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Everything but a Chemist--The Pete Stark Story

Fortney 'Pete' Stark Jr. sits on a wicker chair next to a sizzling fire, his crossed feet propped up on an ottoman. Clad seriously but casually in loafers, a plaid cotton shirt and corduroy pants, he scans The Washington Post, his trifocals resting up on the bridge of his nose. As he reads the headlines out loud to himself, he accompanies them with 'mm-hmm's and nods or strings of unprintable words, depending on the news. Beside him rests some Sonoma County white wine in a clear plastic glass, his chief vice, excluding Diet Coke.
Anyone who has been to a fundraiser or awards dinner in Alameda County, Stark's congressional district in the Bay Area of California, is sure to remember Stark. The 6' 2' frame, the vibrant green eyes, the thin mess of combed-over gray hair, the perpetual smile and the awkward gait resulting from nerve failure in his left leg'all these features command attention. Stopping briefly to shake hands with high school students, campaign volunteers, or to exchange some political banter with the protest sign-wielding skinhead, Stark's good nature is contagious. Entering the event, surveys the room, searching for familiar faces. Glass of wine in hand, he goes from table to table, shaking hands, learning names, and talking emphatically about the scene in Washington. If you happen to be lucky enough to be seated at his table, eating is not an option. Stark will doubtless regale you with tales from his childhood, banking years, and early days in Congress. He has a habit of asking high school students where they will be going to college and giving them the names of people he knows who have gone there, and checking with senior citizens to make sure they are regularly receiving social security. Democrat or Republican, he's happy to talk and laugh with you.
Stark is one of 475 members of the US House of Representatives. At 77, having served 37 years in Congress, he is the sixth most senior member of the House. A quick Google search reveals more facts about him'he has always been one of the most liberal voters in Congress, he chairs a subcommittee on health and is dedicated to universal health care, he is the only declared non-theist in Congress, he has received the Humanist of the Year award from the National Humanist Society, and has drawn fire from both sides of the aisle for his controversial comments on the House Floor.
Stark was born in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin (left), close to Milwaukee, in 1931, smack in the middle of the Great Depression. 'Back then,' he says, 'You could tell how rich someone was by how many cars they had. The poor families, they didn't have any cars. If you were rich'which I guess was relative considering the Depression'you had two or more cars. Our family had one car, so I guess we were middle class.'
His father, Fortney Stark Sr., was the chairman of the Milwaukee real estate board. 'Real estate wasn't doing so well back then, of course,' he recalls, 'But there were a lot of realtors in Milwaukee, so it was a pretty big board.' His father got a salary of $400 a month'a lot in those days. 'I always thought my dad was a pretty cool guy,' remarks Stark. 'He was well-liked, he was charming'.he always knew everybody. Even the cops, and the guys who drove the city garbage trucks'he always talked to them. He didn't just know the businesspeople, he knew all the people. He was very'democratic in that sense. He was very friendly.' Like father, like son.

His mother was simply a mother, he says, caring for him and his younger brother, Tom. Stark can go on for hours about what it was like for him and his little brother 'back in the good old days'. He reminisces about the radio serials'Tom Mix, Little Orphan Annie, the nickel movies on Saturday afternoons, riding bicycles, running around playing with his friends in the heaps of Wisconsin snow each winter, getting his first driving lesson at age twelve, and taking a train trip with a friend of his to New York'also at age twelve. 'You wouldn't think of letting kids do that today,' he says. He also remembers wanting to be a news photographer. 'There was this guy I read about called Luigi,' Stark reminisces. 'He was like a photographer in those old fashioned movies, with his huge flashbulb and his hat turned up, and he would always show up with the police at the murder scenes, and he was just a famous news photographer'I always thought that sounded kinda cool.' Stark got a camera when he was in fifth grade and joined the camera club in junior high, taking pictures whenever he could. 'I took portraits and people would buy them from me' I had my own little photo business,' he recalls.

Indeed, Stark demonstrated adept business skills in his childhood. 'I started selling Christmas cards at around twelve,' he reflects. I would go around with a sample book and people would pick out the ones they wanted and I would give them their cards later. I got a third of all the money.' Through high school, he thought about pursuing a career in business.

