Mike Honda sits in what’s been billed as a town hall meeting in Fremont, surrounded by healthcare experts. The congressman starts to drift as they answer questions about the the Affordable Care Act’s effects on seniors, who comprise most of the audience. Having heard yet another answer about Obamacare’s deductibles or small business eligibility requirements—it’s hard to say at times, as the microphone cuts out intermittently—Honda sets his glasses down on the table and locks his fingers behind his head. He closes his eyes and takes a 20-second power nap.
Honda, 72, can’t be entirely blamed. Hearing a hundred different people ask a hundred different questions about how an untested health benefits reform law will protect them from unknown ailments is a steady drip to narcolepsy. I know, because I’m sitting in the back of the senior center, wondering why I drove to Fremont for a public forum at which the person who sponsored it has little to say.
I had hoped to hear the bold words of a man who’s in the fight of his political life. Town halls are supposed to be where angry voters hold lawmakers’ feet to the fire. The NSA reads our emails and taps our phones. Republicans are calling Obamacare the worst thing since slavery. Syria’s sarin gas attacks have just threatened to drag the U.S. into an expanding global conflict. Our guy in D.C. is here to account.
But Honda seems restful to the point of lethargy. A panel speaker stops talking and Honda opens his eyes—the man is a pro, after all. He blinks himself clear before anyone appears to notice. A few minutes later he lobs a couple zingers to the crowd. “Where do you get your information?” he incredulously asks a man who is ranting about Congress not having to sign up for Obamacare.
Google, the man says, and Honda throws up his hands like “see what I mean” and the audience disregards the agitator. Several old-timers chuckle while a few more strain to hear what’s so funny. The hour-and-a-half town hall ends and Honda has managed to say almost nothing. He’ll be hailed in the paper the next day for staying true to his brand—Mike Honda, the affable congressman, above the fray and impossible to hate.
This video of Mike Honda was taken at a Town Hall meeting he called in September.
The New Kid
I meet Ro Khanna in a Fremont café that may as well be his campaign headquarters based on the number of interviews he’s done there. He’s wearing a dark blazer, collared shirt and jeans, and, to be honest, he looks tired as well. But a few minutes into our conversation, the intellectual property attorney who hopes to oust Honda hits his stride. He stirs a large cup of tea while tearing through answers in a cadence that seems better suited for a podium than the center table of a coffee shop. He repeats words to form rallying cries in an accent that is an unusual blend of California, East Coast and second-generation Indian American.
He might sound even more like a politician if other politicians actually knew anything about technology and the economy—Khanna, 36, served two years as deputy assistant secretary in President Obama’s Department of Commerce and has taught classes at Stanford and Santa Clara University.
It’s not surprising then that his campaign focus begins and ends with these issues. It’s the reason supporters from the technology community include Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Sean Parker, the Facebook and Napster entrepreneur. They vouch for him at $2,600-a-plate fundraisers in San Francisco. But Khanna is also shopping ideas on education, one of Honda’s strong points, and government reform—one of Honda’s real weaknesses.
Laying out his five-point reform plan, a policy so restrictive most members of Congress would act like someone just hit them with the five-point-palm exploding heart technique, Khanna suggests removing many of the incentives that make being a politician so sweet. First, he says, he won’t accept money from political action committees (PACs).
“Not just for my campaign, but my time in Congress,” Khanna says. “I would vote to ban all of it.”
Second on the list: No pay increases. The median household income in America is $60,000, while a member of Congress receives $175,000 salary and a vested pension after five years in office. “We have a governing class that’s disconnected from everyday individuals,” Khanna says, adding that he wants congressional pensions thrown out as well. “I don’t think politicians—members of Congress—I don’t think that’s a career.”
Khanna will likely hit on this point repeatedly during the campaign. Honda has government pensions that will reach six figures by the time he retires and Khanna has never held elective office—although not for lack of trying. Khanna waged a protest candidacy against late 12th District Congressman Tom Lantos in the 2004 primary. And in 2012, a Khanna exploratory committee raised more than a million dollars, but he passed on a golden opportunity to oust Pete Stark, an octogenarian as liberal as Honda but rendered vulnerable to challenger Eric Swalwell due to his erratic behavior.
Political strategist Jude Barry, who has run a dozen state and national campaigns but is not affiliated with this race, says that history could repeat itself.
