It wasn’t officially a campaign event, and California Congressman Eric Swalwell hasn’t officially (or unofficially) declared he’s running for president, but the Monday afternoon town hall event in Meeting Room A at the Iowa City Public Library looked like a campaign event, and Swalwell sounded like a presidential candidate.
The town hall was sponsored by Working Hero Iowa, a nonprofit that works to raise awareness of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and hosted by J.D. Scholten, who launched the nonprofit last month. Scholten is no stranger to political campaigns — he was Rep. Steve King’s Democratic challenger in last November’s election, and almost carried the western Iowa 4th Congressional district.
But in his opening remarks, Scholten kept his focus on the importance of the EITC, and so did Swalwell, the afternoon’s featured speaker.
Scholten explained that Working Hero Iowa is based on a similar initiative that started in California. He explained “the goal is to end poverty. It’s an audacious goal, but we’re going to do the work needed to get there.”
The first practical step is to make sure everyone who is eligible for the EITC takes advantage of it, Scholten said. Created by Congress in 1975, the EITC is a refundable federal tax credit for low- and moderate-income Americans.
Scholten invited Rod Sullivan to explain the impact the EITC has in Johnson County.
Since 2007, the county has partnered with Iowa City and Coralville, North Liberty, the Iowa City Community School District and the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa to offer tax preparation assistance to residents, and to make sure people are aware of the EITC.
“Last year, we had about 1,500 people, who used these services,” Sullivan said. “[The EITC] brought $2 million into the local economy.” He added, “We believe almost all that money is spent locally.”
But most of the approximately 40 people in the room were obviously there to see Swalwell. The Democrat who represents part of the San Francisco Bay Area in Congress has become a familiar presence both on cable TV as a critic of the Trump administration, and at Democratic Party events in Iowa.
Since 2017, Swalwell has made at least 16 trips to Iowa. He has a staff of eight working for him in the state (as well as one person working in South Carolina, another early primary state). But he hasn’t declared himself as a candidate, or even started an exploratory committee; he does, however, have an exploratory fund that covers his Iowa expenses.
When Scholten opened the floor for questions, most were directed to Swalwell and were of the sort normally heard at presidential campaign events.
“Go big and be bold,” Swalwell said, describing his preferred approach to many of the challenges facing the country.
Asked about environmental issues, Swalwell said he supports the Green New Deal and stressed the urgency of taking action quickly to address the problem of climate change.
“In our lifetime, we should strive to see 100 percent renewable [energy] output in America,” Swalwell told the audience. The congressman, who was born in Iowa and lived in the state as a young child, added, “America should catch up with Iowa, when it comes to renewable energy.”
But it’s important to take care of workers who will be displaced by the transition to a green economy, Swalwell said. He favors not just retraining workers for green jobs, but offering a guaranteed wage to workers while they are transitioning to those new jobs.
Swalwell also supports Medicare for All. “It’s time we joined the rest of the first world [and provide universal health care],” he said.
Swalwell said he’d noticed that many people, especially younger people, had lost faith in the ability of government to accomplish great projects, because “we govern so incrementally these days — shutdown to shutdown, budget crisis to budget crisis.”
He proposed a major investment in scientific research, spending $1 trillion over 10 years “that puts to work a whole new generation of scientists” seeking cures for such diseases as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Swalwell was even asked a foreign policy question, regarding how he would approach the issue of Israel and the rights of Palestinians. The congressman endorsed going back to the policies of the Obama administration: pushing for a two-state solution, a halt to construction of new Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory and the resumption of U.S. funding for United Nations organizations supporting the Palestinian Authority.
But it was with his position on gun control that Swalwell most clearly distinguished himself from other 2020 Democratic candidates (declared or potential). It’s a topic Swallwell thought a lot about, he explained, having seen the impact of gun violence first-hand while working as an assistant district attorney in Oakland.
“For me, addressing gun violence means no longer negotiating down with the NRA. We’ve been negotiating down for too long,” Swalwell said. “Mass shooting after mass shooting, we’ve had moments of silence and moments of silence, never moments of action in between. And we can’t even get the NRA to agree on what I think are the most common sense regulations on guns.”
The NRA has plenty of money, largely from gun manufacturers, and a dedicated core of voters, Swalwell conceded, but the overwhelming majority of Americans favor enacting gun control measures.
“Go big and be bold,” he said. “Background checks. Ban and buy back every single assault weapon across the country. The best in mental health service, not just to prevent the next shooting, but because too many of us know someone who’s suffering.”
Near the end of the 45-minute question and answer session, someone finally asked the 38-year-old congressman if he has decided to run for president.
“I think you guys are getting me pretty close to the line here,” Swalwell said. “I’m about to jump in. The water’s warm.”
Swalwell declined to say anything more definitive, but told the audience he’d have a major announcement soon.