Eric Swalwell may have traded in a Hawaiian shirt and Annapolis protests for a tailored suit and MSNBC appearances, but he’s still guided by the political instincts he first showed as a student at the University of Maryland.
Currently serving in his fourth term as a Democratic Congressman from California’s 15th district in the San Francisco Bay area, Swalwell gained notoriety on the national scene for his frequent and outspoken criticism of former President Donald Trump’s policies. A brief 2020 White House run made him one of the youngest Presidential candidates in history, and in January 2021, he served as one of the nine impeachment managers in the case against Trump.
Swalwell will be the featured guest for The Feller Lecture—the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences’ signature event—on Wednesday, March 31 at 3:30 pm.
Swalwell says his passion for politics and public service was born on campus in College Park. The first in his family to attend college, Swalwell originally received a scholarship to play soccer at Campbell University in North Carolina, but when an injury sidelined him, he spent the summer of 2001 interning on Capitol Hill. By that fall, he had transferred to the University of Maryland to be closer to the nation’s capital and immediately became involved with the Student Government Association and advocating for issues important to the student body.
When the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred during his first semester, Swalwell helped set up a scholarship for Terps who lost parents that day. He also worked with the College Park City Council to create a student liaison seat on the council, a position that remains in place today. Clad in a Hawaiian shirt, flip flops and a wig and wielding a megaphone, Swalwell organized protests at the State House in Annapolis and on campus to call attention to then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s efforts to raise tuition rates while vacationing in the Bahamas.
“It was a coming-of-age time for me on campus,” Swalwell said. “I feel like I have an eternal bond with the school.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in government and politics, Swalwell went on to receive his law degree from the UMD Francis King Carey School of Law in 2006 before returning to his hometown of Dublin, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay area to work as a county prosecutor. Swalwell itched to get involved in local politics and considered running for city council when a mentor gave him a piece of advice that changed the course of his political career: Start smaller.
“Had I run for city council right out of law school, I certainly would have lost, and I would have been demoralized by the loss and probably would have never run for office again,” Swalwell said. “I would have missed out on a lot of other opportunities.”
Instead, Swalwell took on appointments to the local arts and planning commissions before running successfully for that city council seat. In 2012, he challenged a 40-year incumbent congressman in his district and prevailed in the hotly contested race.
“If you run for an issue, you’ll find the seat, and for me, the issue was lifting up a town where I grew up that was a blue-collar town where there weren’t a whole lot of opportunities but was trying to shed that image and become a place where people wanted to live,” Swalwell said. “By doing that, I had something to run for when I got to Congress because there are a lot of places in America that were like my hometown.”
When he returned to College Park in December 2018 to address winter graduates from the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, Swalwell encouraged a younger generation of Terps to consider a similar path to public office.
“It’s exciting,” Swalwell said. “It’s the greatest country in the world and there are challenges to our democracy, and I get to try to do something about it.”