A nasty Silicon Valley congressional rematch heats up

Mike Honda talks with supporters from his district after getting the Democratic Party’s endorsement.
Mike Honda talks with supporters from his district after getting the Democratic Party’s endorsement.
Beth Willon/KQED

Democrat Ro Khanna isn’t only taking on eight-term congressman Mike Honda for the House seat in the heart of Silicon Valley. He’s roughing up the entire California Democratic Party.

“I’m fearless,” said 39-year-old Khanna, an Indian-American tech attorney from Fremont. “The rules are rigged. There’s a group of people trying to hold onto their power by appointing their friends, who will decide who gets the party’s endorsement. It’s a vestige of the past.”

Khanna admits he’s channeling Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump in this year’s wild and unorthodox presidential race.  He believes they have tapped into voters who are tired of parties looking out for their own interests instead of working families.

“On the Republican side — although I disagree with him on many issues — there is a populism to Trump’s campaign,” said Khanna. “There’s a lot of anger on both sides.”

This was hours before delegates at the California Democratic Party Convention in San Jose overwhelmingly endorsed Honda on Feb. 27. For the 74-year-old veteran congressman — who is in the throes of a serious House Ethics Committee investigation — this is a rematch of a bitter race Khanna narrowly lost two years ago.

Honda quickly brushed off Khanna’s accusations that the party rules are rigged.

Congressman Mike Honda (seated, red tie) listens to opponent Ro Khanna call the state Democratic Party endorsement process rigged.
Congressman Mike Honda (seated, red tie) listens to opponent Ro Khanna call the state Democratic Party endorsement process rigged.
Beth Willon/KQED

“Oh come on. For goodness sake,” said Honda, a Japanese-American former schoolteacher. “I’m not the one who paid for memberships to load up on Democratic clubs. … We’ll see how much of an impact his negative campaign, his innuendos and the impressions he’s trying to leave on people work out. I don’t think they will work.”

But during this campaign Khanna plans to hit Honda hard on the House ethics probe every chance he gets. There are allegations that Honda mixed campaign and government business and gave improper favors, like fast-tracking visas, to top donors.

“I do think it [the investigation] disqualifies Mike Honda from running. It’s my honest opinion,” said Khanna. “It represents cronyism, it represents giving favors to donors and it’s wrong. And I will speak out about that.”

But Honda said there’s an internal House process by which committee members will determine if a House rule was violated.

“Violating an ethics rule is not breaking a law,” said Honda. “There is not a criminal investigation.”

The timing of the ethics committee’s decision is critical, said Larry Gerston, a political science professor emeritus at San Jose State University.

“If the committee acts fairly soon, Honda could probably go a long way with putting it behind him,” said Gerston. “But if the committee acts in a negative way — let’s say in September or October — that could be a factor in this race.”

In the meantime, Khanna is portraying Honda “as everything wrong with politics” and himself as the ultimate Washington and Democratic Party outsider.

“I take no PAC [political action committee] money,” said Khanna.

But he may want to brush up on who is serving in Congress. At the California Democratic Convention in San Jose last weekend, he bumped into Maxine Waters, the veteran Los Angeles congresswoman and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Khanna introduced himself and asked Waters what she’s running for.

“Re-election in Los Angeles,” said Waters, who was also once investigated for violating House ethics rules in 2010 and later exonerated.

This race is very much a generational contrast between two Democrats who really don’t differ much on the issues, said Gerston.

“The senior man who has been there, done that, because he has so much experience. The young guy who is perhaps a little bit more brazen, going to break a few things along the way, and isn’t afraid to.”

Khanna is counting on support from younger voters who might not know or care about Honda’s history. But that might not be an adequate strategy.

Democratic activist Jay Cheng, 27, grew up in Cupertino and said he can count on Honda, who is a reliable vote on many issues.

“For millennial Democrats who have grown up in the district, we know who has been there for us,” said Cheng.

But at the convention, Khanna’s field director, Michael Ambler, said he had no problem signing up young volunteers from the district with no connection to Honda.

“A lot of volunteers are in college and are worrying about how they are going to pay off their college loans,” said Ambler.

The 17th Congressional District — which includes Fremont, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Newark, Milpitas, Santa Clara and North San Jose — is home to tech giants Tesla, Google, Apple, Cisco and others. It also has a large population of voters from India, China, the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam and Pakistan.

At the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus at the convention, Khanna said tech companies in the district need to reflect the diversity.


“If you go into the halls of Facebook, Google, Tesla, there are not enough Filipino-Americans, there are not enough African-Americans, there are not enough Latino-Americans,” said Khanna.

But Honda has a compelling life story many immigrants can relate to. During World War II, he and his family were put in an internment camp with other Americans of Japanese descent. He later became a champion of civil rights.

After eight terms in the House, Honda is reintroducing himself to voters to remind them where he came from.

“When people start to listen to who you are, your history and background, they say, ‘That  sounds like me.’ So there’s a connection and it’s really important, and so is authenticity,” said Honda.

But Aisha Wahab, an Afghan-American voter who works in the district, said there’s one issue that cuts across all ethnic and racial groups.

“A chance to grow, a chance to survive, a chance to thrive. And I think that’s what this race is about. Our future, not our past,”  said Wahab.

But just how much voters get to hear the candidates debate the issues in coming months remains to be seen. The race has become such a slugfest that Democratic San Jose City Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio recently decided to run.

“There’s too much mudslinging already,” said Oliverio. “I’ll talk about the issues.”

In a sign of how nasty this campaign may be, unsigned hit pieces were distributed at the convention portraying Khanna as a Republican puppet. The Honda campaign denies having any connection to it.

Under California’s primary rules, the top two finishers in the June election will advance. That means Khanna and Honda are likely to meet up again in the November election.

Series: California Counts

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CACounts.