'But then,' Stark says, 'I got an 800 on my math SATs, and someone got this great idea that I should go to MIT and become an engineer. Everybody wanted to build things at the time, so I figured I should too. The math part of it came easy to me, and most of the science did too, so I decided I would try it.' So after he graduated high school'third in his class at Wauwatosa High'he went to MIT and promptly flunked out. 'I was the first president of my class to flunk out'by Christmas of my freshman year, no less,' he remembers. 'I just never really focused on my studies enough'I was partying too much.'

But Stark wasn't about to give up. It was either stay in school or join the army and be drafted to Korea. 'The Starks have a history of cowardice,' he will tell you. 'The reason my grandparents came to America from Germany in the first place was because Bismarck was about to have a war and we didn't want to be around for it. I certainly didn't want to ruin our record.' With his trademark steadfast determination, he struggled through MIT to graduate--'It was a grind,' he recalls'using a few tricks of his own. If you've sat next to him at a dinner party, he's either taken food off your plate ('He did that to me the first time I met him,' recalls Deborah Stark, his wife, shaking her head) or told you this story about how he got through MIT. 'Chemistry was never easy for me,' he begins his tale for the thousandth time, jubilant and bright-eyed, 'So I had to take it in summer school. The proctors there were a lot more relaxed, and I was getting through most of it OK, but I could not for the life of me figure out those unprintable unknowns'where the proctor would give you a sample of an unknown material and tell you to find out what it was. So to pass summer school chemistry, I'd go up to the proctor and say: 'I was trying to taste a little bit of my unknown, and I think I swallowed some of it.' They'd go 'Oh my God' and rush over to their book and check to see which unknown I had, and I'd just look over their shoulder and read it.' Even for people who've heard it many times, this story always elicits laughs, including hearty guffaws from Stark himself.

With the help of a dean and mentor, Jack Rule, Stark persevered through the next three and a half years, putting his nose to the grindstone and scraping passing grades'even in chemistry. Eventually, Stark barely graduated from MIT, but without a job. MIT, not wanting to break their perfect placement record, asked him to meet with the dean. 'Stark,' he recalls the dean saying, 'We'll let you stay and be a teaching assistant in a few courses, and we'll let you take a few classes until you can go to graduate school, at which point we will give you a recommendation to any graduate school you want'except MIT.' Stark decided to do just that.

Before going to graduate school, he married his first wife, Endy Stark, who he had met on a blind date in high school. Soon after, he was called to active duty in the Air Force. 'I was riding on the back of a garbage truck with a gun, protecting the trash,' he remembers. 'Of course, my primary job was to be an army engineer, which consisted of filling out forms and ordering parts.' His days in the army kindled a deep contempt for the US forces, he says, the Air Force in particular.

After his service, he went to graduate school in Berkeley, and became a self-proclaimed hippie. He got a business degree'the one class he did very well in at MIT'and got a job at a financial planning firm, while his wife raised the kids. 'Having kids was 'the thing to do' at the time,' Stark says. 'We were just building on to suburbia.'

He decided to go from financial planning to banking. ' I had decided that I wanted to be the president of a bank a long time ago,' Stark says. 'You could make an awful lot of money that way. I remember taking the Kuder Vocational Preference test where it asked you questions like: 'Would you rather chop wood, read a book, or play the piano?' and then after you answered the questions it told you what job you ought to have, like scientist or social worker. I always came out social worker. But in our town, the secretary of the YMCA drove a Model A, while the guy two blocks down who was a banker drove a Buick. It didn't take a kid very long to figure out what he wanted to do. Of course, I didn't want to have to go through the motions of being a teller, and a vice-president, and all those other things, so I decided to make my own bank and start from the top. I wasn't thirty years old then, but it was a good way to start a business of my own, and run it.' His bank, Security National (right), had several branches in the Bay Area. His bank went where no bank had ever gone before without going into the red. It offered free checking accounts'a bold move'and low-cost auto loans. He held sessions at the bank where junior staffers, to earn a little extra money, could teach people how to do their taxes on weekends for a small fee. What set his bank even farther apart from other banks was the generosity Pete Stark extended as an employer.

