CONGRESS | 17TH DISTRICT | In the end, voters in the 17th Congressional District decided Rep. Mike Honda’s on-going ethics investigation, in addition, to a view his tenure had morphed into general apathy, was too much to bear for another two years. The alternate ending says the South Bay’s Congressmember-elect Ro Khanna made the far more persuasive case for the job. In fact, there’s some evidence voters did not so much vote Honda out of office, but, more correctly, voted on the merits of the two candidates, and overwhelmingly chose Khanna.
Despite the constant media buzz over the so-called “dark cloud” hanging over Honda, the investigation into his alleged commingling of campaign and official staff work was not really a big deal. Certainly not enough to upend an eight-term member of Congress. But over consecutive campaigns, Honda never really put together a strong offensive. He never made the case and merely allowed his accumulative gravitas to erode over time. Meanwhile, Khanna’s campaign deftly keep the allegation in the news, effectively playing the same hand for nearly a year. Honda won in 2014, but barely. In hindsight, we can see the downward trajectory of Honda’s demise starting with a high point in 2013 when Khanna announced his first challenge. Every primary and general election thereafter, Khanna gained ground until the floodgates busted on Nov. 8, resulting in his resounding 22-point victory
It’s a credit to Khanna that his pair of campaigns were able to continually build on a long series of successes over a nearly four-year period without the public becoming tired of the candidate or his message. The barrage of television commercials during the final weeks of the last campaign may have chipped away somewhat at voter’s tolerance, but in the end they may have viewed Honda’s negative ads with a tinge of disdain.
What To Expect
It may appear hackneyed to compare and contrast Khanna to neighboring Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell in the 15th District, but it’s certainly apt. Both are young politicians who replaced much older and entrenched congressmen. Khanna is 40. Swalwell is 36. But there might be more contrast between than similarities going forward. While Khanna is young, he doesn’t exude the youthful vibe of Swalwell. Whether by design or necessity, Swalwell has found a niche as one of the House Democrat’s energetic Boy Wonders. He tweets pictures of his penny loafers while entering airplanes and dabbles on Snapchat. He often appears sans tie. Other times he discards the sport coat, altogether, and rolls up his sleeve like a 12-year-old boy dressing up as Martin O’Malley for Halloween.
Don’t expect Khanna to be placed in this generational box. Whereas, Swalwell appears to strive for the kind of super stardom normally attached to to rock stars and matinee idols, Khanna seems driven to become a statesman. His propensity for quoting Abraham Lincoln as a candidate always appeared out-of-touch on the campaign trail, but as a member of the House, it becomes an endearing quality for voters who want to believe Washington should represent a more high-minded conversation. Notably, during Khanna’s Election Night victory speech, he quoted Lincoln and spoke with an uplifting message of equality, the immigrant experience and the ability of the congressional district to literally change the world through its tech companies. The speech almost sounded like a candidate announcing his run for President.
A Chance To Hit The Road Running
Typically the argument against replacing a long-time incumbent congressmember with a political rookie is the district’s loss of seniority in terms of committee posts and general power in Washington. There’s also something to be said for literally knowing your way around the Capitol. It’s difficult to argue against, but on account of several factors, Khanna may not be governed by these same these laws of gravity. By virtue of his band of influential Silicon Valley supporters, Khanna may likely wield inordinate power and access usually not afforded to a freshman. During his Election Night speech, Khanna referred to the 17th District, which includes Apple, Facebook and Google among its residents, as the most influential district not only in the country, but the world. Progressives who found Khanna less than optimal because of these ties to Big Tech have an opportunity to shape pet causes to an audience that even Honda may not have been able to attain over 16 years in Congress. South Bay progressives were able to move Khanna firmly on the side opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. Maybe, even pushed Honda against TPP, for that matter.
Taken at face value, Khanna has repeatedly declared he will vote in favor of progressive policies. Undoubtedly, he will vote in line with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Last week, Khanna tweeted support for Pelosi, who could be facing an insurgent campaign against her re-election as House leader. But such a strategy shouldn’t be scoffed at, unless you’re a Republican. It’s how the game works in Washington. In fact, it’s how the game works for anyone at any new job.
