A decade before California Rep. Eric Swalwell won a seat in Congress in 2013, many Marylanders knew him by another name: “Bahama Bob.”
Donning a Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses, flip-flops, shorts and a black wig, Swalwell led dozens of students in a 2003 protest in Annapolis condemning Republican former Gov. Robert Ehrlich for considering college tuition increases while vacationing in the Bahamas.
“I am vacationing while you people work harder to pay tuition,” Swalwell, then a senior at the University of Maryland, said to the crowd.
Today, Swalwell, 38, may be taking his political showmanship to the presidential campaign trail. The Democrat says he is considering running for president against Donald Trump in 2020.
He’s certainly been acting like a possible candidate. Swalwell has been making regular trips to Iowa — his birth state and the first to caucus during presidential elections — and was the first Democrat to head there after the 2018 midterm elections. Fresh off a major House victory, he said the trip further motivated him to announce his candidacy.
“The message I’ve received loud and clear is that the country is embracing new leadership. I’m encouraged by that,” he said. “Now it’s just a matter of meeting with people and talking it through with my wife and family over the holidays.”
Swalwell seized a U.S. House seat at age 32, defeating a Democratic incumbent more than twice his age. Since then, he’s served on the House Judiciary Committee, the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, and the Committee on Homeland Security, among others.
He also co-chairs three caucuses, including the bipartisan United Solutions Caucus and the Congressional Soccer Caucus.
He’ll be 40 by January 2020, and would be the youngest president ever elected if he won. A husband and father of two toddlers, Swalwell said he’d be up for the challenge.
“In many ways, you’re doing this for your kids and kids like them,” he said, adding that his resume includes six years in Congress and a position as the youngest person on the House’s Democratic leadership team.
The former government and politics major at Maryland’s flagship university first tasted public service as a Capitol Hill intern and as the student government’s vice president of campus affairs. He also served as the College Park City Council’s first student liaison, a position he created to strengthen the relationship between students and residents.
The first in his family to attend college, Swalwell said he struggled to afford tuition once he transferred to Maryland from Campbell University in North Carolina, where he played Division I soccer on a scholarship until an injury ended his athletic career.
While at Maryland, he met Martin O’Malley, the ambitious Baltimore City councilman-turned-mayor, and volunteered for his campaign when O’Malley ousted Ehrlich as governor in 2006.
“I was really just moved by his service and have been with him ever since,” Swalwell said.
Swalwell provided O’Malley with his first and only congressional endorsement when the former governor ran for president in 2016. The two have run into each other at Iowa events where they’ve both addressed crowds. He said O’Malley would “take it as a compliment” if he were to run.
O’Malley was not immediately available to comment, but his former colleagues agree. Rick Abbruzzese, a former O’Malley staffer, said Swalwell’s higher-than-average media profile, which includes nearly 400,000 Twitter followers and regular TV appearances on cable news, speaks to his ability make an impression.
“I remember Eric as being tenacious and committed to the cause,” Abbruzzese said. “Fast-forwarding, I view him right now as one of the people in the Democratic Party who has the ability to put forward and articulate a positive message of the Democratic Party.”
On Nov. 16, Swalwell’s 38th birthday, he made an appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and discussed some of his motivations to run.
“You must really want to be president because it’s your birthday and you’re here on my show,” Maher said.
“That’s right,” Swalwell replied.
Swalwell said one of his proudest accomplishments while in Congress was creating the Future Forum, a political action committee composed of young Democrats from the House of Representatives who advocate for millennials.
He also points to his membership on the House Intelligence Committee following Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections as evidence of his ability to tackle big issues.
“As the son of a cop, I was raised with a clear sense of right and wrong and the rule of law, and that no one is above it,” he said.
He vowed to pursue policies to help the middle class.
“If you give every person an opportunity and you invest in them, they should be able to be anything,” he said. “Too many people just run in place. They’re not getting ahead, they’re getting by, and I want to fix that.”
But Swalwell’s road to the White House might prove more of an uphill battle, said Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University. A crowded field of Democratic contenders might hinder Swalwell’s ability to gain momentum in the campaign, he said.
“It’s almost impossible if you have very low name salience to run for president,” Vatz said.
Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College, added that an early focus on Iowa and New Hampshire, a strategy that some candidates rely on to win the first primaries and gain momentum, might prove ineffective in the long run.
“There used to be a month between [the caucuses in] Iowa and New Hampshire, but now they’re within a week of each other. There’s no time to gain traction,” Eberly said. “It tends to favor people with more name recognition and more money who can take advantage of the compacted window and prevent the other candidates from getting known.”
Swalwell remains unfazed.
“I’ve known improbability, and every time, I’ve overcome it,” he said. “A lot of it is born out of my own experience being connected to the story of the American dream.”