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Pete Stark (1931–2020), U.S. Representative from California who fought for health care

Getty Images / Congressional Quarterly / Douglas Graham

Stark helped write the Affordable Care Act and helped create the COBRA insurance program

Pete Stark was a U.S. Representative who represented California as a Democrat from 1973 to 2013. Stark represented a district in Northern California that included Alameda and Union City, which was redrawn ahead of the 2012 election. Known for his fight for better health care for Americans, Stark chaired the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee. He was one of the shapers of the Affordable Care Act, and he was a creator of the COBRA program that extends a worker’s health insurance after they lose their job. Stark was also responsible for the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, requiring hospitals to treat emergency room patients regardless of their ability to pay. Also known for his antiwar stance, Stark spoke out against U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, and later in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stark was the first member of Congress to declare himself an atheist.

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Died: January 24, 2020 (Who else died on January 24?)

Details of death: Died at home in Harwood, Maryland of leukemia at the age of 88.


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A reputation as a hothead: In addition for his health care focus, Stark was also known for a tendency to be argumentative and sharp-tongued, as when he publicly criticized President George W. Bush when he vetoed a funding increase for children’s health care. After blasting Bush for caring more about military spending than children, Stark apologized… but added that he didn’t respect the president. It wasn’t the only incident when Stark’s temper stood out, as he once challenged a fellow representative to a fistfight on the House floor and called another a fruitcake. When his district was redrawn in 2012, Stark lost to challenger Eric Swalwell.

Notable quote: “You don’t have the money to fund the war or children. But you’re going to spend it to blow up innocent people if he can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.” —from Stark’s controversial 2007 statement on the House floor about the Children’s Health Insurance Program

What people said about him: “Pete Stark gave the East Bay decades of service as a voice in Congress for working people. His knowledge of policy, particularly health care, & his opposition to unnecessary wars demonstrated his deep care and spirit. Our community mourns his loss.” —Rep. Eric Swalwell

“Pete Stark was a powerful voice for everyday families in the East Bay and around the country. His tireless work on health care & his fierce opposition to war helped make our country a better place. He will be missed.” —Rep. Barbara Lee

“Pete Stark was a giant. He opposed the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. He was for single payer before it was popular. He was a friend and mentor and helped build the progressive movement, even when it was lonely.” —Rep. Ro Khanna

Full obituary: The Washington Post

Related lives:

  • Elijah Cummings (1951–2019), Democratic U.S. Representative from Maryland
  • John Dingell (1926–2019), longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history
  • Daniel Akaka (1924–2018), first Native Hawaiian elected to Congress