As Good as Bold

10 Years Post Graduation, Swalwell Takes Flair for the Dramatic to Congress
by Lauren Brown | Photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor/The Baltimore Sun

As a member of the Student Government Association, Eric Swalwell ’03 was never one for handing out fliers on McKeldin Mall to get his message across.

No, when then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich slashed the university system’s budget by $67 million, Swalwell and his friends declared it the “Death of Education” and organized a funeral procession from College Park to Annapolis. The motorcade was led by a hearse, and the students marched a wooden casket around the State House.

And when the governor went on vacation while considering further higher-education cuts, Swalwell shaved his sideburns, donned a dark wig and Hawaiian shirt, and carried a beachy cocktail and megaphone to announce tuition hikes as “Bahama Bob.”

Swalwell never gave up his flair for the dramatic—he calls it “using demonstrable evidence”—in a career that has landed him in Congress as a first-term Democrat from California.

“If you just stand and talk to people, they lose interest,” he says. “Well, you think, how do you make people care? You do something that’s going to grab them.”

He came by his passion honestly. The son of a police officer and a secretary, he was on a full scholarship at Campbell University in North Carolina when he came to D.C. in the summer of 2001 to intern for his California congresswoman. Swalwell sublet a “dirt-cheap” room on Fraternity Row, loved Capitol Hill and the opportunities at Maryland, and transferred here.

That meant giving up his free ride at Campbell, so he waited tables at a Mexican restaurant and handed out towels at the Washington Sports Club to support himself. His first accomplishment in the SGA was to help start a state scholarship program to support children of 9/11 victims.

Swalwell also worked with then-College Park City Councilman Eric Olson M.A. ’95 to create a student liaison position on the panel. They hoped to help heal relations between the city and university in the wake of the riots that followed the Terps winning the national championship in men’s basketball.

“He combined really great people skills with a passion for getting things done in the best interest of the community,” says Olson, now a Prince George’s County councilman. “He made life better in College Park when he was here.”

Swalwell went on to earn a law degree from the University of Maryland and returned to his native Alameda County as a prosecutor. In his first trial, a lowly case about a police chase, he threw Velcro-covered ping-pong balls at a felt board in the courtroom to show how the officer’s arguments “stuck”—and how the Velcro-free balls representing the defendant’s didn’t.

He won election to the Dublin City Council in 2010, and two years later decided to take on 40-year congressman Pete Stark. The incumbent refused to debate Swalwell, who then staged a mock version: He hired an actor to play his opponent and respond to a moderator’s questions by reading Stark’s own words, verbatim, from previous interviews. Swalwell’s camp then posted the “event” on YouTube.

Swalwell soundly won, and today is the fourth-youngest member of the House. In May, he argued against the Transportation Security Administration lifting its ban on some weapons on commercial flights with his usual polish and style: He trotted out a series of nearly-identical pocketknives to demonstrate the difficulties that TSA officials would face in deciding which could go on board.

It got attention from national media including “NBC Nightly News,” heady stuff for a freshman, but he insists that he’s still the star-struck student who wanted autographs from the same lawmakers who took gym towels from him 12 years ago.

“Half of me still wants to take a picture of them,” Swalwell says, “and the other half says, ‘Relax, you belong here.’”


James Haltom

Swalwell lost his scholarship to Campbell because he injured his thumbs, most likely from sucking them. It was not because he got some type of epiphany about politics.

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