“This has already happened once,” Barry says. “Swalwell wrote the playbook for defeating an incumbent—that is finish a strong second in the primary and win in November by appealing to a broad spectrum of voters.”
Special interests, Khanna says, will not pay for any of his travel, a perk Honda has made ample use of while in office. Since arriving to Washington in 2001, Honda has allowed PACs, political nonprofits and ethnocentric foundations to treat him to 52 trips at a cost of $122,366. As vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, one could chalk it up mostly to work for the party, bundling funds up and down the Greater 48. But the truth is that Honda’s frequent trips allow him to keep up appearances at Democratic summits and excursions to Asia dotted along the way. South Korea, in particular, has been one of Honda’s favorite stops—he’s been to Seoul six times at a total cost of $42,494.
By comparison, during that same time period, Silicon Valley’s two other House reps, Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren, have each gone on just 19 trips. The nonpartisan think tank Aspen Institute, overseen by Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson, generally picks up the tab. (It should be noted that Lofgren’s trips are especially pricey, though, as her limited travel has come at a cost of $180,872.)
Honda says he’s honored to accept the sponsored travel. “The Supreme Court says corporations are individuals and they couldn’t stand in the way of free speech,” Honda says in a 30-minute phone interview. “It’s a little stretch, but for me PACs are a way to have different groups speak with one voice.”
He pauses for a moment to consider if contributions from teachers and labor unions and pharmaceutical companies have ever influenced how he votes.
“No, no,” Honda says. “They know I’m pretty much an independent thinker. But that doesn’t mean our values don’t coincide a lot.”
Honda’s voting record, according to GovTrack.us, shows only six other Democrats in the House vote more to the left. He makes the rounds at galas and party functions. He goes overseas on behalf of special interests, and in return he makes connections and gets to see a little bit of the world. Khanna argues such activities lead to cronyism or worse.
“If it’s official travel, put in a request with your committee, put in a request in with the speaker,” he says. “If you’re on the foreign relations committee and you gotta go 20 times to Afghanistan, go. No one is going to have a problem with that. If you’re on the foreign relations committee and you’re doing something on trade in the Middle East, travel. But not these special interest trips. It’s a way for lobbyists to curry influence.
“No one should be a lackey for any group,” Khanna adds. “That is the problem of American democracy—being a lackey to special interests, corporate interests or any interests. We need to return American democracy to being accountable only to the voters.”
This all sounds well and good until one remembers that Republicans control the House and all it took was a dozen Tea Partiers to throw up the bird and bring the government to a screeching halt in October.
“Replacing Mike Honda with Ro Khanna is not going to change a damn thing,” says Rich Robinson, a political consultant who usually works with labor candidates in Silicon Valley. “How do you get a Tea Party guy to work with you across the aisle? Nobody else has been able to do it.
“I don’t see Khanna bringing anything different to the table other than inexperience.”
Norm and Mike
Few politicians pull off the goofball uncle role like Honda and still command a modicum of respect. As an infant, he and his family were herded into a Japanese internment camp during WWII, and he’s used this experience as the foundation for why he fights for the underrepresented.
Norm Mineta met Honda before the war turned ugly at home, when their fathers taught Japanese to military personnel at the University of Chicago. Nearly three decades after that, Mineta and Honda would find themselves in San Jose, where the former became the first Asian American mayor in U.S. history. Mineta went on to serve in Congress and hold the Secretary of Transportation post under the lesser President Bush, and San Jose’s airport now bears his name. He is the patriarch of Asian American politicians, and he’s always made sure to bring along Honda, his protégé.
After becoming mayor of San Jose, Mineta recruited Honda, a high school math teacher fresh out of the Peace Core, to run for a city council seat. That didn’t work, so Mineta added him to the planning commission in 1971. Over the next three decades, he took an established path from school board to county supervisor to state assembly. In 2000, the House of Representatives’ 15th district—the same district Mineta snatched away from Republican control following Watergate—again came up for grabs, when conservative Tom Campbell gave up the seat to get whomped in a Senate race against Dianne Feinstein. Honda still had two terms available in the California legislature merry-go-round, but Mineta convinced him to run for the Big Show.
“I said, ‘Once you get an incumbent in there, you’re not going to have an easy chance of unseating anyone,’” Mineta says.
