When it comes to 2016 endorsements, House Democrats were, until just a couple of days ago, divided into two camps : Those who had publicly endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton for president and those who hadn’t.
Enter Rep. Eric Swalwell.
Over the weekend, the second-term California Democrat pledged support for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, becoming the first member of the House Democratic Caucus to back a 2016 presidential candidate other than Clinton, who came to Capitol Hill last week to court lawmakers.
“Martin has put forward a bold and visionary plan to address the rising cost of education, assist the millions held back by debt, and secure a debt-free education for students,” Swalwell said in a statement, kicking off a weekend of campaigning alongside O’Malley in Iowa. “Our generation needs Martin O’Malley in the White House.”
The statement, emailed Friday to supporters and published as an op-ed in the Des Moines Register, tells the story of Swalwell’s introduction to O’Malley in 2001. Swalwell was a 20-year-old student in a government course at the University of Maryland when O’Malley, then the mayor of Baltimore, spoke to the class.
In a Monday afternoon conversation with CQ Roll Call, Swalwell spoke in greater detail about how O’Malley’s influence, mentorship and, ultimately, the two men’s friendship factored into the decision to back O’Malley’s White House run.
“It’s an endorsement 15 years in the making,” Swalwell said.
At the time O’Malley addressed Swalwell’s college class, Swalwell had just completed an internship on Capitol Hill and transferred to the University of Maryland after an injury forced him out of his soccer scholarship at Campbell University in North Carolina.
“I was figuring out what I wanted to do and kind of moved by his remarks to our class,” Swalwell recalled. “He was probably the first high-profile person I ever intimately listened to in that setting and I was very inspired by his work back then. If you look at what i ended up doing, I went to [The University of] Maryland Law School, where he had gone. I became a prosecutor, which he had done.”
When O’Malley decided to run for governor in 2005, Swalwell volunteered, taking on campaign responsibilities that put the two in close contact.
“I was a call-time volunteer, so I would sit in the room with him when he would fundraise, and I would dial the numbers for him and get numbers on the phone and get people off the phone,” Swalwell said. “I spent a lot of time in the car with him. A couple long drives through Iowa this weekend with him reminded me of some of the drives we took through Maryland. I talked to him [this weekend] about how busy he was during that [gubernatorial] race, and he still took the time to talk to me. He knew I had an interest in public service and throughout that race he just kind of inspired me.”
Swalwell graduated from law school in May 2006, with O’Malley’s primary heating up (his Democratic challenger ended up dropping out at the eleventh hour). Swalwell had to decide if he was going to move back home to California to practice law or stay in Maryland and continue working on the campaign — and hopefully, Swalwell said, get a job in the O’Malley administration.
“My high school teacher was very adamant that I needed to come home,” Swalwell said. “He was my mentor elsewhere. He said, ‘Look, there are ways to serve back home.’”
That teacher was Tim Sbranti of Dublin, Calif., who taught Swalwell economics and coached him in mock trials. Sbranti, who went on to serve as a city councilman and mayor, is set to become Swalwell’s deputy chief of staff.
Swalwell told CQ Roll Call that while he’s a caucus outlier in his endorsement of someone other than Clinton, none of his colleagues have been critical.
“I think he’s qualified, he’s got a vision and he’s got experience,” Swalwell said. “He’s delivered on a lot of these progressive values. … He’s done this before in Iowa. He was there for [1984 and 1988 presidential hopeful] Gary Hart, as a field organizer. He knows the state, he knows the momentum. It takes time: You build up to your moment and you make your case, doorstep to doorstep, farmer’s market to farmer’s market, barn house to barn house. He doesn’t miss an opportunity to introduce himself.”
O’Malley asked Swalwell for his endorsement “about two months ago,” Swalwell said. “It was a pretty easy decision to support someone who inspired me when I was so young and has been my friend for 15 years.”