By Scott Wong - 02/25/16 05:00 AM EST
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Political upstart Ro Khanna tried to paint eight-term Rep. Mike Honda as ineffective and out of touch with his Silicon Valley district in 2014. Honda survived the challenge, but only barely.
So this year, Khanna is trying a new line of attack: Honda is unethical.
Khanna and Honda are headed for a rare intraparty battle in November, with both progressive candidates expected to advance past California’s June 7 primary, in which the top two candidates move on to the general election regardless of party.
With the 74-year-old Honda embroiled in a messy House ethics investigation, Khanna, 39, believes he’s found the opening he needs to unseat a Democratic Party stalwart and one of the Bay Area’s old-guard politicians.
Independent experts and media outlets “who have looked at this will say it’s the most serious ethical scandal that’s happened in the Bay Area in the last 30 years,” said Khanna, a former Obama administration official who now teaches economics at Stanford University.
At issue is an Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) report from September that found “substantial reason to believe” Honda and his congressional staffers improperly used government resources on campaign activities and linked official events with political supporters. Specifically, the report said Honda’s chief of staff had looked to a list of campaign donors while figuring out whom to invite to a 2013 State Department event in Honda’s 17th District.
The OCE referred the 41-page report to the bipartisan House Ethics Committee, which is still investigating.
Honda has pointed out that the independent ethics office stopped short of concluding the congressman and his staffers violated federal law or House rules.
Khanna “allows his campaign to continue down the road of innuendo. … What does the report say? They don’t draw any conclusions. They just threw a bunch of information together and passed it on to the Congressional Ethics Committee,” Honda said during an interview at his campaign headquarters in the Service Employees International Union Local 521’s offices in San Jose, in between calls to political donors.
“He’s picking and choosing. If you read the newspaper articles, it’s ‘may have,’ ‘alleged.’ They don’t say ‘he is a crook.’ ”
Khanna may be targeting the ethics issue because there appears to be little daylight between him and Honda on major issues. Both candidates are backing Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonBannon's ex-wife: 'He didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews' Kasich: I don't know what we're hearing from Trump on immigration Clinton's State schedules won't be fully released until after election: AP MORE for president: Honda, a former vice chairman at the Democratic National Committee, is a pledged superdelegate for Clinton, while Khanna said he backed Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary and has helped raise cash for her this cycle.
On policy, Honda, an appropriator, helped secure hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to extend the Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system to San Jose. Khanna supports the extension but wants a more “comprehensive” approach to traffic and transit issues in the South Bay. And both Honda and Khanna side with Cupertino-based Apple, the district’s most high-profile employer, as it battles the Justice Department over whether it should be compelled to help investigators break into an iPhone used by one of the terrorists in last year’s shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.
“I’m on Apple’s side,” Khanna said. “I think we have more or less the same position.”
Honda has some big names in his corner: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat; state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is running for an open U.S. Senate seat; former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta; and former Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, Honda’s political mentor for whom San Jose’s airport is named.
Honda is expected to win the California Democratic Party’s endorsement this weekend at its convention in downtown San Jose. But while President Obama endorsed Honda in the 2014 primary against Khanna, he is not endorsing this time, DNC spokesman Luis Miranda said.
But some neutral Bay Area Democrats say Honda, a former high school teacher first elected to Congress in 2000, has never looked more vulnerable. He’s being outraised by Khanna and has been bombarded by local negative press on the ethics issue. To make matters worse, records show Honda’s campaign paid a D.C. law firm at least $70,000 in the final three months of 2015 for legal services related to the ethics probe — roughly a quarter of the money he took in during that same period.
“The difference between this cycle and last is Ro Khanna now has a new line of attack, and he was only within striking distance last election,” said one Bay Area Democrat who has not endorsed in the race. “It’s going to be close.”
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, a Khanna supporter, believes that Silicon Valley voters are paying close attention to the Honda ethics probe.
“For the people that come to this Valley to start businesses, they know the big competitive advantage is the rule of law, transparency, honesty, a level playing field and merit — not who you know,” Rosen said. “It’s merit that rises to the top, and Ro is a person of merit.”
Khanna, who spent a couple of years in Washington as a deputy assistant secretary in Obama’s Commerce Department, lost to Honda last cycle by just 3.6 percentage points. But for Khanna, the son of Indian immigrants, there is a risk of going too negative this time around.
Incarcerated as a child in a U.S. internment camp during World War II, Honda is regarded as a civil rights leader in the Asian-American community. In more recent months, he has denounced GOP front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBannon's ex-wife: 'He didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews' Trump's son shares photo after rescuing baby deer Kasich: I don't know what we're hearing from Trump on immigration MORE’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric as “ignorant” and “dangerous.”
And he’s chairman emeritus of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Honda’s deep ties to the Asian-American community are important given that California’s 17th is the only Asian-majority district in the country outside of Hawaii.
“I think he is a very good guy. He’s spent his whole life fighting for other people, for civil rights, for people who don’t have much, first in the Peace Corps, then as a teacher,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a fellow San Jose Democrat who has known Honda for decades and previously served with him on a county board of supervisors. “I think that is very much respected by the people he represents.”
Unlike Lofgren, fellow Bay Area Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo has not endorsed Honda, but she told The Hill: “I know him and I respect him. He has been a friend for many years.”
Lofgren, herself a former chairwoman of the House Ethics Committee, said she read the entire ethics report on Honda and downplayed its findings. OCE staffers “don’t follow the rules of the statute, they just do whatever the heck they want,” she said.
She also pointed to OCE affidavits revealing that Honda’s chief accuser, the ex-staffer who initially filed the ethics complaint against the congressman in 2014, had threatened to hurt or kill several Honda staffers, including longtime chief of staff Jennifer Van der Heide and her young daughter. Van der Heide took out a restraining order against the ex-staffer, Ruchit Agrawal, barring him from getting near any of his former coworkers.
Agrawal has denied allegations that he threatened violence, saying instead that he’s faced retribution for blowing the whistle on his old boss.
Honda insisted his rival will say or do anything to get elected to Congress. In 2004, Khanna unsuccessfully ran against then-Rep. Tom Lantos, another Bay Area Democrat and the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress. Then in 2012, Khanna planned to run in a district across the Bay to succeed 20-term Democratic Rep. Pete Stark, but Stark didn’t retire and lost in the primary by another young upstart, Eric Swalwell.
Two years later, Khanna took aim at yet a third Bay Area district: Honda’s newly redrawn congressional district, comprising several high-tech communities including Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Newark, as well as north San Jose and much of Fremont, where Khanna lives.
“He’s made a career of wanting to be in Congress,” Lofgren said.