Congressman Swalwell reflects on priorities for new term
His third term in the House of Representatives is already shaping up to look quite different for Eric Swalwell.
2017 brings a variety of changes professionally, including new committee posts, new legislative issues, a new district office in Castro Valley and a new Republican president -- not to mention a big one personally, due this spring.
Still, the Dublin Democrat said he remains just as steadfast about defending core values and working to accomplish priorities for his district and its residents as he did when heading to Washington, D.C., as a 32-year-old first-time congressman just over four years ago.
"I feel like I have a good sense of what people here at home care about," Swalwell said during a half-hour interview on rainy Presidents Day morning at Starbucks in downtown Pleasanton.
"They just want to make sure that they have someone who is doing everything to help them provide for their family, have that dignity of work, that their kids have a school that can prepare them for this new and sometimes intimidating economy, and that if they work hard and save, they have a chance to own a piece of their community and buy a home," he added.
It's common to find the Dublin native in his home district on weekends, which he describes as vital time for him to stay in touch with the needs of his constituents.
"I'm home every weekend," he said, noting he's already logged more than one million miles in the air while in office. "To be the best representative, I should listen to people at home and stand up for them in D.C. And to do that, you have to come home."
Of course, he also has wife Brittany -- who is almost seven months pregnant with the couple's first child -- and a black Labrador puppy at home, 3,000 miles away from the nation's capital.
"It's exciting. That baby's coming, whether we're ready or not," Swalwell said with a chuckle. "We're doing everything we can to get ready."
A newborn on the horizon offers a new wrinkle for the 36-year-old as he enters this new term in the House, his third consecutive after easily winning re-election in November by defeating Republican challenger Danny R. Turner 73.8% to 26.2%.
A former Dublin councilman and Alameda County prosecutor, Swalwell represents California's 15th Congressional District, which in addition to San Ramon and a bit of Danville covers Dublin, Livermore, Pleasanton, Hayward, Union City, parts of Fremont, and the unincorporated areas of Castro Valley, San Lorenzo, Sunol, Ashland, Cherryland and Fairview.
In Congress, Swalwell works in areas close to his heart and his professional background.
He serves on the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, including as the CIA Subcommittee's ranking member. And in December, he was named co-chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, the youngest person to hold the key party leadership post.
The third-term congressman said he also focuses on always keeping his constituents' priorities in mind when legislating on their behalf.
"I think just making sure the American dream is in reach, that's what most people want," Swalwell said. "They don't want government to solve all of their problems. They just don't want the absence of government to create more problems for them."
Traffic congestion is the No. 1 complaint Swalwell said he hears from residents throughout his district.
"Locally, the top goal is for people to spend less time in their cars and more time with their families," he said. "The commute times have just gotten out of control here. It's beyond, I think, what any person can take who wants to be with their family."
Extending BART to the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) remains his highest priority in the Tri-Valley.
"I've been working to keep the promise we made to the voters when I and others worked to pass Measure BB, which is to pay for BART to go to Livermore. But I think there's an opportunity to close the gap between Dublin and Pleasanton and the Altamont where the ACE comes through," he said.
That extension, according to Swalwell, could take 30,000 to 35,000 cars off the roads each day, providing vital traffic congestion relief.
"It's going to take a bipartisan, bi-county approach," Swalwell said, noting he is part of a working group on the issue with local Assemblywoman Catharine Baker (R-San Ramon), Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Modesto) and other San Joaquin County leaders.
"We know that to really make this work, we're going to need San Joaquin County to buy in to why it's so important for their residents to spend less time on the roads," he added.
Swalwell said the BART extension efforts recently scored a win when the Metropolitan Transportation Commission opted to devote a staff member full-time to the project. Additionally, the draft environmental review for BART to Livermore is due out to the public by this spring.
He said he also recognizes the need to support other infrastructure improvements to ease traffic in the Tri-Valley, including more express toll lanes, additional garage parking at the eastern Dublin/Pleasanton BART station and redesigning the interchange of interstates 580 and 680.
Still, when it comes to Tri-Valley transportation, he thinks "the biggest impact I can make right now is helping to lead the charge in Washington to get federal dollars here for BART to ACE."
Other concern areas he hears about from local constituents are cost of housing and student loan debt -- two topics he experiences in his personal life as well.
