Fortney ‘Pete’ Stark, the former California congressman who spent more than 40 years in office, has died at the age of 88. The cause is unspecified.
In addition to the passing of a longtime Democrat, we’ve also lost the first openly non-religious politician in Congress. Pete Stark made that announcement more than a decade ago, in 2007, at the prodding of the Secular Coalition for America. He called himself a Unitarian, but he made clear he was explicitly non-theistic. Perhaps the most surprising thing about his announcement was the relative lack of backlash it generated. Most people in the political sphere responded with a shrug, if anything.
In fact, when Stark ran for re-election in 2008 and 2010, the issue didn’t even seem to come up, at least not in any serious way. It only came up in a small way in 2012, when Rep. Eric Swalwell, now a prominent Democratic and former presidential candidate, challenged Stark in a primary. Stark had voted against reaffirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto, making him one of the only members of Congress willing to do that, and Swalwell used that against him. It didn’t necessarily tip the scales, but it was an indication that even Democrats were willing to use Stark’s beliefs against him.
While I had hoped Stark’s announcement would open the floodgates to other politicians also “coming out,” he turned out to be a one-off. Blame it on the political climate or politicians’ fear of painting a target on themselves. But that also makes what Stark did all the more courageous. He was the only non-theist when he was in office. When he finally lost to Swalwell, there was no one in Congress who openly rejected God’s existence. It wasn’t until 2017 that another name was added to that list: Rep. Jared Huffman, also from California.
But even if we haven’t seen more open atheists on Capitol Hill, we’ve seen a slow but growing acceptance of alternative religious viewpoints. There’s now a Congressional Freethought Caucus on Capitol Hill with a dozen members. The Religious Right has become even more entrenched within the Republican Party while Democrats have become increasingly non-religious. Democrats running for office are realizing that pandering to one religion isn’t a strategic move.
Stark was an effective politician, too:
The laws and policies he helped craft during his 40-year career in Congress ultimately changed the machinery of U.S. health care. He created the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, best known as COBRA, which allows workers to continue receiving health coverage for a period of time after they leave a job. Stark also helped craft the Affordable Care Act, the signature policy change of the Obama administration.
Working as a banker in the 1960s, Stark took stances that seemed radical at the time, but resonate today: He provided free employee child care and worker buses, making it easier for his largely African American employee force at the Oakland branch to get promotions and move to branches in Walnut Creek.
He came to politics as a rebel, turning against his Wisconsin Republican roots and registering as a Democrat, before unseating Rep. George P. Miller in California’s 8th Congressional District. By that time, Stark was fiercely populist and antiwar.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted, “Personally and professionally, I was proud to work with Pete to pass the Affordable Care Act, which stands as a pillar of health and economic security in America today.”
[This article will be updated with more information as it comes in.]
(Screenshot via YouTube)