Upon Khanna’s win, loyalists to Honda immediately surveyed the far-flung political landscape leading to 2018. Who might stop Khanna from a second term even before the first was nearly two months from starting? There’s Assemblymember Evan Low, a strong supporter of Honda. Depending on where he lives in Fremont, state Sen. Bob Wieckowski’s name is often mentioned. A similar conversation arose in the 15th District after Swalwell upended Pete Stark in 2012. Inherent mistrust about Swalwell from labor unions and even party loyalists who counseled Swalwell to wait and allow Stark to retire, eventually amounted in the establishment mounting one last effort against him in 2014, led by Ellen Corbett. Swalwell played dirty with some members of the Alameda County Democratic Party, cynically manipulated the statewide party’s endorsement procedures and co-opted the primary fight with the Alameda County Republican Party to edge out Corbett in the June 2014.
A similar last-ditch attack in 2018 against Khanna could arise in the South Bay. Labor has a similar tinge of antipathy toward Khanna and those who strongly supported Honda might harbor instincts for revenge. However, there are two reasons why this is unlikely to happen. For one, Khanna’s personality is much different than Swalwell. It could be argued Swalwell played the “I’m a member of Congress and you should think twice about crossing me” card way too often for his own good. Khanna is predisposed to engaging opponents without creating more enemies. But there’s one larger and unique circumstance that suggests nobody will challenge Khanna in two years. In the age of Trump, its will be viewed highly unfavorably for any Democrat to mount a challenge against an incumbent within the party, especially when every resource will be needed to win the House back from Republicans.
An interesting thing about Khanna’s slow rise is its relation to Silicon Valley. When Khanna announced his first run in 2013, Silicon Valley was viewed with awe. Everyone marveled at Apple and everyone had an iPhone in their pocket, but few questioned the ethos of these companies. Then, almost immediately, Silicon Valley became a target for gentrification, by way of Google buses in San Francisco and worries that its products may be vessels for the federal government to spy on ordinary folks. This change in how the public at-large viewed Silicon Valley certainly slowed Khanna’s roll two years ago. Precisely because he was staking his claim to the congressional seat on the backs of Silicon Valley’s high-rollers while tapping into their exciting view of the future.
The reasons are unclear why the continued heightening of the public’s suspicion toward Silicon Valley did little to hamper Khanna this time around. Again, probably because voters had given up on Honda and were prepared for something new. Today, Khanna still has the Brahmin’s of tech on his side, but that group also includes PayPal founder Peter Thiel. His connection to Thiel poses a problem for Khanna because of his continued support of President-elect Donald Trump. Thiel is part of Trump’s transition team and his influence within the administration overlaps the congressional district’s core corporate interests in tech. Khanna, quite quickly, will need to figure out how to maintain his relationship with Thiel while keeping him at arms-length. It will be extremely difficult for South Bay progressives to begin cozying up to Khanna on any issue without focusing on Thiel’s negatives. It’s close to a non-starter for any progressive.
Congressmembers are not like state legislators and local officials in that a scoreboard detailing their legislation can be compiled with wins or losses. Washington is a realm of collaboration. A place where an elected officials cannot remove a tree, but with other can collectively offer a small puff of air to merely make it sway. Not much happens there, but the debate shapes the entire nation, from the state house to your local sanitary district board. Khanna’s early role will certainly not be legislation, but confronting the in-coming administration.
Trump, in general, poses a problem for everyone. But Khanna quickly coming out in support of a Constitutional amendment enacting congressional term limits, could tell us a lot about how Khanna governs and the method of which he monitors the political roads way ahead of him. Linking up with a Trumpian idea might not seem wise at this moment. Especially in the Bay Area, a hysteria toward Trump is clearly evident. But supporting term limits may be a good play. For one, it will never pass Congress, but the strategy of picking and choosing areas to work with Trump (while also driving a wedge between him and Republicans) may prove continuously successful over the next two years. From the perspective of a constituent, an elected official’s most valuable asset is the ability to make decisions modeled on the future, not the past.