Former East Bay Rep. Fortney H. “Pete” Stark Jr.—the first openly atheist member of Congress, known for his harsh words and hot temper, whose work on major health legislation made a lasting impact—died Jan. 24 at his home in Harwood, Md. He was 88.
Stark served much of Alameda County in his 40 year tenure in the House of Representatives from 1973 to 2013. He was California’s longest-serving member of Congress.
An Air Force veteran and former community banker, Stark first swept into Congress in 1973 on an anti-Vietnam War platform, after winning a primary challenge against fellow Democrat, George Paul Miller, an entrenched 14-term incumbent. He then went on to win the general election.
“Pete Stark gave the East Bay decades of public service as a voice in Congress for working people. His knowledge of policy, particularly health care, and his opposition to unnecessary wars demonstrated his deep care and spirit. Our community mourns his loss,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif. said in a statement.
Under California’s top-two elections system, Swalwell unseated Stark in the November 2012 election after Stark won the primary. About half of Stark’s Congressional district had been redrawn ahead of the election. Over the years, Stark represented parts of Pleasanton, the Livermore Valley, Oakland, Alameda, San Leandro, Hayward, Union City, Fremont and Newark.
Born in Milwaukee on Nov. 11, 1931, Stark graduated with a bachelor of science degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1953. He served in the United States Air Force from 1955 to 1957, and earned an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in 1960.
He founded Security National Bank in the early 1960s, which expanded to several branches throughout the East Bay. Within a decade, it had grown into a $100 million financial institution, according to an entry in the National Health Directory. When Jann Wenner wanted to start a new magazine called Rolling Stone, Stark was the banker willing to take a chance, he told UU World, the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 2007.
By the mid-1960s Stark became known as the “hippie banker” after affixing a huge peace sign atop the bank’s Walnut Creek headquarters, and printing peace symbols on the bank's checks. It was a calculated publicity stunt that drew national attention, increased deposits, and eventually helped him become a millionaire. It also reflected his changing political outlook.
Stark was raised a Republican. When he moved to the Bay Area in 1957, he registered with the GOP because he “wanted to be a successful business person, and that’s what a successful business person did,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2006. His opposition to the Vietnam War, however, led him to switch parties, he told the newspaper.
One of the first pieces of legislation he signed onto was a bill he cosponsored in February 1973 that would have required Congressional authorization before any further expansion of American armed forces could be used in Southeast Asia. While the bill died in committee, Congress later that year adopted the War Powers Act, which limited the U.S. president’s ability to initiate or escalate military actions abroad.
Stark continued an antiwar streak throughout his time in Congress, sponsoring dozens of bills related to nuclear nonproliferation and arms control. He was an early and outspoken opponent of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In October 2002, Stark gave a floor speech in opposition to a resolution authorizing military force against Iraq. “The bottom line is I don't trust the president and his advisers. Make no mistake, we are voting on a resolution that grants total authority to a president who wants to invade a sovereign nation without any specific act of provocation,” he said.
Over the years, Stark consistently ranked among the nation’s leftmost lawmakers by the National Journal. He was vehemently anti-war and sought to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, a supporter of gun control, and opposed bans on gay marriage and late-term abortions.
In 1985, Stark became Chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on health. He played an influential role in shaping national health policy, including laws that expanded and made improvements to Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.
In an NPR story that aired on his last day in Congress in 2013, he said he was particularly proud of his role in passing COBRA, the law that allows workers and their dependents to maintain health coverage after a job loss, and EMTALA, a 1986 law that requires anyone arriving at a hospital emergency department to be stabilized and treated, regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay.
In an obituary, the Washington Post said Stark’s “caustic tongue” which grew “increasingly intemperate” the longer he served in Congress, limited his effectiveness.
Carolyn Lochhead, a Washington bureau writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, called out Democratic leaders in a column for allowing Stark’s personal political attacks to go unchallenged. She noted it was not the first time Stark’s words stirred controversy, like the time in 1990 when he called George H.W. Bush’s cabinet secretary Louis Sullivan, an African American, “a disgrace to his race” and former Connecticut representative Nancy Johnson a “whore for the insurance industry.”
“One can imagine the reaction if a rich white male Republican called Rep. Nancy Pelosi a whore or Rep. Maxine Waters a disgrace to her race,” Lochhead wrote.
In 2007, Stark publicly came out as an atheist. The Secular Coalition of America—which launched a campaign to identify the highest-ranking atheist or agnostic elected official in the nation—asked Stark if he believed in God. He said no.
He agreed to share his belief and provided a statement to the Associated Press describing himself as a “Unitarian who does not believe in a Supreme Being.” His commitment to secular governance was reaffirmed in 2011 when he read a proclamation into the Congressional record marking May 5 the National Day of Reason. The day was already reserved as the National Day of Prayer.
According to the Washington Post, his marriages to Eleanor Brumder and Carolyn Wente ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 27 years, the former Deborah Roderick of Harwood; four children from his marriage to Brumder; three from his marriage to Roderick; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren