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Congressman Eric Swalwell on Serving California’s 15th Congressional District

September 13, 2013 recently met with Congressman Eric Swalwell, a Dublin native and Dublin High School Class of 1999 graduate, as he prepared to lead a town hall discussion on the Affordable Care Act. Swalwell shared his whirlwind of experiences since joining Congress earlier this year. How has growing up in Dublin and serving as an Alameda County prosecutor helped you represent California’s 15th Congressional District?

Congressman Eric Swalwell

Congressman Eric Swalwell

Congressman Eric Swalwell: “Growing up in Dublin, which was a middle-class, blue collar community when I was a child, has grounded me. Even though Dublin has changed a lot since I was a child, coming back home helps keep me connected to my roots.

“I’m fighting for the middle class in Congress. The middle class in America is shrinking, whereas in other countries like Brazil, Russia, India, and China the middle class is doubling. It’s a good thing for those countries as the gap between the rich and the poor has narrowed, but it’s not a great thing for the American worker. We’ve seen huge losses in California and the Bay Area.

“The economy’s still fragile and in a recovery mode. So when I talk about the middle class, I think I can talk credibly because that was my upbringing. My mom still works as a secretary. I still live in Dublin – the community where I grew up. I know what kind of toll the economy has taken on our current workforce and I know that if we don’t get more of our kids up to speed in science and math we are going to have a hard time competing for high skilled jobs.

“As a prosecutor I learned about a sense of fairness and justice, doing what’s right and standing up for victims; standing up against bullies. You encounter a lot of different bullies in Congress, and I’ve taken that sense of justice from the District Attorney’s office to Congress. I’ve spoken out a lot about equality when it comes to LGBT individuals and those who would seek to deny equal benefits or the right to marry. I relate my work in support of the LGBT community to my work as a hate crimes prosecutor in the D.A.’s office where my job was to represent the people and protect the victims of hate crimes.” For students who only see Congress as polarized theatre that plays out on cable television, what is Congress actually like? What is a typical day, if there is such a thing?

Congressman Swalwell at the Rowell Rancho Rodeo Parade

Swalwell at the Rowell Ranch Rodeo Parade

Swalwell: “Working in Congress you meet so many new people. I’m still shocked by how many people I meet, twenty to thirty people every single day. That demonstrates how many interests and issues there are out there. As I was walking in to meet with you I spoke with a group about diabetes. And just before I entered this room I was stopped and handed a letter by a woman who prayed with her congregation last night that I would vote against Syria. She gave me a letter that she and everyone in her congregation had signed.

“I can’t just focus on one niche issue. I have to learn about as many issues as possible to be effective for the largest number of people. One moment I’m talking about diabetes, then Syria and in a few minutes I’ll be speaking about the Affordable Care Act, and somewhere today, someone will come up with an issue that wasn’t planned or on an agenda.

“The first few months was crushing, the amount of information coming at me. It took a long time before I felt comfortable and not vulnerable. A lot of times I’d go into a room and feel I knew the least of anyone in the room, because of how much information was coming at me. You can’t fully appreciate how much there is to know until you start this job. That said, I have a staff that’s done a great job helping me learn about the issues, and I try not to be afraid to ask questions.

“A day in the life for me starts with a plan, and then becomes everything you get hit with that wasn’t planned. You realize how many different groups there are in the community, each with differing issues and opinions, all fighting for what they believe is important.” How has travelling to places like Israel, the West Bank and Afghanistan helped shaped your opinion?

Swalwell in Afghanistan

Swalwell in Afghanistan

Swalwell: “We’re asked in Congress to make decisions about what should happen far from our homeland and I thought the best way to be informed would be to go there, to meet the people and the leaders, and to meet the troops serving from the 15th District. Being in Congress gave me an opportunity I would not have otherwise had. To do my job effectively, to vote on issues thoughtfully, means getting as close to the ground as possible.” You spoke about the concept of a Mobile Congress during the campaign, yet you’ve logged a lot of miles since taking office. Have you had any success getting Congress to embrace 21st century technology?

Swalwell Speaking with Constituents

Swalwell Speaking with Constituents

Swalwell: “I’ve learned to take advantage of the fact that we are three hours ahead in Washington. I wake up on east coast time and go to bed on west coast time, so I’ll Skype at 10pm east coast time to reach the 15th District at 7pm.

[Congressman Swalwell shows me the United Airlines frequent flier app on his iPhone] “Looking at my miles travelled since January it’s 175,520 miles over 70 trips, and that doesn’t include my recent trips to the Middle East. I’ll hit 200,000 miles by the end of September. It’s grueling, and west coast Members of Congress sacrifice a little bit more, but I knew what I was getting into when I ran for Congress. The only way to effectively represent this district is to be home every weekend. I need to listen to 15th District constituents at home, in person, so I can represent the community effectively in Washington.

“Technology has lessened somewhat the impact of the time zone difference, because I’ve been able to use mobile technology. I think you can still embrace the institution of Congress but upgrade yourself with the times. For the longest time there wasn’t a woman’s bathroom off the House Floor; that doesn’t mean it was right, it reflected the times. Thankfully the government has since had the sense to add a woman’s bathroom and that didn’t change the institution, it reflected that women were in Congress.

“Similarly, just because we haven’t used mobile technology in Congress, doesn’t mean we can’t. We have to look at how businesses, parents, military spouses, and others use mobile technology to shorten time zones and make the distance across oceans a little less. I think Congress can do that too.” How do you approach difficult votes like the upcoming controversial vote regarding Syria? What life experiences do you draw from?

Swalwell in Afghanistan with General Joe Dunford

Swalwell in Afghanistan with General Joe Dunford

Swalwell: “I think it’s dangerous for a freshman in Congress to over commit how he or she is going to vote. I think the best thing I can do is to get informed, whether it’s reviewing the intelligence that is given to me or fully understanding the proposals that are put forward and the military options we’re asked to consider.

“I also think you need to have a perspective from history. I’ve just read in the past month a number of books on the Middle East because I’ve been travelling to the region. If I’ve learned anything in these books, it’s that the current situation in Syria, as serious as it is, is just a single point in time in a complex narrative that extends well beyond Syria. I believe in learning from the successes and failures of the past, and appreciate the importance of understanding the historical context.

“So first be careful about committing too early, second inform yourself and third try to gain a historical perspective; I also search for a sense of fairness and recognize that at home people are overwhelmingly war-weary. No one has come up to me saying that their church prayed last night that we go and strike Syria, nobody is calling my office saying strike Syria. We have, remarkably, heard from next to zero constituents wanting us to strike Syria, it’s been the opposite.

“My challenge is to listen to my constituents, inform myself with the facts and then act. What the constituents say is important and when they are overwhelmingly opposed to an issue I have to ask myself – is that for good reason? Regarding Syria, I don’t know much more than my constituents, they are pretty informed. I will have access to some classified intelligence that they won’t, but I think my constituents feelings on this issue are probably for good reason.

“The President calling a timeout, as he’s done on Syria by asking Congress to consider the issue, is momentous because most of our involvement in the Middle East in recent history saw the President acting with their authority as commander-in-chief, rarely consulting with Congress. A lot of power has been vested in Congress in this vote.” What advice do you have for students who are passionate about and want to pursue a career in politics?

Swalwell on Election Night 2012

Swalwell on Election Night 2012

Swalwell: “Try as many groups as possible, explore as much as you can. At Dublin High School I performed in a Drama Club production, I participated in Mock Trial, I played soccer, football and tennis, I tried to rule in, and rule out, what I wanted to do. The audience ruled me out of drama [laughs].

“In the military they talk about taking what you want to do and running a red team against it to see if it is the best course of action. I knew I wanted to play soccer, but I ran a red team against soccer, meaning I tried a bunch of other things to see if there was something else I was better at. It’s always good to try something that’s completely opposite from what you want to do, and maybe that will open your mind even more. When you are young, take advantage of all the different opportunities you can.”

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