Alameda, CA – The first thing a visitor notices about the Bay Area in California is the diversity of culture, people, and architecture. The second thing a visitor might notice is the lack of air conditioning, at least here in Alameda, California. Very few people in Alameda have air conditioners, reliant as they are on the cool breeze off the bay flowing over this island. While the people in the area celebrate the diversity of their culture, diversity of opinion, like the cold blast from air conditioning, is lacking.
It is in this climate that George Bruno hopes to pick off a thirty year incumbent in the United States House of Representatives, Fortney “Pete” Stark. Congressman Stark, running thirty years ago, ran a hard charging campaign against former Congressman George Miller claiming Mr. Miller was too old and it was time for a change. Mr. Stark won and, over the age of seventy, still sits in Mr. Miller’s old seat, thirty years later. Mr. Stark relies on the power of incumbency, the stability of gerrymandered districts, and the inability of challengers to raise money under the current campaign finance rules to win repeatedly while barely ever being in the district. That is Mr. Stark’s greatest strength and also his greatest weakness.
In 2002, Stark won seventy percent of the vote against a Pakistani Republican. Bruno says, “The [opponent] really did not run a campaign. He was on the ballot, but did not really have an organization. The Republican still got thirty percent of the vote.” Nonetheless, with that outcome and the district demographics, the Republican cavalry has not ridden to help George Bruno. He is left to raise his own money and mount his own grassroots campaign. The Republicans, running on numbers instead of anecdotes and gut feelings, are running to other races and directing money to other candidates.
The thirteenth congressional district is fifty-five percent Democrat with the rest broken down between Republicans and independents. It stretches from Alameda in the northwest of the district down around places like Oakland, land of Jerry “Governor Moonbeam” Brown, and through San Leandro, Castro Valley, and Hayward. It is very urban and very diverse – demographically. The majority of the district is Asian and Latino with high concentrations of Afghanis and other immigrants.
George Bruno is running for Congress as the anti-incumbent. Throughout the district, voters of all political persuasions keep telling Mr. Bruno that they have no friend in Pete Stark’s office. While Mr. Bruno lives and works in the thirteenth district, Mr. Stark spends most of his time at his home in Maryland. In fact, a search of residences in the district turns up Mr. Stark’s mother-in-law, but not Mr. Stark.
In George Bruno’s battle against Goliath, the number of Democrats who seek him out and encourage him is astounding. Mr. Bruno laughingly relates that people use to pass him by when he said he was running for Congress until a friend called and suggested he say he was running against Pete Stark. “People who would otherwise pass me by, stop, turn around, and shake my hand. They don’t care that I’m running as a Republican. They just want Stark beat” said Mr. Bruno. Anecdotal evidence is never a good indicator of campaigns. In this case, however, the anecdotal evidence flows in as regularly and as consistently as the breeze from the bay. The voters are restless. The question remaining is whether or not restless voters are restless enough to be persuaded to vote against a thirty year incumbent of the popular party.
George Bruno will be his most persuasive. On his wall at home is an aged yellow paper on which the pen written words “Sell Something Every Day” appear. His opponent, funded heavily with PAC money, has not been selling himself, thinking himself assured of victory. Using Mr. Stark’s lack of residency; the appears of impropriety of paying his wife a campaign salary (Mr. Stark has a net worth of several million dollars); his well known rudeness to other members of Congress, regardless of party, and constituents; and the thirteenth district being more underfunded than any other Congressional District in California, despite Pete Stark’s status as ranking Democrat of the Ways & Means Committee, George Bruno will try to sell himself as a better product – at least he hopes, sweats, and works to do so.