In Silicon Valley, tech titans try to replace a longtime Democratic congressman


“I don’t question Mike Honda’s values. I question his effectiveness,” Ro Khanna says. “I don’t think he’s had an original idea in the last 20 years about what we have to do to help people who are in the middle class.” (Nick Otto/For the Washington Post)

Here in Silicon Valley, the emboldened technology industry is trying to disrupt the Democratic political order.

Ro Khanna, a 37-year-old patent lawyer whose campaign is funded by many of tech’s biggest names, is campaigning to unseat Rep. Michael M. Honda, a longtime liberal stalwart who entrepreneurs say is neither sophisticated nor persuasive enough to represent them in Washington. In Honda, many of the masters of Silicon Valley see complacency; in Khanna, vigor.

It’s an audacious power play for a rich industry that is becoming more politically engaged. The battle between Honda and Khanna in the 17th District could become the most expensive congressional race in the country; heading into Tuesday’s primary, Khanna has raised $3.8 million to Honda’s $2.1 million.

But unlike many other primaries, the contest in this district — which includes the headquarters of Apple, Intel and Yahoo — is not a fight over ideology. Honda and Khanna are reliably progressive.

Where the two differ is in style and substance. Tech entrepreneurs say that Honda, who will turn 73 this month, doesn’t understand the global economy or the needs of their industry. The headline on the San Francisco Chronicle’s endorsement editorial neatly sums up the sentiment: “Ro Khanna offers upgrade in Congress for Silicon Valley.”

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The race serves as a reminder that, even as Republicans engage in a noisy establishment-vs.-tea-party war, Democrats also struggle with internecine battles.

Khanna is raising money from new donors who are hungry to influence Washington and has hired a team of consultants from President Obama’s political operation to build a data-driven, grass-roots campaign. Honda, ranked one of the most liberal members of Congress, is relying on the tried-and-true constituency politics that have gotten him elected to seven terms. His biggest backers are labor unions and environmental groups.

In an interview with The Washington Post last week, Honda, a soft-spoken former science teacher and elementary school principal, said the tech industry is getting by just fine without forceful representation in Congress. It’s “the people who make this valley go,” he said, who need a voice at the Capitol.

“This valley is a composite of people who work in technology, safety, teaching, people who are in labor, people who are in service industries,” Honda said. “The technology portion is fairly robust, but not everybody’s enjoying that yet. That is a reason I have to be here, to make sure that economic success is shared by everybody.”

But Khanna, who served as a deputy assistant commerce secretary in Obama’s first term and wrote a book about manufacturing, “Entrepreneurial Nation,” said in an interview with The Post that Honda “never really has led on economic issues.”

“It’s not just enough to have the values of wanting to help the little guy,” said Khanna, who is Indian American. “One needs to have solutions to help the little guy in an economy that’s changed. I don’t question Mike Honda’s values. I question his effectiveness. I don’t think he’s had an original idea in the last 20 years about what we have to do to help people who are in the middle class adapt and get the skills to be competitive.”

Under California’s unique election rules, the top two finishers in Tuesday’s open-party primary will advance to the general election. In this overwhelmingly Democratic district, Honda and Khanna are expected to finish first and second — ahead of two lesser-known Republican candidates — meaning that their real showdown will be in November.

Honda, who is Japanese American, has been a popular representative of the various ethnic communities that make up the nation’s first majority-Asian American district outside Hawaii. A former vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Honda has helped recruit and support Asian American candidates nationwide.

Obama has endorsed Honda, as he does for most Democratic incumbents, but it’s Khanna’s campaign that looks like an Obama alumni reunion. Khanna’s general consultant is Jeremy Bird, Obama’s national field director; his media adviser is Larry Grisolano, one of Obama’s ad gurus; his pollster is David Binder, who did polling for Obama; and his campaign manager is Leah Cowan, a top Obama field staff member in battleground North Carolina.

“What Ro’s campaign is representing is a very new, forward-looking view of the Democratic Party,” Bird said.“We made a commitment to not running an old-school campaign. . . . He’s put a tremendous amount of emphasis on the grass-roots door-to-door work.”

The campaign has been so divisive that some prominent California Democrats are keeping their distance, which is considered a blow to the incumbent. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has endorsed Honda, but she has not had a big presence in his campaign, and many of her donors are backing Khanna. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, a Pelosi confidante who represents a neighboring Silicon Valley district, has not endorsed either candidate, nor has Gov. Jerry Brown.

“I know both individuals and it’s my job not to stir dissension, but to calm the troubled waters of the Democratic Party,” Brown said in a recent interview with The Post.

Among the Silicon Valley bigwigs propelling Khanna’s bid are Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, Napster founder Sean Parker, investor Marc Andreessen and clean-tech venture capitalist Steve Westly.

“I’ve known Mike Honda for over 25 years. I think he is a very good man, and most everybody I know likes him,” said Westly, a former statewide officeholder in California who was a top Obama fundraiser. “But because this is Silicon Valley, I think people are looking for more. They’re looking for someone who’s dynamic, someone who understands the technology industry better, someone who understands where job growth is going to come in the 21st century.”

Rod Sinks led two successful tech start-ups in Silicon Valley before being elected to the Cupertino City Council as a Democrat. He said he is backing Khanna because he has “a much richer vocabulary, knowledge and association” with the tech industry than Honda, whom he heard speak recently at a Rotary Club meeting.

“Oh, my God,” Sinks said, adding that Honda was “stringing ideas together, unprepared. Frankly, it’s a lazy way of speaking. There’s no ‘there’ there. It’s just a stream of consciousness about traditional liberal blather.”

Left unspoken is what Khanna would do on behalf of the tech industry, on issues including net neutrality and the National Security Agency’s spy programs as well as regulations, taxes and trade. Some of Honda’s allies call Khanna a “Silicon Valley groupie,” suggesting he would effectively serve as the industry’s puppet in Washington.

“I don’t think that there’s a person in this country who would say Yahoo or Google or anybody in Silicon Valley is hurting right now,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, a liberal grass-roots group backing Honda. “Acting like they’re some kind of unrepresented class is actually pretty offensive to the low-wage workers in Honda’s district.”

Tech entrepreneur Dilawar Syed said he supports Honda because the congressman “leads with conviction” on issues such as civil rights, climate change and immigration reform, not only on tech issues.

“I am not impressed by anyone telling me, ‘I’m going to solve your problems, Mr. Tech Entrepreneur,’ ” he said.

Honda, sipping a green tea latte on a breezy patio in San Jose’s Japantown neighborhood, said his childhood experience at a World War II internment camp motivated his public service.

“In 1942, I was sent to camp,” he said. “Nobody said anything in Congress. Nobody said ‘No.’ ”

Now, he added, “I’m there to speak up for those people who need to have a voice. . . . My priorities are right, and they’re concurrent with [those of my constituents]. They know that technology’s important, but they know that’s not the only thing.”

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.
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