) told him to “shut up” and he responded, “Oh, 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. I said you are a fruitcake” and proceeded to call him a “cocksucker” (Discover the Networks). ”

    The late Gordon Liddy said all you need in a situation like that is a sharpened #1 pencil.

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