Voice mail from Honda campaign to party delegate is coercion, says Khanna

Rep. Mike Honda speaking to a voter Jan. 21
at a candidates forum in San Jose.
PHOTO/Steven Tavares

With the possibility the crucial Democratic Party endorsement may no longer be a certainty, Rep. Mike Honda’s campaign is scrambling to gather enough votes to win outright Saturday’s pre-primary endorsement vote in Oakland. But, a voice message from a member of Honda’s campaign this week to a voting delegate is being labeled coercion by Democratic challenger Ro Khanna.

In a voice message obtained by the East Bay Citizen, Honda’s political director questioned the voting status of a member of the Santa Clara County Democratic Club before advising the delegate not to cast a ballot for the coming pre-endorsement until further notice.

“All I ask that you please do not submit your ballot for the Santa Clara County Democratic club until I clear this up. I know last night was a no endorsement, but there might be something in the making here,” said the voice message.

Last Monday, the club, typically a Honda stronghold, voted for no endorsement in the race. The tally, in fact, favored Khanna, 80-51, but fell short of the club’s threshold for endorsement. At the same endorsement meeting, club members were asked afterwards to approve a proposal to allow one delegate to vote for Honda and the other vote for Khanna at the pre-endorsement. The idea was voted down by the club’s membership. A day later, one of the club’s delegates received a call from Honda’s political director, Vedant Patel.

Patel confirmed he made the phone call. He denied the intent was to strong-arm the delegate into voting in a manner positive to the Honda campaign, but only to confirm their voting status. The campaign also reached out to the state party for additional information.

“The hallmark of democracy is a fair and open and transparent process,” Khanna said of the voice message. “As a challenger, you expect to have the deck stacked against you because of the incumbent’s power to appoint. But, my basic hope is that delegates are allowed to vote their conscience or follow their clubs election outcome free of coercion.”

Patel said he was only seeking clarification of whether the delegate was bound to the endorsement of the club. “It is important to our campaign that delegates have all the information before casting a vote,” said Patel. “This is just another example of our opponent’s willingness to say anything to get elected. At the end of the day there is only one candidate in Congressional District 17 that embodies the values of California’s Democratic Party, and that is Mike Honda.”

There are clear reasons why identifying a delegate’s status is important to Honda and his bid to avoid a potentially embarrassing denial of pre-endorsement support and a drawn out appeal for the party’s backing at its convention in late February. A central committee member, according to the party bylaws, can vote their conscience, while a delegate may be bound by its club’s decision.

The California Democratic Party bylaws are silent on the question of whether a delegate must vote as directed by its club, said Michael Soller, communications director for the California Democratic Party. But, many, like the Santa Clara County Democratic Club, have their own bylaws that bound delegates to certain voting instructions. But, come Saturday’s pre-endorsement meeting, there are no rules against a delegate voting differently than their club’s direction. However, the club could later sanction its member.

In recent weeks, the number of local Democratic grassroots groups that have either split their endorsement between Honda and Khanna or registered no endorsement has grown in frequency. In the last week and a half, three clubs, including the Santa Clara County Democratic Club, have rendered no-endorsement decisions. In addition, the Khanna campaign has been buoyed over the past few months by uncertainty over Honda’s pending House ethics investigation into allegations his former campaign commingled its duties with its congressional office.

Even if Khanna is able to block Honda from winning the requisite 70 percent of delegates at the pre-endorsement meeting, Honda could still earn the nod at the February convention. However, the political optics of the long-time incumbent fighting further for the party’s endorsement will only bolster the Khanna campaign’s recent narrative that Democrats in the South Bay are beginning to reevaluate their support for Honda