The benefits he offered to his employees were numerous. Paid vacation, free day care, health benefits, he even paid for uniforms for bank employees. 'I was just trying to do what I thought was right for them to have,' he says, modestly. 'Sometimes there were problems when a vacancy at a higher position opened up down in Antioch, and I wanted to promote someone from Oakland, and pretty much everyone there was black. But they didn't want to move, it was a long commute, it was all white in Antioch, no black churches or anything, so I made it so that they could report to the branch nearest to their home and we would bus them to the branch with a job.' Best of all for the workers, they would be put on the payroll as soon as they arrived at their nearest branch and got on the bus.

Then Pete Stark got caught up in the peace movement. A staunch oppositionist to the Vietnam War, which he calls 'pointless,' and worked hard to terminate during his first years in Congress, he decided to promote peace by having a friend of his mount a giant peace sign on top of the bank. The peace sign started being printed on the ties of the tellers, on checks, and soon became the symbol of Security National. Stark still owns some of the original peace ties. All these peace signs annoyed the bank supervisors, but Stark didn't care. When they told Stark that he needed security guards for his bank, 'He hired a college kid to sit around and play guitar,' his wife recalls, 'Then when they came into the bank and asked 'Where's your security guard?', and he pointed to the kid playing the guitar and said 'That's him'.' Stark was raised a Republican and was registered as such, but during his tenure with Security National switched his affiliations entirely. While supporting open housing and other ballot issues, he met a lot of other Democrats who shared his opinions and became well known among Bay Area liberals. 'I frankly found them a lot more fun to be around than Republicans,' he says, chuckling. He was an avid supporter of Eugene McCarthy and wanted to become a delegate for him, but to do so he needed to become a Democrat, so he readily switched parties.

When the President of the California State Senate died, the head of the State Assembly asked Stark to run in the special election. 'He offered to raise thirty thousand bucks for me,' recalled Stark. At first he was reluctant to take the job on, being busy with his bank. 'But I was intrigued,' he said. 'And I knew so many people in the local Democratic scene, I decided I'd run in the special election.' And so he did, along with twelve other people. He came in a close third among the Democrats. The winner, George Miller (left), is Stark's current colleague and friend in congress and was the son of the late state senator. He lost to a Republican in the runoff election. 'I didn't think Miller was going to win in the runoff,' Stark said. 'He was 21 and didn't have much experience'nevertheless, I supported him in the runoff and we became friends.'