Since that time, Honda has been one of the most reliable liberal Democrats in Congress. Voting the party line and being well liked clearly go a long way. In 2005, Honda was elected vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, and he also sits in a choice position as a senior member on the House Appropriations Committee. Without that committee’s consent, nothing gets funded.
“They’re exclusive committees of the House, and because they’re exclusive committees, it makes him much more powerful,” Mineta says.
But Honda has never been an all-work-and-no-play kind of guy. He’s the congressman who pokes you in the ribs. Even at 72, perhaps no legislator in Washington has a reputation as well earned for partying. According to a local pol who spoke to San Jose Inside on the condition of anonymity, Honda is “known in local political circles as the preeminent partier.” A karaoke legend, Honda’s gift of gab is only enhanced when drinks are flowing.
“He’s very good, and, on top of it, his Spanish is very, very good,” Mineta says. “And so we’ve been out drinking and going to karaoke bars with a bunch of friends and he’ll get up there and start singing songs in Spanish or songs in English. I know he’s got favorites, but when he’s up there he’ll sing a number of different songs.”
The concern amongst entrepreneurs and business boosters supporting Khanna is that Honda may be little more than a likeable backslapper, pocket vote and civil rights champion at a time when Silicon Valley needs smart, world-class representation to bolster its global leadership. Honda’s 2003 nanotechnology bill generated $4 billion in grants during the industry’s infancy, and he did have a role on the Appropriations Committee in securing $900 million for BART’s expansion to San Jose. He also helped corral $23.6 million in federal grants to help to keep San Jose firefighters staffed during city shortfalls.
But in his 12 years in office, Honda has sponsored 139 bills in Congress and just one was actually signed into law. In 2008, a bill signed by President Obama renamed a post office on San Jose’s Lundy Avenue after the late Gordon N. Chan, a community activist who was the first Chinese American president of the Santa Clara Farm Bureau.
He’s dedicated almost as much time to getting Japan to apologize for sex crimes during WWII as he has on technology issues. According to GovTrack.us, the bulk of Honda’s work has routinely been referred to committee scrap heaps or passed by simple resolution, such as the 2010 bill Honda sponsored to honor Mineta’s accomplishments.
Despite his reputation as a “good Democrat” in partisan times, Honda has never been more vulnerable. And his challenger in next year’s primary and runoff is singing a siren song that has attracted $2.8 million in campaign contributions—with almost $2 million still in the bank.
Money may be the biggest double-edged sword in politics, as it sustains life in election cycles yet concerns voters who equate dollars with deference to special interests. Khanna’s political purse is so vast—he had more than $1.9 million banked as of October—it makes Honda’s war chest, less than a quarter of that total, look more like a student checking account. The congressman raised just $388,432 over the summer, bringing his total as of last month to a little more than $550,000. Despite plenty of small contributions, Honda took $89,285 from PACs between July and October, according to opensecrets.org.
Khanna’s piggy bank, however, has far more lump sums—the largest single contribution that can be made for the election cycle is $5,200. His “finance committee” of 100-plus has helped bundle contributions from the likes of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, venture capitalist Marc Andreesen and even former 49ers star Ronnie Lott.
At a fundraiser dinner in May, Sean Parker took the mic and explained why the new generation of tech has decided to back Khanna. “To a certain extent, I think we’re starting to come to a realization of our own power and of our own capability, not just as innovators and technology pioneers, but also in a political sense,” Parker said.
There are libertarian undertones in nearly every comment out of the new political players supporting Khanna. Khanna’s career in patent law and commerce post in the Obama administration has allowed him to develop familiarity with the business community and its concerns. His career focus has been advocacy, leading to the book he had published last year, Entrepreneurial Nation: Why Manufacturing Is Still Key to America’s Future.
While Honda sticks to his base, which includes Asian American caucuses to the American Federation of Teachers ($10,000) to Big Pharma lobbyists Akin Gump ($6,200), Khanna is pooling money from political newbies and venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road. (Although some of these tech companies, such as Yahoo, have hedged their bets by having their PACs contribute to Honda.) Khanna says he will work on issues such as simplifying the business tax code and clearing red tape to expedite H-1B visa screenings to qualified engineers, but he denies he has promised his CEO boosters anything in return for their money.
“The way I raise the money is based on my ideas,” he says. “Could it be people who have made billions of dollars think more people should learn coding?
