CA17 candidates Pierluigi Oliverio, Rep. Mike
Honda and Ro Khanna at the League of Women
Voters candidate forum in Fremont.

The candidates in the 17th Congressional District race were out for blood at a candidates forum Friday in Fremont. Curiously, the prey was not the incumbent Rep. Mike Honda, but his challenger Ro Khanna.

In the first and likely only pre-June Primary meeting between Honda, Khanna and the rest of the field of candidates, the tenor was mostly cordial, but at times, seemed teetering on the edge of outright hostility.

At one point, each candidate was allowed to pose another any question of their choosing. Honda, the incumbent with an ethic investigation swirling over his candidacy, was not posed a question by his challengers. Khanna, though, was asked three, including a lengthy and somewhat blistering query from Honda.

WATCH: Entire CA17 candidates forum

“In 2014,” Honda told Khanna, “you criticized progressives, including me, and tried to sound more like a Republican to get Republican support at that time. You’ve taken money from Republican donors during that time, including right-wing corporate executives that have been hostile to living wage ordinances, labor groups, public pension plans. Your donors have advocated for privatizing social security, minimizing Medicaid, sending good jobs overseas when you consistently flip-flop on free-trade issues. Since you are willing to say or doing anything to get elected, how can Silicon Valley’s middle class families trust you to act in their best interests and not like the other party?”

A bit chagrined by the attention following three straight questions, Khanna said, “I’m popular here.”
He added, “Congressman, I have respect for you, but I know you didn’t write that question. One of your political consultants wrote that.” Honda disagreed, “I wrote it,” he said.

Khanna shot back, saying newspaper reports two years ago said Honda’s campaign ads “were lies and filled with innuendo.” Like Honda, Khanna said he favors eliminating the $113,750 cap on the social security payroll tax. He added, “It is a lie that I want to privatize jobs.”

The contentious exchange between the two Democrats continued when Honda used his one allotted opportunity for rebuttal to scold Khanna for allegations his campaign made two years ago about his congressional attendance record. “Not getting personal,” said Honda, “I think there’s a lot of information that you put out in the beginning that I missed certain amounts of votes. But if you took the time to find out why I missed them they were when my wife passed away, when my mom passed away, my daughter had three children, and I think those are good excuses for missing votes.”

Democrat Pierluigi Oliverio, a San Jose councilmember known for his contrarian streak, said he is opposed to sanctuary cities and would advocate against closing the terrorist detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. Oliverio also attempted to harangue Khanna over his lack of experience in public office.

“Mr. Khanna, you have never been elected to public office, and therefore, you have no record for the public to review,” Oliverio asked Khanna. He explained voters don’t value public appointments like Khanna’s to the U.S. Department of Commerce as the same as those who are elected. “You have been extremely successful raising millions of dollars from the wealthy donor class, however, again, many would argue that is not a substitute for elected governance,” said Oliverio. Then, noting Khanna’s recent focus on local issues within the district, Oliverio said Congress has little jurisdiction over such matters. So why hasn’t Khanna run for a city council or school board?

Khanna said he was proud of his time at the Obama commerce department. Appointment makes him well-suited for public office. “I don’t think there is one path to public service,” said Khanna. “What matters is a person’s vision, ideas, and ability to get the job done.”

The onslaught on Khanna continued when Republican Ron Cohen asked if he could name a specific bill that he would have voted differently than Honda and House Minority Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “I just want to note a Republican has just asked me a tough question on Republican-like charges,” said Khanna. Cohen, in response to the comment, shook his head derisively. But, Khanna’s response was surprising in that it appeared to come to the aid of Honda.

“I’ve had strong disagreements with Congressman Honda,” said Khanna, “but to say someone just votes in lock-step, I just don’t think it’s fair. People have their own judgments and we have a debate and let’s debate the issues, but I don’t think people vote in lock-step.”

Earlier, when Cohen seemed intent on landing a glancing blow on Khanna, there was a brief squabble over previously agreed upon rules prohibiting personal attacks. “Ro Khanna will not take any special interests… ,” Cohen began to say before he was immediately interrupted by Khanna. “Is he allowed to attack me like that by name?” Khanna asked the moderator. “I don’t think he is.”

Cohen said his intention to read off a list of names he believes are special interest donors to Khanna’s campaign. Khanna has pledged not to accept contributions from any special interests or political action committees. “That’s just wrong and it’s factually wrong,” Khanna told Cohen.

Honda, however, came away from the forum virtually unscathed. A surprising development for an incumbent some believe is at risk of losing his seat this fall.

Following the forum, Cohen, a Fremont certified public accountant, said for his part, there is no benefit for the field, which also includes Republican Peter Kuo and Kennita Watson (not in attendance Friday), to gun for Honda in the primary. Instead, Cohen believes his only hope is to dislodge Khanna from the race next month. Said Cohen: “It’s my highest percentage play to knock out Khanna.”