Fortney “Pete” Stark was a Democratic Member of Congress who represented various districts in California from 1973-2013.
Born on November 11, 1931 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Stark served in the U.S. Air Force for two years during the mid-1950s. He went on to earn an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an M.B.A. from UC Berkeley. In 1961 Stark founded a bank in the East Bay town of Fremont, attracting left-wing customers by mounting a giant peace symbol atop its headquarters. In 1963 he founded Security National Bank in Walnut Creek, a successful enterprise that made him extremely wealthy.
In 1972 Stark spent enormous sums of campaign money to win a House of Representatives election in what was then California’s 8th Congressional District. He defeated an incumbent Democrat, George Paul Miller, who had been in office for 28 years. During the campaign, Stark said that Miller had been in Congress too long.
Stark was re-elected every two years thereafter, until he was finally defeated in 2012. Due to periodic redistricting, his District changed numbers twice during the course of his tenure in Congress: from the 8th to the 9th in 1975, and from the 9th to the 13th in 1993.
Stark was a longtime member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives. In most years, Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) rated his voting record as between 90 and 100 percent on the left side of legislation. For an overview of how Stark voted on a variety of key issues during the course of his legislative career, click here.
Over the years, Stark cultivated a reputation among his congressional colleagues for possessing a hot temper and a foul mouth. For example:
In 2003, Stark co-sponsored a bill introduced by Charles Rangel that would have changed Selective Service rules to include women in a military draft. Other co-sponsors included Neil Abercrombie, John Lewis, and Jim McDermott.
In 2005, Stark, along with 72 fellow Democrats in the House of Representatives, became a member of the Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus.
During debate on the House floor on October 18, 2007, Stark made the following remarks to Texas Republican Joe Barton:
“Republicans sure don’t care about finding $200 billion to fight the illegal war in Iraq. Where are you going to get that money? Are you going to tell us lies like you’re telling us today? Is that how you’re going to fund the war? You don’t have 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.”
An avowed atheist, Stark made no secret of his contempt for religious conservatives. He routinely attacked Republicans for their “blind allegiance to the Holy Rollers of the Christian right” and “the messianic Pharisees of the religious right.”
At a June 2010 town hall meeting in Fremont, California, Stark mocked a self-identified member of the Minutemen, a volunteer citizens’ group dedicated to peacefully apprehending illegal migrants crossing America’s southern border. “Who are you going to kill today?” the congressman asked. In response, the Minuteman pointed out that many Americans were being killed by illegal aliens, and he asked why the federal government had not done more to seal the U.S.-Mexico border. Stark replied with sarcasm: “We can’t get enough Minutemen armed. We’d like to get all the Minutemen armed so they [illegals] can stop shooting people here.” When members of the audience eventually asked Stark to offer a serious answer, the congressman said: “If you knew anything about our borders, you would know that’s not the case. Our borders are quite secure, thank you.” His comments drew jeers from those in attendance.
Stark then asked the Minuteman to propose a solution to the problem of illegal immigration, and the man replied: “I would send about about 25,000 troops down there for one thing, and I would build a wall down there so vehicles could not pass.” “How high and how long would that wall be?” Stark asked. The Minuteman said, “As high and as long as it takes.” Stark then retorted: “Well, I tell you what. We’ll go down there. You design the wall, and … if you don’t want to shoot the people coming over, then I’ll go down and … start a ladder company. But I’ve got to know how high that wall is, and I’ll sell a whole lot of ladders for people who want to come.” The Minuteman responded, “This is a very serious matter and you’re sitting there making fun of it.” And Stark answered: “I don’t have to make fun of you, sir, you do a fine job all by yourself.”
At a town hall meeting in July 2010, one of Stark’s female constituents noted that the congressman’s assertion that health care services were “a right” for all Americans meant that: (a) “those services have to be rendered by somebody else, using their time, their energy, their knowledge, and their labor,” and (b) the recipients of the services presumably have “the right to compel others to provide those services or to pay for them.” If both those things are true, the woman proceeded to ask, then “what limitations are there on the federal government’s ability to tell us how to run our private lives?” When Stark seemed to have no response to her question, the woman asked: “Is your answer that they [the federal government] can do anything?” To that, Stark replied: “The federal government, yes, can do most anything in this country.” (For video, click here.)
In August 2010, just five months after the passage of Obamacare, Stark was a leading proponent of expanding the new law by adding a public option — i.e., a government insurance agency to “compete” with private insurers. Because such an agency would not need to show a profit in order to remain in business, and because it could tax and regulate its private “competitors” in whatever fashion it pleased, this “public option” would inevitably force private insurers out of the industry.
In February 2011, Stark tried to mock religious people by introducing House Resolution 81, which called for the designation of a “Darwin Day” in honor of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the “monumental amount of scientific evidence he compiled to support it,” evidence that “provides humanity with a logical and intellectually compelling explanation for the diversity of life on earth.”
In 2012 Stark lost his re-election bid to fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell, by a margin of 53.1 percent to 46.9 percent. By the time he left office in January 2013, Stark had been a congressman for 40 years. That was 12 years longer than the aforementioned George Paul Miller had been in office as of 1972, when Stark suggested that Miller had been in the U.S. House for too long.
In addition to his work as a legislator, Stark also served a stint as an Advisory Committee member with the Progressive Majority, a political networking group that aims to elect as many left-wing political candidates as possible. Fellow Committee members included such notables as Tammy Baldwin, Sherrod Brown, John Conyers Jr., John Corzine, Peter DeFazio, Rosa DeLauro, Lane Evans, Bob Filner, Barney Frank, Raul Grijalva, Luis Gutierrez, Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., Barbara Lee, Sheila Jackson Lee, Jerrold Nadler, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Nancy Pelosi, Jan Schakowsky, Hilda Solis, Maxine Waters, Diane Watson, Henry Waxman, and Lynne Woolsey.
Stark died of leukemia on January 24, 2020, at his home in Maryland.