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Eric Swalwell: Why I Ran for President—and Why I Dropped Out

I ran for president to maintain the momentum of the 2018 midterms: a surge of new young House Democrats, a rout of NRA-backed Republicans. I left the race disappointed I did not advance, but more hopeful than ever that America is ready to boldly tackle our challenges.

The early seeds were sown in 2016 as attendance at my congressional town halls suddenly tripled after Donald Trump’s election. People were people fired up, desperate for hope and eager for action, telling me the top priority was to reshape Congress and put a check on this dangerous administration.

As founder and chairman of Future Forum—a group of young House Democrats listening to and acting on millennial Americans’ needs—I already had visited dozens of cities to meet with thousands of young people. So in the new Trumpian landscape, I went back out on the road to support a few dozen Democratic House challengers in their 40s or younger. We called them the “Future 40”; 28 won last November, giving us the youngest freshman class since 2011 and the most diverse House ever.

I also felt a renewed commitment to confront gun violence. I had become deeply disillusioned by years of watching Republicans kowtow to the National Rifle Association and obstruct action. But after the February 2018 massacre in Parkland, Fla., I saw students and families turn grief into activism, raising voices that could not be ignored. With hope renewed, I raised my own voice again as the first member of Congress to call for buying back every single military-style assault weapon in America. 

I thought moving ahead required a young president who lives as working Americans do and would make ending gun violence the top priority. I undertook this as the son of a cop and the first in my family to go to college, as someone who had lived the promise of America: that if you work hard, you can do better for yourself and dream bigger for your kids.

With Future Forum and during the midterm campaigns, I had seen that this promise was unattainable for too many Americans. Too many choose between paying rent or for health care. Too many—including me—stagger beneath student loan debt that delays owning homes, starting families, or launching businesses. Too many live paycheck to paycheck, without savings for even a modest emergency.

As father to two young children and husband to a woman with her own busy career, running for president seemed particularly daunting—yet Brittany and I realized we had to do this for our kids, for everyone’s kids.

Wanting to help make the most of our new Democratic House majority, I opted not to enter the race until April. By then I was the 18th Democrat to jump in, and many voters and donors already felt “candidate fatigue,” lacking bandwidth to listen to and get excited about a new entrant who didn’t already have massive name recognition.

But even as the field kept growing, I didn’t consider what “lane” to run in—I respected all contenders, but I wasn’t interested in adjusting our campaign to imitate or differ from theirs. I went out there to speak truth and rouse Americans to hope and action. I truthfully told my family, staff, and supporters we were running only to win.

I reconnected with my Iowa roots. I met wonderful people there, and in New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, Indiana, Florida, and elsewhere. I visited cities torn by gun violence—Philadelphia, Chicago, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Houston, and Las Vegas—to listen to survivors, activists, and experts.

I loved having Brittany and my children Nelson and Cricket with me on the trail. Voters would leap up not to shake my hand but to hoist the kids, as if to weigh them as much as the candidate. When my family wasn’t with me, I missed them awfully; FaceTime is no substitute for a hug.

We quickly qualified for the first debate. We hired staff in several states, our media coverage was strong, and we even aired a television ad. Yet with so many other candidates campaigning, we found it ever harder to move the needle. The overwhelming desire to oust Trump has driven some Democrats to commit early to more prominent candidates, and driven others to withhold support until the field is winnowed.

We hoped the first Democratic presidential debate would give us a bump and sustain us moving forward, but that didn’t happen. Seeing no viable path to the nomination, I decided to end the campaign.

I have no regrets. I’m glad to have brought gun violence front and center in the 2020 policy discussion, glad to have stood outside the NRA’s headquarters to announce the boldest gun reform package in American history, and glad that three prominent candidates—Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris—embraced my assault-weapon buyback idea.

A new generation stands ready to end gun violence, tackle climate change, find cures for our deadliest diseases, relieve the student loan debt crisis, and ensure government works for everyone. I’m still all in to lead on these and other issues—just from a more familiar spot along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Eric Swalwell is the U.S. representative for California’s 15th District and a former Democratic candidate for president.

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