"I see what young people face when they try and start a family, buy a home and when you have a lot of student loan debt," Swalwell said, adding, "We're seeing that young people across the country, but also locally, don't have as much savings as the generation before them. It makes it very hard to afford to buy a home."
He said he continues to focus on student debt relief and college affordability while in Congress.
"And for any future kids, I believe that if you are in a family that makes $125,000 or fewer, you should come out of college at a public university debt-free," Swalwell added.
On a national policy level, Swalwell said his chief focus is to ensure America's democracy remains secure, especially in the wake of international influence in last year's national election.
"We saw in this last presidential election that Russia attacked us. And it wasn't the firing of a gun or the dropping of a bomb. It was the electronic, nearly invisible attack, through paid social media trolls, fake news dissemination and hacking of Democratic Party officials," he said.
As a member of the Intelligence Committee and CIA Subcommittee, Swalwell said he feels a duty to figure out how America became vulnerable to cyberattacks and to help develop solutions to those problems going forward.
"Nothing is more sacred to any of us than freedom, and if we allow our country to be open season to the most aggressive outside meddlers, then I think we will have lost everything we fought for and that we want to have tomorrow," he added.
To that end, Swalwell co-introduced a bill in December to create a bipartisan, independent commission to probe Russian interference in the presidential election and efforts by other foreign entities as well as make recommendations for future security strategies.
"I wrote a bill that was not a partisan bill at all," he explained. "It doesn't try and relitigate the 2016 election. Fully acknowledge Donald Trump is the president, but also acknowledge that Russia is seeking to do this again. And if we don't defend our democracy, we will lose our democracy. So it will take Republicans and Democrats to come together."
He added that he is working now to collect bipartisan support for the bill, looking for Republicans "who want to step forward right now and put country over party."
Finding collaborative solutions to bipartisan issues as well as engaging other political viewpoints in the legislative process are key, according to Swalwell.
"I also am mindful that I'm the son of two Republicans. Most of my brothers and outside family are Republicans, so I know that being a consensus-builder and being someone that can work with Republicans is important," he said.
Swalwell said he sees positive bipartisan work in his role on the Intelligence Committee, "and maybe that's because we meet three floors below the Capitol, there's no cameras and there's no transcript."
He noted recent unanimous support for a bill to fund America's intelligence agencies.
"To see that kind of unanimity is encouraging," he said. "And I know that if we can do it when it matters on national security, there's hope for me that we can do it on other issues."
Swalwell also said he strives to keep up the work of the United Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan congressional group he helped found to focus on commonsense solutions to key issues. He plans to bring co-founder U.S. Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) to tour Pleasanton and his district next month, and then make a return trip to Joyce's district later in the year.
"It's important ... to still find Republicans in Congress to work with because I think the country is counting on Congress to be a check on a very unprepared, divisive, intolerant president," Swalwell added.
The new administration
Swalwell said he and his office hear often from local residents concerned about Trump and his first month as president.
"It's anxiety, but it's also a feeling of not wanting to be helpless, not wanting to just bear witness to our country going backward but to play a role in reclaiming this country and moving forward," the congressman said.
When asked for his thoughts on the new president's first weeks in office, Swalwell was critical of Trump's approach and actions thus far.
"He's just unfocused at a time when we need him to be focused on putting Americans to work and keeping Americans safe," Swalwell said of the president.
"And if anyone thought we were getting this great negotiator and businessman in the White House, who was going to be able to strike deals with anyone who wanted to come to the table, after a month in we haven't even seen him try to strike a deal," Swalwell continued:
"He's tried to do everything through executive order, and I think that was best on display last week when the Republicans sent us home early for the week because there's nothing to work on ... There's no plan on health care, there's no plan on jobs, there's no plan on immigration reform. There's just tweets, and you can't govern by tweets."
In terms of what to do next, Swalwell said he tells anxious constituents that he hopes to see a focus on reuniting the country around common values and goals "and resisting this president in any effort to divide us or to be intolerant of people because of their beliefs or the color of their skin."
"And then, I think, pretty soon here we're going to have to reclaim this country at the ballot box, and that is not too far away," he added, pointing to upcoming special elections in the country and the 2018 midterm election.
As for his aspirations for the new term and beyond, Swalwell said, "I care that people believe the American dream is within reach, and that especially means people my age who are finding college was quite costly, starting a family is taking a lot longer and buying a home is a lot harder."
"I want to continue working on those issues and putting opportunity back in reach," he added. "So wherever that takes me, I'll follow."