Former Representative Pete Stark, who in his long legislative career as a Democrat from California helped expand access to health insurance, but whose irascible temperament often ruffled the feathers of his House colleagues, died on Friday at his home in Harwood, Md. He was 88.
His son, Fortney H. Stark III, said the cause was leukemia.
For most of his 40 years in Congress, Mr. Stark (he was born Fortney H. Stark Jr. but went by Pete) represented a liberal district in Northern California’s East Bay, between Oakland and San Jose, including a part of Silicon Valley. He served on Capitol Hill from 1973 to 2013, making him one of the most senior members of Congress until his district was redrawn and he lost to a Democratic challenger in 2012.
As a member of the Ways and Means Committee and chairman of that panel’s subcommittee on health, Mr. Stark was in the forefront of health care debates, playing a major role in shaping the nation’s health care policies and in protecting Medicare and Social Security from program cuts.
He helped write portions of the Affordable Care Act, which in 2010 expanded access to health insurance for millions of Americans. He also led efforts to create the COBRA program, which allows workers to keep their health insurance even after losing their jobs, and to continue to be covered on a former spouse’s policy in case of divorce. He led passage of legislation that guaranteed emergency medical services to anyone seeking treatment, regardless of his or her ability to pay.
As a policymaker, Mr. Stark was often ahead of his time: He was an early proponent of universal health care and a carbon tax, which would charge users of fossil fuels a fee based on carbon emissions.
While his constituents re-elected him repeatedly, he was less popular with his congressional colleagues, many of whom found him ill-tempered. He once challenged a colleague to a fistfight on the House floor. He called another a “fruitcake,” accused another of having several children out of wedlock and denounced still another as a “whore for the insurance industry,” a remark for which he apologized.
Mr. Stark was nearly censured by the House in 2007 after he expressed his fury with President George W. Bush during the Iraq war for vetoing an increase in funding for a children’s health insurance program. Instead of caring for children, Mr. Stark said, Mr. Bush was sending soldiers to Iraq “to get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.”
Even as he apologized on the House floor, he added: “But I respect neither the commander in chief who keeps them in harm’s way nor the chicken-hawks in Congress who vote to deny children health care.”
His tendency to mouth off limited his advancement in Congress. In 2010, Mr. Stark was positioned to become chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, but his colleagues blocked him.
“He left a storied trail of verbal outbursts and personal confrontations that cost him, his district and his state the chairmanship of the most powerful committee in Congress, Ways and Means,” The San Francisco Chronicle wrote in 2012. And, the newspaper said, his acid tongue created problems for him in his bitter last race that year, when he was defeated in a run-off by a fellow Democrat, Eric Swalwell, who continues to hold that seat and briefly ran for the presidential nomination in 2019.
“The two sides of his political persona — serious policymaker and snarling partisan — are at war on a campaign trail littered with false charges, invective and mental confusion,” the newspaper said of Mr. Stark.
Fortney Hillman Stark Jr. was born on Nov. 11, 1931, in Milwaukee. His father was an entrepreneur, and his mother, Dorothy (Mueller) Stark, was a homemaker.
Mr. Stark received his bachelor of science degree in engineering from M.I.T. in 1953 and served in the Air Force from 1955 to 1957. He earned his master’s in business administration from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1960.
In 1963, he founded a small bank, Security National Bank, in California to serve the needs of working people. His family said that it was among the first in the nation to offer free checking accounts and that it had also provided free child care for employees and free bus service.
Mr. Stark grew up a Republican, but his opposition to the Vietnam War prompted him to switch parties. He was soon printing peace signs on his bank’s checks and erecting a large peace sign on the side of the bank’s headquarters in Walnut Creek, northeast of Oakland. In 1971 he was elected to the governing board of Common Cause, the liberal advocacy group.
His first two marriages — to Elinor Brumder in 1955 and to Carolyn Wente in 1989 — ended in divorce. In 1991 he married Deborah Roderick, who survives him.
In addition to her and his son Fortney, who is known as Fish, he is survived by two other sons, Jeffrey and Andrew; four daughters, Beatrice Stark Winslow, Thekla Stark Wainwright, Sarah Stark Ramirez and Hannah Marie Stark; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. He had lived in Maryland during his years in Congress and remained there after leaving office.
Mr. Stark’s interest in social issues led him to mount an insurgent primary campaign for Congress in 1972 against the incumbent Democrat, George P. Miller. Running on an antipoverty, antiwar platform, he defeated Mr. Miller and gained the seat in the general election.
As he immersed himself in health policy, and came face-to-face with the army of lobbyists on Capitol Hill, Mr. Stark told friends, “In my first week, I learned about six organs in my body I didn’t know existed — each with a lobbyist in Washington representing it.”
He was the first person in Congress to declare himself an atheist.
He also had a reputation as a showman. In 1982, with the news cameras rolling, he dived into a dumpster behind a Washington grocery store to protest the waste of food that could have been given to poor people.
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