The Millennial Trying to Break Into the 2020 Conversation

Eric Swalwell after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in New York City.

Source Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

Why you should care

Eric Swalwell, an ambitious California congressman, takes his show on the road, where even losing could mean winning a Cabinet spot.

Update: Eric Swalwell announced his candidacy for president on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on April 8, 2019.

Presidential candidates routinely claim they have experienced the hardships facing ordinary Americans. What makes Eric Swalwell — the visual and dispositional archetype of every golden-haired, strong-jawed, preternaturally confident oldest son of White suburban parents — different is that he is still experiencing those hardships, as he tells it.

You have student debt? So does this 38-year-old University of Maryland law grad, who informs voters that his family still has close to $100,000 to pay off. Apparently, congressional health care isn’t such a boondoggle after all, because the California Democrat is still on his Ritz-Carlton sales director wife’s plan. Struggling with the shuffle of raising young kids? With a son and a daughter both under age 2, Swalwell stumps with stories about getting Tamiflu for his sick newborn and searching for baby-changing stations for dads at the Capitol.

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Rep. Eric Swalwell speaks at a news conference to call for an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Source Chip Somodevilla/Getty

“If you are interviewing a conventiongoer in July 2020, whether they are from Iowa, New Hampshire, wherever, and ask them, ‘Man, how did he get on the stage as a nominee?’ I hope they would say, ‘He gets me. He’s connected to who I am,’” Swalwell says. 

This is the pitch Swalwell is relying on as he considers a long-shot bid for the White House, which he is expected to announce by April. (He has already begun interviewing staffers in the early primary states.) The odds are stacked against him: Despite reportedly having visited Iowa at least 14 times before January and contributing $115,000 to Iowa Democrats through his millennial-focused New Energy political action committee and other funds, he was one of a dozen contenders who polled at 1 percent or less, according to a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa poll in December. Swalwell wasn’t even included on a University of New Hampshire poll listing 14 possible candidates in February.

The profile, aside from his everyman pitch, includes a kind of solutions-oriented middle ground among the sprawling field.

 

“He’s done a great job on our Intelligence Committee, and he does a really good job on television,” says U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, a New Hampshire Democrat. But, Kuster adds, “I don’t know how somebody goes from little-to-zero name recognition to winning the primary. That’s a tough sled.” 

So what does Swalwell gain from running, aside from the requisite spot as a guest on Pod Save America? The four-term congressman has promised to not run for re-election to his safe seat in the East Bay if he aims for the presidency — “Burn the boats,” Swalwell told the San Francisco Chronicle. Some have run and earned themselves a perma-post on television (see Santorum, Rick). But Swalwell is already a regular on MSNBC and CNN: Last year, he clocked 339 appearances on national television.

The more likely goal? A Cabinet post. After all, former candidates line presidential Cabinets all the time — from former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to current Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. “Some of them are running to elevate their profile,” Kuster says of lesser-known candidates like Swalwell. (“I’d be running to be president. And no other reason. To lead a country that I think is coming up short in bringing opportunity to all people,” Swalwell responds). 

The profile, aside from Swalwell’s everyman pitch, includes a kind of solutions-oriented middle ground among the sprawling field. Instead of free college, there’s a “college bargain” that includes zero-interest federal student loans, the ability to refinance them and to receive tax-free employer contributions. Plus, free tuition for those who do work-study programs and get jobs in public service fields of need.

 

While Swalwell stops short of single-payer Medicare-for-All, he vows to fight for a public health insurance option, and to raise capital gains taxes and reduce the defense budget (primarily by cutting the nuclear arsenal) to fund universal health care. Even his trip to get Tamiflu receives a policy nod when he relays what the pharmacist said: “Ooh, $5 for you, $250 for those without insurance.” Reducing prescription drug costs, Swalwell explains at a house party in Bedford, New Hampshire, has only been prevented by Big Pharma lobbyists. “That’s why I support public financing of elections.”

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Swalwell with his parents.

Key to the Swalwell story is his upbringing with a policeman father and wedding-cake baker mother in Sac City, Iowa. Biking through town on his paper route as a kid, Swalwell tells voters, he envied those living in the bigger houses on the block. His American Dream was to be a cop, until his father told him to aim higher (and make a little more money) by becoming a prosecutor. Swalwell eventually would become deputy district attorney in Alameda County, California. But politics was always there: Swalwell served as the first “student liaison” to the city council of College Park — a position he helped create — while still attending the University of Maryland, then later served on the city council in Dublin, California, where his family had moved while he was in middle school.

In 2012, he upset 40-year incumbent U.S. Rep. Pete Stark. In 2015, Swalwell launched the Future Forum, a group of 27 House Democrats who toured more than 40 cities as part of a millennial-focused listening tour. Like 37-year-old South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Swalwell is counting on the youth vote after a midterm election that saw 20 new members younger than 40 elected to the House. That’s part of the reason Swalwell and his staff are so aggressive on social media. Although it can backfire (Google “Swalwell coffee”), former Portsmouth Mayor and New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate Steve Marchand praises their strategy: “They are looking for viral moments. They get that the less risk-averse you are, the more likely you are to get the big moment.” 

 

Just ask Beto O’Rourke, an obscure congressman who became a presidential contender after a viral moment–fueled near-miss U.S. Senate campaign in Texas. Perhaps the swift ascent of someone like O’Rourke, Swalwell’s stunning victory in his first congressional run and a pinch of Silicon Valley hubris led to these unlikely White House dreams. But another life story correlates most to Swalwell’s pending presidential run. When considering colleges, he tells the New Hampshire crowd, there were three criteria: First, that his soccer scholarship would cover tuition. Second, that it was a Division I school. “I am very competitive,” says the former goalkeeper. “Still am today.” Third, that the coaches would allow him to play as a freshman. “I am very impatient,” pausing for emphasis before adding, again: “Still am today.” 

What Swalwell doesn’t mention is that he later lost that soccer scholarship due to an injury, and had to transfer in his third year from Campbell University in North Carolina to the University of Maryland. This time, Swalwell is counting on his impatience paying off — even if he misses the big goal.

Read more: Contending with debt — 244 midterm candidates were in the red.

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