Former 20-term California Representative and Ways & Means Health Subcommittee Chair

Fortney H. “Pete” Stark Jr. passed away on January 24, 2020 at his home on the West River in Maryland.

Over a 40-year Congressional career, spanning from 1973 to 2013, Pete quietly established a

reputation as one of Washington’s most influential figures in health policy. A steadfast advocate

for the interests of consumers, children, seniors, and the poor, his imprint can be found on most

of the progressive health legislation passed in recent years. In particular, Pete was a key

architect of the Affordable Care Act, an original champion of the modern movement for single-

payer health care, and authored numerous bills that made the health care system more

accessible, safe, and fair for all Americans, including COBRA, which lets workers continue on

their employer-provided health plans after a layoff, EMTALA, which prevents anyone from being

denied emergency room care, and the eponymous Stark Laws, which dramatically reduced

fraud and abuse.

Born in Wisconsin during the Great Depression, Pete earned acceptance to MIT, where he

studied engineering, and subsequently served as an officer in the United States Air Force. After

receiving his MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, Pete chose to remain in

California’s East Bay and took out a loan to start his own bank.

As a young banker willing to buck convention, Pete established himself as a firebrand, chiefly

concerned with corporate social responsibility. His bank, Security National, which Pete

described at the time as “a bank whose sole purpose was to fulfill the financial needs of working

people,” shattered convention by being the first in the nation to offer free checking accounts.

Pete implemented racial and gender equity measures for his employees that were largely

without precedent at the time – providing free child care for employees and free buses so that

members of the largely Black workforce at the bank’s Oakland branch could take promotions

requiring them to work at the bank’s Walnut Creek headquarters or other branches in the East

Bay. He also used the platform of the bank to take a stand on social and political issues. In one

instance, he conspicuously erected a giant peace sign on the side of the bank’s headquarters

as a protest symbol during the height of the Vietnam War.

Eventually, Pete’s passion for advocacy on social issues led him to become active in politics.

Originally raised Republican, he changed his registration to the Democratic Party in the 1960s,

and in 1972, he launched an insurgent primary campaign against incumbent representative

Rep. George P. Miller in California’s 8th Congressional District, running on an anti-poverty, anti-

war platform. At the time of Pete’s election to Congress, Security National Bank served over

55,000 customers in California; after his election, Pete stepped down as President and sold his

interest in order to focus wholly on public service.

Pete ended up as Chair of the Ways & Means Health Subcommittee in 1985 through an

accident of seniority, and promptly set about learning the mechanics of the American health

care system, later joking “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 quickly established a

reputation as an advocate for the health care needs of ordinary Americans, concerned about

making the system more transparent, affordable, safe, and fair for all people, and especially

vulnerable populations: children, women, seniors, and the very ill.

Pete’s signature legislative accomplishments during his time in Congress included creating the

COBRA program, which allows individuals to continue on their health insurance even after

losing their job, or on their spouse’s insurance in the event of a divorce, preventing tens of

millions of Americans from experiencing interruptions in their health coverage. His EMTALA

legislation required that hospitals could not turn anyone seeking emergency treatment away,

regardless of their ability to pay, making access to lifesaving emergency medical care a right

rather than a privilege. And his package of medical ethics reforms, called the Stark Laws,

significantly reduced fraud and abuse by curbing physician self-referrals.

Equally important to what Pete created is what he prevented: one of his proudest

accomplishments was leveraging his role as Chair of the Health Subcommittee to shield

Medicare and Social Security from attacks by those who sought to underfund, weaken, or even

privatize the system.

Pete’s dogged championing of universal health care was driven by a set of lifelong beliefs,

rooted in justice, compassion, and a businessman’s common sense: that every person

deserved high-quality health care as a basic human right, that as a wealthy nation we had a

moral obligation to guarantee access to health care to protect people from suffering and harm

that medical care could prevent, and that expanding access to health care meant a healthier,

more productive citizenry, which would result in cost savings over the long term.

Pete’s progressive approach to health reform earned him the ire of the American Medical

Association, which spent heavily and unsuccessfully to defeat him in the 1980s and 1990s. He

won re-election handily, and continued fighting back against industry profiteers until his

retirement from Congress in 2013.

Even years after his retirement, the impact of Pete’s advocacy is still felt. He was a key architect

of the Affordable Care Act, the most sweeping health reform legislation in decades, which

dramatically expanded access to affordable health care for all Americans, especially low-income

people, young people, and people with pre-existing conditions. A longtime proponent of single-

payer health care, Stark was part of a group of legislators, including John Conyers and Bernie

Sanders, who sowed the seeds of today’s Medicare For All movement -- and Pete’s AmeriCare

legislation, which called for universal coverage for every American by expanding Medicare, is

now the basis for several leading progressive plans to overhaul America’s health care system.

Health care is just one of the many issues on which Pete was advocating for progressive

solutions long before they became popular: among other issues, he was a vocal early opponent

of the Iraq War, a champion of a carbon tax beginning in the 1980s, a persistent supporter of

equality for LGBTQ people, and a strong supporter of paid family leave. His uncompromising

belief in standing for what he felt was right caused him to consistently end up on the right side of

history throughout his career.

