A capacity crowd listens intently to Congressman Mike Honda, Ro Khanna and Joel Vanlandingham at the Fremont City Council Chambers on Saturday. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)
A capacity crowd listens intently to Rep. Mike Honda, Ro Khanna and Joel Vanlandingham at the Fremont City Council chambers on Saturday. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Roughly 300 people showed up at Fremont City Hall Saturday night to see Rep. Mike Honda face off with the candidates vying to unseat him. As they lined up to get inside, Ro Khanna supporters wearing orange and green face paint waved signs bearing his name, and yelled “We want Ro!”

The event, put on by the League of Women Voters of San Jose/Santa Clara, was the first, and possibly only, opportunity to see Honda and Khanna in the same room. Khanna (and local papers) have called repeatedly for debates, but Honda’s campaign has refused, following a fairly traditional political strategy for long-term incumbents. Why take a chance on making a public gaffe or showing up poorly against a rival trailing in the polls?

Honda did seem uncomfortable, sometimes fumbling over his phrasing and running up repeatedly against the time limits in the forum, tightly moderated by Gloria Chun Hoo, president of the local LWV. But if audience members were unaware, walking in, of Honda’s 14-year tenure as a progressive liberal in Congress, they would have known a lot about Honda walking out.

“I’ve had results,” he said, “and the results I’ve brought to this valley, was for everybody and not for a few.”

Advocating for the “voiceless” was a theme Honda hit on throughout the evening. He has championed human rights and civil rights during his time in Washington, and he’s also been known as a reliable ally of the valley’s technology interests. But now that the 17th District has been redrawn to hug Silicon Valley more tightly, simply being pro-tech may not be enough for voters.

After a series of easy re-elections since first winning the seat in 2000, Honda finds himself facing a tech-tastic challenger bankrolled by Silicon Valley titans, including Eric Schmidt of Google, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, to the tune of $3.7 million.

Ro Khanna introduced himself thus: “My background as an economics teacher at Stanford, as someone who has written a book on manufacturing, as someone who’s worked at the Commerce Department on economic issues, makes me uniquely suited to address the challenges.” Later on, he noted he has developed a “detailed, seven-point plan on how to create jobs” in the 17th District and across the country.

Honda countered that he brought the region $900 million to fund building a BART extension to San Jose. “That is what people want,” Honda said. “They want results, and that’s what I’ve done. It’s not theory.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the forum was Republican Joel Vanlandingham, a tech industry recruiter who has largely flown under the radar in this primary campaign.  He’s urging supporters to donate to charity, rather than financially support his effort, and he slammed Honda and Khanna for raising millions of dollars.

“I don’t want your money,” Vanlandingham told the audience. “I want you to sit down and evaluate your candidates and see who is going to represent you the best. Who can you put your faith in?”

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 44 percent to 19 percent in the 17th District, and all three men hewed to the left on a wide range of issues. They all oppose fracking and offshore oil drilling. They all support limits on campaign contributions, decreased spending on the military, universal background checks for gun purchasers, equal pay for women in the workforce, strengthening the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, taking immediate action to fight climate change, and a carbon tax on fossil fuels.

The biggest difference between them was the one thing no candidate has directly addressed in this campaign: age. Honda is 72. Khanna is 37. But outside, after the forum, the issue was obvious in this comment from Khanna supporter Kathy Pike of Cupertino. “He’s young. He’s fresh.” Her husband Tom chimed in, saying that as the evening wore on, “He [Honda] couldn’t enunciate his positions as well. Whereas I thought Ro was really strong at the end.”

As the evening wore on, a group of pro-Honda chanters arrived to duel with the pro-Khanna crowd.

“We’ve got Obama,” they sang, referring not only to the president’s endorsement, but a long list of top Democrats, including Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and San Francisco Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader.

The one no-show at the forum, Stanford doctor Vanila Singh, has the backing of the GOP’s Silicon Valley chapter. Vanlandingham accused the group of failing to give him a fair chance to compete for its endorsement. He told this reporter that Singh appeared to have a lock before he made his case, despite the fact she only registered as a Republican in December.

“I was given two minutes to seek their support,” he said.


Rachael Myrow

From KQED’s Bureau in San Jose, Rachael Myrow covers politics, economics, technology, food and culture in a vast region extending from Burlingame to Edenvale to Fremont. This follows more than seven years waking at 3 am to host the daily version of KQED's California Report, broadcast on NPR affiliates throughout the state during NPR's Morning Edition. She still guest hosts for The California Report and Forum, blogs for Bay Area Bites, and files for NPR and PRI’s The World. Before KQED, she worked for Marketplace and KPCC in Los Angeles.

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