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Democrats 2020: Eric Swalwell, the former prosecutor ready to take on the US gun lobby

David Millward
Eric Swalwell is seeking the Democratic nomination - REUTERS

As political stunts go, it was a bit lame. 

Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sunglasses, Eric Swalwell posed for the cameras as "Bahama Bob". His target was Maryland governor Robert Erich who, on holiday in the Bahamas, was reportedly mulling over increasing college tuition fees.

Sixteen years on Mr Swalwell, now a Californian congressman, cuts a rather more sober figure as he jostles for attention in the crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates.

In many ways he was an unlikely rebel, having been raised by Republican parents in the small suburban community of Dublin, California, 34 miles west of San Francisco.

Mr Swalwell's start in politics came when he interned with Ellen Tauscher, a Democrat congresswoman on the moderate wing of the party.

After graduating from law school, he worked as a Deputy District Attorney in Alameda County.

"I worked with him through his tenure here," said Teresa Drenick, Alameda County's Assistant District Attorney.

"He was diligent and well-liked by his colleagues. He was trustworthy to everybody, which is a really special talent. He was always well prepared when he went into a courtroom."

Mr Swalwell has taken a particularly tough line on guns in his campaign, calling for a ban on assault weapons. He held a "town hall" on the issue at Sunrise, Florida, only 13 miles away from Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where a gunman massacred 17 people in 2018. 

His stand has, predictably, upset the National Rifle Association, which put the young congressman on its cover under the headline "Gas bag in the House."

Rather unwisely, Mr Swalwell became embroiled in a Twitter spat with NRA supporters, including one who made a death threat.

Asked if he wanted a "war" Mr Swalwell replied: "It would be a short war, my friend. The government has nukes."

His stance comes as no surprise to Ms Drenick.

"If you are a prosecutor where people have been hurt or their families have been devastated because loved ones have been shot and killed, you, unfortunately, do have a unique perspective."

Mr Swalwell won election to Dublin City Council in 2010 but his fledgling political career came close to being cut short by a recall campaign, which was abandoned when he decided to run for Congress.

Mr Swalwell challenged 20-term incumbent Democrat Pete Stark for a suburban San Francisco district.

The Californian election system, which allows people to vote in primaries irrespective of their political affiliation, resulted in the two Democrats facing off against each other.

This time, thanks to unofficial Republican support, Mr Swalwell won, recalled Sue Caro, who was chairman of the Alameda Republican party at the time.

"Republicans hated Pete Stark, and many knew Eric as a ‘home town boy' raised by Republicans, with law and order credibility and helped elect him to Congress. 

"Once in the House, he began to cosy up to Nancy Pelosi and home town Republicans began to have ‘buyers' remorse'."

Mr Swalwell was the fourth candidate to launch a presidential campaign on a television chat show. He, like Kirsten Gillibrand, did so on The Late Show, hosted by Stephen Colbert. 

Kamala Harris told viewers of Good Morning America she was running and Tulsi Gabbard threw her hat into the ring on the Van Jones show.

Aged 38, Mr Swalwell, "Mayor Pete" Buttigieg and Julián Castro represent the fresh young faces in the roster of Democratic candidates.

Even ahead of his formal announcement, Mr Swalwell made repeated trips to the first batch of states in the primary and caucus calendar.

He has visited Iowa more than 20 times, as well as introducing himself to voters in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

Firmly tilting to the left of the party, Mr Swalwell has endorsed the Green New Deal and backs Medicare for All, which would eliminate most private health insurance.

As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Mr Swalwell is among the fiercest critics of Mr Trump's links with Russia.

He has also told colleagues they should prepare for impeachment proceedings against the US president, although he argues that action should first be taken against Attorney General Bill Barr and Stephen Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, who has refused to release Mr Trump's tax returns.

But whether this will be enough to turn Mr Swalwell into a leading contender for the Democratic nomination is questionable.

Observers in California are puzzled by Mr Swalwell's decision to surrender his seat in Congress next year to run for the White House.

"He hasn't been a major player in California politics," said Thad Kousser, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

"The question is what are his objectives. 

"If it's to become President, his chances are virtually nil. There is a possibility he could be an attractive vice-presidential candidate.

"Everybody in California is scratching their head. The Democrats have just taken the House and he is giving it up for what is a lottery ticket."