 

Notably, Pete was a persistent champion of foster children, passing legislation to protect foster

children’s health benefits and support them in their transition to adulthood. And, after a chance

meeting with a young Steve Jobs on a cross-country flight, the two men collaborated to write the

first-ever bill providing a tax credit to technology companies that donated computers to public

schools, resulting in millions of classrooms joining the digital age. He led the effort to pass a tax

on ozone-destroying chemicals, resulting in a major environmental repair.

As a Member of Congress, he was deeply committed to constituent service, going so far as to

set up offices with caseworkers before his first term had even begun. Over the decades, his

office processed hundreds of thousands of issues for his constituents, from tracking down lost

or stolen social security checks to helping veterans receive recognition and access services. His

advocacy brought billions of dollars of federal investment into the East Bay for environmental

protection, public transportation, education, small businesses, public safety, and other public

goods and programs. Even into his eighties, Pete continued his tradition of holding regular

public town hall meetings in his district.

A natural entertainer, with a cunning sense of humor and sharp wit, Pete occasionally gained

notoriety for his biting takedowns of powerful people and institutions he found to be insufficiently compassionate. While his family, staff, and constituents knew him as a warm and generous person, as he explained to an Oakland Tribune reporter in 2002, “I can not tolerate individuals who are indifferent to the plight of the poor.” Pete was a master of capturing the imagination to make his points -- like the time he dove into a dumpster behind a Washington, D.C. grocery store in front of a gaggle of press to protest the waste of food that could have been given to the poor. But his tactics never veered into demagoguery, and, in fact, part of Pete’s legacy is a tradition of bipartisanship -- much of his signature health legislation was developed in close collaboration with his longtime counterpart on the Health Subcommittee, Ohio Republican Rep. Willis (Bill) Gradison, and passed through committee with strong bipartisan support.

In 2007, Pete made history as the first openly atheist Member of Congress. A longtime Unitarian

who does not believe in a supreme being, he responded to a survey from the Secular Coalition

for America describing himself as such and was subsequently surprised by the flood of news

coverage and letters from all around the country, mostly from supporters admiring his courage,

and a few with concern from religious detractors, about whom he wrote “I have never been

criticized in a more generous way.”

Since retiring in 2013, Pete continued to serve his community as a philanthropist, making

contributions to East Bay nonprofits and scholarship funds through his charitable foundation,

and launching the Congressman Pete Stark Health Policy Internship within the National

Academy of Social Insurance to support and develop the next generation of advocates for a

strong social safety net. He enjoyed spending time with his children, grandchildren, and great-

grandchild.

 

Above all, Pete Stark was a man of tremendous courage who never hesitated to pick a worthy

fight for the underserved and against the powerful. A jovial storyteller who could effortlessly

garner people’s attention and win their affection, he enjoyed holding court at family and social

gatherings, sending rooms into peals of laughter with a twinkle in his eye. Disdainful of much of

the back-room wheeling and dealing that came with politics, he was most at home with a group

of constituents, listening to their challenges and their ideas, making them feel heard, earning

their trust, and taking up their fights. He delighted in performing covert acts of kindness and

generosity, quietly slipping away on his wedding day to volunteer at a union hall soup kitchen

and routinely showering young children with gifts and treats on his Congressional trips abroad.

He was a deeply principled public servant who, leading with a deep-seated sense of

compassion and justice, quite literally saved the lives of millions. And he was a devoted

husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, beloved and truly missed by family and

friends alike.

He is survived by his wife of 28 years, Deborah Roderick Stark of Harwood, MD, his first

wife Elinor Brumder Stark of Walnut Creek, CA, and his second wife Carolyn Wente of Livermore, CA. His 7 children and their spouses: Jeffrey Peter Stark and Annie Zatlin of Danville, CA; Beatrice Stark Winslow and Jonathan Winslow of Danville, CA; Thekla Stark Wainwright and Philip Wainwright of Pittsburgh, PA; Sarah Stark Ramirez and Tony Ramirez of Portland, OR; Fortney H. "Fish" Stark, III of Charleston, WV; Hannah Marie Stark, a student at Scripps College for Women in Claremont, CA; and Andrew Peter Stark, a student at the University of North Carolina in Asheville, NC.

He is blessed to have 8 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren:

Nathan Winslow of Los Angeles, CA; Gretchen Stark Signet (and spouse Jake Signet, and child Bella Signet) of Houston, TX; Nora Winslow of Los Angeles, CA; Timothy Wainwright (and spouse Taylor Flynn Wainwright, and children Penelope Wainwright and Theodore Wainwright) of Pittsburgh, PA; David Wainwright of Winston Salem, NC; William Ramirez of Austin, TX; Claire Stark of San Francisco, CA; and Zoe Ramirez of Portland, OR.

Donations can be made in his honor to the Congressman Pete Stark Health Policy Internship

program via the National Academy of Social Insurance.