'But despite the loss,' Stark says, 'It worked out for me pretty well. I got a lot of votes in the election, and people knew me, and soon I was getting invited to speak at all the rotaries and such. I was part of the local Democratic community, so I was pretty certain I would run for political office. The next thing I did was Common Cause, an organization of citizen betterment, so I won and got a seat on the board of Common Cause, and I got to do more and more political stuff. Then one day,' he says, 'A few people came into my office at the bank and asked me to run for Congress in the primary.' The primary was against another George Miller, an incumbent congressman who'd been serving California's thirteenth district for a long time. However, he was a supporter of the Vietnam War, which did not help his popularity with voters. 'And he didn't believe there were environmental problems, and didn't think there were any poor people in the county, he was'not very aware of what was going on,' sighs Stark, recalling his opponent. Stark launched his campaign on the Anti-Vietnam war rocket, while also adopting a motto that recently was used by President Obama: 'Change.' He was again one of many battling for the seat. 'There were six or eight other people who decided they wanted to challenge this guy too,' he recalls, laughing. 'But it was tough. He was well known and most of us weren't, and he wasn't going to debate us'he had a lot of support; the unions wouldn't go against him because he was such an entrenched Democrat, but eventually I pulled ahead in a tight race. And then the general election wasn't hard.' The 13th district of California is one of the most liberal districts in the country. 'So I was on my way to Congress.'
After being sworn in to Congress'on Thoreau's Walden Pond (right) instead of the Bible'he sold his bank. 'A good offer came along, and I didn't think I would have been able to run the bank and be in Congress,' says Stark, 'So I sold it. Luckily, as a rookie congressman, I got on the banking committee, which I knew the most about. I don't recall passing any significant legislation in my first year, but I know that the committee chair always let the junior congressmen introduce bills on the floor and raise all kinds of hell.'
But his assignment to the banking committee didn't last long, and his next term he got a spot on the Ways & Means committee, which deals with taxes, health care, and social security, among many other things. 'I didn't have much interest in health care or even know much about health care before I came to Ways & Means,' Stark said. 'But the head of the social security subcommittee had just done so much with social security that it wouldn't need much work for the next few years, and he didn't want to be stuck around doing nothing, so we reshuffled subcommittees, and the most senior members picked the subcommittees they wanted to chair first. When it came around to me, there were only two subcommittees left: Health and Social Security. Well, I didn't want social security either, so I went with health.'
So in the early 1980s, the hippie banker from Wauwatosa started on his way to becoming the man who transformed the health care system. Two of Stark's best-known laws, Stark I and Stark II, strictly regulate the referral of patients to for-profit medical facilities owned by their doctors. Another one of Stark's creations, COBRA, provides discount health care to people who are between jobs. He worked extensively on laws to support mental health parity, regulating insurance plans to make sure that they provide mental health as well as physical health coverage. He worked to suck fraud out of Medicare (health care for seniors) and make it more efficient, and was instrumental in the writing and development of SCHIP, the State Children's Health Insurance Program recently signed by President Obama (signing the bill at left), which provides funds to states to give medical care to children in poverty not covered by Medicaid. He has also been a longtime advocate of universal health care, which he believes every American ought to have as a right, so everyone and anyone stay healthy. As he has reiterated in countless speeches and interviews, 'America is the only developed nation that doesn't have universal health care. Even some poor African countries do'it's not good, but it's still free. We've got to extend a hand to not just the elderly, the needy, and the children, but to everyone. We have a responsibility as a government to keep our citizens healthy and happy.' 'He's such a generous, kind man, and he genuinely cares about making the world a better place. That's why I fell in love with him in the first place,' explains Mrs. Stark.
After a brief marriage in the late 1980s, Stark picked his third wife out of a hat. Deborah Ann Roderick (left) was selected as the fourth alternate for a spot as a page on the House floor. 'This was back when Congressmen could pick their pages,' she recalls, 'And how he did it was he asked every high school to submit the name of a deserving student, and he picked the names out of the hat. He wouldn't use the page spot to grant any political favors'that's just how he was. He wanted to give everyone a fair chance.' All four selected pages ahead of Deborah couldn't be summer pages, so Deborah convinced her parents to let her go to Washington for the summer. She stopped by Stark's office all the time, so much that it felt to her like her home away from home. She didn't see Stark much'there was no Mark Foley business going on between them'but after her tenure as a page was over, she worked as an intern in his office, then found other jobs in Washington, but kept coming back to Stark's office, where she felt at home. She and Stark began dating and eventually were married in 1991. 'I proposed to her,' chuckles Stark, 'But she wanted me to do it again on the top of the Capitol, to see if I could still make the climb. He was sixty then. They settled by the Chesapeake Bay, where they live today with their three children.
Though he is a committed family man, Stark is up early almost every day, clad in a blazer and peace tie, cup of coffee in hand, as he starts up his Lexus for the hour-long commute to Washington, DC. Whether it's in bill writing, negotiations in committee, or debates on the house floor, Stark is dedicating to contributing not only to health legislation, but offers his opinions on other issues as well. He is a stirring orator and has made many famous and infamous speeches about hot topics on the House floor. He has opposed the Iraq war from the beginning of Shock & Awe, and has worked tirelessly to keep President Bush from privatizing social security, cutting taxes for the rich, ignoring climate change, and sending out irresponsible stimulus packages. He also is committed to helping the poverty-stricken and less fortunate. He grins as he recalls one attempt to help the homeless that was reenacted years later in a TV movie. 'There was a DC activist for the homeless, Mitch Schneider, and he had been noticing that supermarkets were throwing away these groceries that they couldn't sell'like bread with a torn wrapper, bruised fruit'stuff that could've gone to the homeless, but they weren't letting them in the dumpsters. So a colleague of mine teamed up with me, and we called a camera crew, then went to a supermarket and jumped in a dumpster, and we pulled out all kinds of good food that the homeless could've eaten! And then the manager of the store came charging out, and he said 'You're not supposed to be in there,' and I said 'Well, I am,' and then he said 'Who are you?' and I got out of the dumpster, shook his hand, and said 'I'm Congressman Pete Stark'.'
Known psychos like Bill O'Reilly have called Stark 'crazy', but their numbers are few, and they are all Republicans. On his official campaign website, a couple identified as Patricia and Robert from San Leandro say: 'Thank you for being one of the few congressmen who are working for the people and doing the job we elected you for.' Stark is a true representative, which is not hard, given that his opinions match the opinions of nearly everyone else in the liberal Bay Area. He put emphasis on his constituents and votes to help them, not the insurance companies, people making over $250,000 yearly, Exxon, or General Motors. He also makes himself readily accessible to his constituents, holding town meetings at least once a month where he comes to town halls to speak and answer questions from his constituents. He brings his A game to all his speeches, and whether they're on the House floor, the stage of a high school auditorium, or the sidewalk in front of the supermarket, he always speaks passionately, knowledgeably, and stirringly. He also makes sure every constituent letter is answered, and periodically sends out newsletters to his constituents telling them what's what in Washington.

