Click photo to enlarge
Supporters of incumbent Democratic Congressman Mike Honda chant slogans after a League of Women Voters forum at Fremont City Hall in Fremont, Calif. on Saturday, May 3, 2014. (Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group)

Hailed as a master at rallying Asian-American votes in national elections, Honda now might be undone by the changing ethnic makeup of his own district -- the first Asian-American majority district outside of Hawaii. The veteran politician never has had to fear primary challenges, but now California's "top two" system has left him vulnerable to another Democrat's attack.

Honda, 72, used to enjoy the support of Silicon Valley's top business leaders, but many have flocked to Ro Khanna, 37, a better-funded, more tech-savvy Democrat who appeals to their "2.0" desires. Even the San Jose home in which Honda has lived for more than half his life no longer sits in his district because a new, voter-approved citizens panel made the once-a-decade remapping less partisan.

So today Honda finds himself among the nation's most vulnerable House incumbents, struggling to keep his career from ending in one of the country's most closely watched congressional battles. While tea party challengers have been waging a fight in recent years for the soul of the Republican Party, the 17th District race signals the growing risk to long-safe California Democrats from members of their own party.

"A lot of the valley has been kind of torn -- they think Mike Honda is a nice guy and has represented the district for a long time, but nonetheless think Ro Khanna might be a better fit," said Jim Cottrill, a Santa Clara University professor and an expert on Congress. "I think it's been a slow building of momentum for Ro Khanna's campaign."


Advertisement

Honda and Khanna are expected to finish ahead of two Republican challengers in the June 3 primary, setting up a showdown in November's general election. The race is considered fascinating even inside the Beltway, said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "There is a bit of buzz about Honda being in more trouble than previously thought."

From afar, the booming Asian-American population in his home district would seem like an asset for Honda, a Japanese-American who spent time as a child in a World War II internment camp in Colorado. Two years ago, Honda -- then the Democratic National Committee's vice chairman -- campaigned in Colorado and other swing states such as Virginia and Florida to mobilize Asian-American voters, who played a key role in President Barack Obama's win.

Here at home, however, it's a different picture. The district that first sent Honda to the House in 2000 was 17.6 percent Asian-American; today's is 51.4 percent. But the Indian and Filipino populations have more than quadrupled, and the Chinese and Vietnamese populations have almost tripled, while Japanese and Korean numbers have remained about the same.

Indo-Americans like Khanna now make up about 15 percent of the district's population, and many are eager to have one of their own represent them in Congress; 1.5 percent of the district is Japanese-American.

"Asian-American politics is a lot different than other ethno-American politics," said Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College in Atherton. "It's a much weaker pan-ethnicity because there are so many different languages, different religions. There's not as much of a sense of linked fate as we see in other ethnic communities."

But Ignatius Ding, a prominent Chinese-American activist from Cupertino who lives in the 17th District, said Indo-Americans still aren't as politically engaged as Chinese-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans -- 16 percent and 7 percent of the district, respectively -- and those communities mostly still support Honda. "He didn't do anything wrong," Ding said, "so people won't turn their backs on him just because Khanna says so."

Hoi Yung Poon, a Chinese-American community organizer in San Jose, said she doesn't see any traction for Republican candidates Vanila Singh and Joel VanLandingham in the heavily Democratic and independent district, so the contest will come down to which of the two Democrats plays the better ground game to communicate on issues most important to most Asian-Americans, such as education and climate change.

"On the ground level, I do hear a lot of excitement for Ro Khanna," she said. "He's able to galvanize a lot of young people."

The changing face of Honda's constituency is due not only to the shifting demographics, but also to 2011's redrawing of district lines. The redistricting excised parts of San Jose thick with Honda's union and Democratic Party supporters. Honda still easily beat a Republican and a nonpartisan candidate in 2012, but this year he faces his first real rival from within his own party -- the sort of insurgent challenge that Eric Swalwell won in 2012 over Rep. Pete Stark, another liberal lion.

That East Bay race taught Khanna it no longer makes sense to stand in line as a loyal party soldier. He raised a record-breaking $1.2 million in 2011's final quarter when he thought he would run to succeed Stark, and backed Stark when he decided not to retire. So he was left on the sidelines as Swalwell sprinted to victory.

But Honda and other veteran incumbents felt a chill in seeing Stark, the admittedly irascible dean of California's House delegation, taken down by a Democratic upstart, thanks in large part to the top-two primary system that put them one-on-one in the general election.

Stark's downfall involved his often prickly, defensive manner, but Honda's quieter personality might also be a liability.