“People who are supporting me in the valley have made enough money. They’re not doing it for the money,” he continues. “They’re doing it because they think their country is headed in the wrong direction and we need someone to change it. And they want someone who understands these issues, can be fluent in these issues; to raise the bar for public service.”
Not all dollars are equal, however. Money talks but doesn’t necessarily walk in political ground games, and after 2010’s redrawing of lines—Honda had to move east to inherit the 17th District, which contains some of East San Jose, Milpitas and Fremont—the district is one of just a few in the country that consists predominantly of Asian-Pacific Americans. It is home to relatively few high technology companies, and yet Silicon Valley’s Peninsula investment community has embraced Khanna like an iPhone 6.
“The nature of that district—I think of Ro Khanna as having money from the businessmen in the community, but he doesn’t have the voters,” says Mineta, who counseled Khanna not to run against Stark in 2010, a miscalculation in many respects. “(The 17th) district is 47 percent Asian-Pacific American, so I think Ro has gotten the funds from executives in the high-tech industry and they can give the $5,200 maximum (contribution) to him. But that money doesn’t bring voters. Mike gets the $100, $300 (contributions), but those are precinct walkers. They’ll do other things.”
Barry, who helped run Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign in California, says Khanna’s money is hardly a negative. If anything, he says, the money will sustain Khanna in a race that has 12 months to go, due to the new top-two primary system, or “jungle primary,” which California voters passed in 2010. The top two vote-getters in the primary advance, regardless of political affiliation.
“In a regular Democratic primary, Ro would have no shot,” Barry says. “But the political dynamic has changed and Mike has to face a candidate who’s stronger than any opponent he’s ever faced in a general election.
Ideas vs. Relationships
Khanna’s camp intends to run as an agent of change vs. the status quo between now and next November.
“We’re involved in a currency of ideas and my opponent is based in a politics of relationships,” Khanna says. “If you had come from a politics of relationships, it’s hard to fathom how this guy is getting all this support. He must have a lot of relationships. The reality is I don’t. But ideas win at the end of the day.
“Our founders would be rolling over in their graves if they saw the way the system has become rigged,” he continues. “Our founders were not relationship guys; they were idea guys. They didn’t go thinking about building relationships. They thought about arguing over Montesquieu and Locke. They were philosophers. They were scientists. They were thinkers. They were relatively, in some cases, aloof. But they had a vision about where they wanted the nation to go. Now we have politicians who have every skill in the book.”
“Well, that’s nice of him to say that, I appreciate that,” Honda says, tongue firmly against cheek. “But I’m also an idea guy.”
The differences are subtle in some cases. Both men want a greater emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning, but Khanna favors new teaching methods, such as approaches championed by charter schools and distance learning startup Khan Academy. Honda, of course, backs traditional public schools and teacher unions. Khanna wants coding to be taught from the fourth grade, while Honda would be far more likely to focus on bullying and discrimination. Bringing a fresh approach to old issues, Khanna says, is what’s helped him recruit deep pockets to the political table. Honda says it might not matter.
“Ultimately, the voters make the decision, not the money,” Honda says. “Look at Meg Whitman. She spent $130 million of her own money to get name recognition [in the 2010 gubernatorial race]. … Money was the talk of the town, but it didn’t win the votes.”
Even if Khanna can pull off the upset—and considering Honda’s brand power it’s going to be tough; all but three elected Democrats in California have endorsed Honda (interestingly, neighboring Reps. Anna Eshoo and Eric Swalwell are two of these electeds)—that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be able to effect change in D.C.
“It’s bravado for anyone to think in their first three terms they’re going to accomplish very much,” Mineta says. “There are some superstars who come right in after (being) governor or in the state legislature, but in the House, no matter what your prior experience might have been, it still takes about two or three terms to know the rules of the place. And like anything else, you just have to work hard to get to know the process and the people.”
If Khanna really is the superstar Silicon Valley wants in Washington, we’ll get a chance to find out twice. The “jungle primary” will force both men not only to campaign vigorously for a strong showing in June, but regroup quickly to make a second push for November.
Honda isn’t necessarily keen about the prospect.
“I think when a candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, that should be it—but it isn’t,” Honda says. “I think it’s expensive. I think it’s time consuming. But I think the mathematics—I think what Ro is counting on is to get 30 percent and be the second vote-getter, and then between June and November to increase that number.
“He said that to me: ‘If I’m not successful this round, I’ll do it again.’”