Even from his first political campaign, Stark has been pegged as a maverick. He is outspoken, headstrong, and always votes for what he thinks is right. 'He's not one to shy away from controversy'he'll be the first to call a muskrat a muskrat,' says his wife, Deborah Stark. Stark has been heralded for his free-spiritedness nationwide (except on the Republican talk shows), but sometimes it can lead to trouble. He has occasionally made inflammatory comments, including calling former Ways and Means committee chairman Bill Thomas (left) a fascist, and declaring that President Bush did not care about the welfare of children. 'Sometimes I let my emotions get the better of me, regrettably,' Stark says. 'I think I said some things that needed to be said, but they needed to be said in a different way, and at times I used an unacceptable choice of words.' 'He told me,' said Mrs. Stark, 'And I could just tell that he was really sorry for what he'd said and knew in his heart that it was wrong.' Nevertheless, constituents have congratulated Stark for speaking up and saying what he felt, even though it has landed him in controversy.
Stark has shown himself to be a maverick in other ways besides controversial comments, as well. In the fall of 2006 the Secular Coalition of America announced that they would award $1,000 to the person who identified the highest-ranking atheist or nontheist holding public office in the United States. Woody Kaplan interviewed close to sixty members of the House and Senate in search of someone who did not believe in a God. 'At the time, twenty-two of them told me they didn't believe in a God,' Kaplan recalls. 'Twenty-one of them said, 'You can't tell anybody'. One of them said you could: Congressman Pete Stark.' The second highest-ranking identified atheist was a school board member in Berkeley, CA. 'I guess I'm more of an agnostic than an atheist,' Stark said. 'I just don't believe in God and all that Bible stuff.' 'It has never been about God,' Stark said in a speech accepting the Humanist of the Year award in 2008, 'It has never been about peace on Earth. It has always been about profit in your pocket. It has always been about power.'

But power and profit are two of the things Stark is least concerned with. 'I just want to help out the folks at home,' he says. His wife and colleagues will all testify that his sole goal is to help people and give them what they need to survive as a right through the government, but longtime friend and colleague Jim Copeland goes on to add something more. 'Whether it's politics or banking, whatever he does, he has fun with it,' Copeland says.
Stark does indeed have fun with his job, and loves it, probably a lot more than most. 'You know, I've always said there are only two good jobs in the world,' muses Stark. 'One is being a congressman. The other is being a symphony conductor. They're not too far apart. For one thing, they're both minor celebrities. For another, they have to bring together a large amount of people and make things happen. But most importantly, they wake up every day knowing that they're going to make someone's life a little bit better.'

Join the Discussion

This article has 4 comments. Post your own now!

TheTruth said...
Aug. 17, 2012 at 5:46 pm
Nice job, but how come you don't tell everyone that Stark is your father.  This is unethical journalism.  I wonder who taught you about ethics?  
Don955 replied...
Nov. 24 at 2:55 pm
How would a son of a Liberal, let alone banker understand or be concerned with ethics?
Chris said...
Mar. 16, 2012 at 10:02 am
Your article failed the legitimacy test when you defaulted to name calling regarding Bill O'Reilly. You also failed to do the math and tell your readers wife Deborah's age when she and the atheist began "dating." media Matters would love you----lol!
fermata replied...
Aug. 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm
Did I miss the part where you disclaim that the author is the subject's son? This is really lame. Should've titled this, "why I think my dad is great."
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