"I make no excuses about my style, but I think some of the decisions I make and some of the results I get should be considered to be as a result of thoughtfulness," Honda said. "When you want someone to see your point of view, you gently turn their head. ... I'm a schoolteacher. I like to have things clear and well-understood."

Khanna says Silicon Valley needs a more vibrant voice in Congress -- even if he agrees with much of what Honda has quietly said over the years.

"I think Mike Honda cares about the same things," Khanna said. "But for the past 15 years we've heard the same rhetoric."

There's little or no daylight between them on most subjects, from abortion to voting rights to veterans, but Khanna claims Honda hasn't been effective enough on the taxation, immigration and technology issues vital to the district's interests. His supporters seem to see Khanna as the Six Million Dollar Man -- or at least $3.7 million, which is what he has raised since the start of 2011 -- of this race: "Better, stronger, faster."

All that money helped Khanna pay for top-shelf consultants such as Jeremy Bird, who was national field director of Obama's re-election campaign, as well as for cutting-edge campaign technology, enough staff to organize an enviable grass-roots volunteer network, and an early jump on TV advertising. Honda chose to appear with his challengers only once, in a May 3 League of Women Voters forum in Fremont. Khanna berated him for refusing head-to-head debates before Honda agreed to debate him in the fall.

Honda has been a loyal party-line vote, while Khanna says he "will not be afraid to criticize the president or the minority leader when I think they're wrong." That's probably true, given they didn't want him to run at all -- they and most other prominent Democrats endorsed Honda.

Too many of Honda's votes are well-meaning "protest exercises," Khanna said, while he wants to "take the ideas of the valley, the ideas and the creativity, and try to be a vehicle for that in Congress."

Honda said he's brought a lot of federal money to the area for everything from local nonprofits' budgets to BART's extension, and remains a staunch advocate not only for the interests of the district's businesses but also for its working families. He said his supporters agree with him that there's more for him to accomplish, "and they have faith in me."

17th Congressional District candidates

Name: Mike Honda
Party: Democratic
Age: 72
Residence: San Jose
Education: Bachelor's degree in biological sciences and Spanish, master's degree in education, both from San Jose State University
Experience: Congressman since 2001; assemblyman 1996-2000; Santa Clara County supervisor, 1990-96; school board member, principal and teacher
Campaign cash on hand, March 31: $1,083,691
Key issues: Job creation, raising the minimum wage, protecting women's health and reproductive rights. "It's about getting results, bringing home what people need, making sure that people understand what I do."
Website: http://mikehonda.com

Name: Ro Khanna
Party: Democratic
Age: 37
Residence: Fremont
Education: Bachelor's degree in economics, University of Chicago; J.D., Yale Law School
Experience: Attorney at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati since 2011; deputy assistant secretary at U.S. Department of Commerce, 2009-2011; attorney at O'Melveny & Myers, 2004-2009; 12th Congressional District Democratic primary candidate, 2004
Campaign cash on hand, March 31: $1,946,871
Key issues: Job creation, especially in manufacturing and technology, and STEM education. "The fundamental difference between Congressman Honda and me is not on values but he has chosen to be ideological in his bent."
Website: www.rokhanna.com

Name: Dr. Vanila Singh
Party: Republican
Age: 43
Residence: Fremont
Education: Bachelor's degree in cell biology and economics, UC Berkeley; M.D., George Washington University.
Experience: Stanford University clinical associate professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine; UCLA clinical assistant professor, 2002-2003; pain management fellow at Cornell/Hospital for Special Surgery/Memorial Sloan Kettering/Columbia, 2001-2002; anesthesia resident at Cornell Medical Center, 1998-2001; medical intern, Yale University Medical Center, 1997-1998
Campaign cash on hand, March 31: $300,422
Key issues: Cutting taxes and reducing waste, "smarter health care," opposing affirmative action, balancing security with privacy in government surveillance. "I believe in individual rights and freedom and independent thought."
Website: www.vanilasingh.com

Name: Joel VanLandingham
Party: Republican
Age: 47
Residence: San Jose
Education: Currently enrolled in online MBA program, Grand Canyon University
Experience: Talent acquisition consultant at Sony Computer Entertainment America since 2013; founder, Global Capital Talent recruitment and investor search firm, 2000-present; San Jose mayoral candidate, 2002
Campaign cash on hand, March 31: $0
Key issues: Raising the cap on H-1B work visas, and making all education and medical costs completely tax deductible. "You have to build coalitions to get things done. I believe once true leadership rises, people will fall in with their conscience."
Website: www.facebook.com/JoelVanLandinghamfordistrict17