Congress’ Young Members Blaze New Trails

Freshman East Bay Rep. Eric Swalwell said he wanted to “get outside the comfort zone” of traditional political discourse when he showed up at a meeting of the Fremont City Council to talk to constituents – via Skype.

Swalwell, a Democrat, said he made the Internet video call from his Washington, D.C., office because voters in his district “are very, very busy people who are relying on new ways of communicating … and Congress hasn’t always done a good job at it.”

The move makes the former Dublin city councilman, who at 32 is the youngest member of the California delegation, the only member of Congress known to use Skype to link with public meetings back home.

Compared with older colleagues in Congress, many of whom are twice his age, Swalwell is “ahead of the curve” in new ways of reaching constituents, says San Jose State University political science Professor Larry Gerston. “It’s the different set of tools … that come part-and-parcel with a new generation.”

Swalwell’s efforts underscore some evident generational differences in members of Capitol Hill’s freshman class, who appear eager to supplement traditional town hall meetings with social media and new approaches to voter outreach.

In California’s San Joaquin Valley, Republican Rep. David Valadao of Hanford (Kings County), decided that two offices weren’t enough to serve the public in his far-flung 21st Congressional District, which is mostly rural and agricultural.

Mobile office

Valadao, 36, created a mobile office that on weekdays brings services such as veterans’ and Social Security benefits, and other important issues, to schools, community centers and other convenient locations for voters in the small communities that dot his district.

“Given the size of our district, I understand that it might not be possible for every constituent to seek assistance from my office located in Hanford,” Valadao said in announcing the outreach. “However, it is important to me that everyone who is in need of help receives it.”

In the state’s high desert, 40-year-old freshman Democratic Rep. Raul Ruiz of Palm Desert (Riverside County), is making extra efforts to stay in touch with voters. Returning to his district last weekend, Ruiz, an emergency-room doctor, stopped at a free medical clinic in Indio, where he spent the day attending to elderly and indigent patients.

“I’m a physician first and foremost,” he told a Southern California radio station.

Experts say the rookie House members, while facing the pressure in fundraising and campaigning typical of freshmen, come into office with a new approach to those challenges.

“This is a generation that came of age in a world that was all about community and sharing” on social media, said David Burnstein, 24, a political analyst for the Huffington Post and author of “Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World.”

“Younger people have that mentality: We’re here, we have new energy … there’s more of a connection and collectivism,” Burnstein said. “And it’s only natural that would be reflected in their leadership style.”

Swalwell, who beat 20-term Democratic Rep. Pete Stark in a long-shot race last year – and who may face a challenge from Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett of San Leandro in his East Bay district – has offered to hold a twice-yearly Skype public session with councils in every city in his district.

“I was a city council member, and I know how important they are in effecting change,” he said. “In the past, they’d have to go to Washington to see their member of Congress,” said Swalwell, whose 15th Congressional District is in southern Alameda County.

Meeting via Skype “allows you to patch in” and hear directly from taxpayers, he said, and it has an added benefit: “It costs zero.”

In contrast to Stark, his much older predecessor, Swalwell invites voters to weekend bike rides with him around the district.

He also schedules “walk a mile in your shoes” days, where he works alongside constituents in a variety of jobs. Since he was sworn in at the start of the year, Swalwell has labored as an emergency medical technician with an ambulance crew and on an assembly line making LED light fixtures.

Serving coffee

On a recent Saturday, Swalwell, a former waiter, served coffee to customers at a popular coffee shop in Dublin. An active Twitter user, he also held a contest to increase his Twitter (@RepSwalwell) following, and is the rare politician who writes his own tweets.

“I don’t want it scripted,” he said. “I want it to reflect who I am, not a 140-character press release.”

His efforts may be working. Swalwell, who was virtually unknown before challenging Stark, raised $260,000 in the first three months of the year, making him one of the top freshmen House fundraisers, according to Federal Election Commission reports filed last week.

Swalwell’s fundraising is a significant sum, said Terry Christensen, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University.

“He’s heading off opponents if anyone’s thinking he may be vulnerable,” Christensen added. “He’s all over the place.”

It’s a savvy approach, Christensen added.

“The second election – the one after your first – is the most crucial in a congressperson’s career,” Christensen said. “If you win your second election, you’re probably going to be there for a long time.”