In a hard-hitting but surprisingly civil debate, Democrats Ro Khanna and Rep. Mike Honda clashed Monday night over whether it’s time for a generational change in Silicon Valley.
For Khanna, a 38-year-old attorney and former Obama administration trade representative, Honda’s time has passed.
“It’s a question of who’s going to lead and who’s going to get things done,” Khanna said, arguing that the 73-year-old Honda harks back to the years of congressional earmarks, when a representative’s success was judged by the amount of political booty he brought back to his district.
“The issue is not about (Honda’s) values but … knowing about complex issues on the Internet,” Khanna said. “I’ve got support from top innovators, and Congressman Honda is getting his from special interests in Washington.”
‘Not burned out’
But after 14 years in Congress and a public career stretching back 23 years to his days on the board of the San Jose Unified School District, Honda isn’t willing to just walk away.
“I’m not burned out. I’ve got a lot of gas left in the tank,” he said. “My energy comes from my deep-seated wish to see the country do the right thing.”
Honda, a Japanese American who with his family was interned during World War II, said values are a major part of why he wants to stay in Congress.
When American citizens of Japanese descent were taken away to internment camps after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, “there was no one who stood up and said, ‘No,’” Honda said. “That will never happen again. … I will always speak up for those who need that voice.”
Honda, who was often on the defensive, didn’t deliver the kind of crisp, practiced answers that Khanna frequently recited by rote during the televised debate — many of them the same lines he uses on the campaign stump.
Unlike Khanna, who looked into the camera and often was on the attack during the debate in a TV studio in San Jose, Honda sometimes lapsed into political speak.
But Honda strongly and repeatedly defended his record as one of delivering millions of dollars in projects — like BART to San Jose, a matter he repeatedly referenced — and his assists on issues like the founding of a patent office in San Jose.
Attacking Honda’s record
Khanna was careful to avoid personal attacks on Honda, whom he repeatedly praised as a good man and lawmaker. But he slammed the congressman’s record and even his attendance in the House.
“Can Congress have the same standards as us? They have to show up for work, every day,” Khanna said. “The reality is … the congressman has missed 466 votes in his career over 14 years.”
The people in this district “need someone who is going to be showing up, engaged,” Khanna said.
Honda responded that he has a 95 percent voting record, and “I got results. … I’m still there, working.” He also argued that votes aren’t the only measure of how how good a job a legislator is doing.
The debate underscored demographic, economic and ethnic shifts in Silicon Valley, but also showed that most of the differences on the issues between the two Democrats are less about goals than about the ways to reach them.
Honda’s more partisan stances don’t work in a House run by Republicans, said Khanna, who said he would “reach across the aisle” to work with the GOP leadership on issues important to Silicon Valley.
The way the political system works, Khanna said, “is that someone carries the ball and then hands it off.”
Party backs Honda
The debate took place on a day when the California Democratic Party weighed in on the contest, putting up a 30-second TV ad in support of Honda’s bid for an eighth term. Party chair John Burton, releasing the spot, said that “our country needs more leaders like Mike Honda, who works hard, behind the scenes if necessary, and delivers results for his constituents and our country.’’
The ad aims to address criticism leveled by Khanna and his supporters, who say Honda has authored and passed just one bill in 14 years in Congress — to rename a post office. Honda argues that he has been deeply involved in many bills important to the South Bay and Silicon Valley, even if someone else’s name appears as the author.
Monday’s debate was the only opportunity for voters to see Honda and Khanna meet face to face before the Nov. 4 election, and each side claimed victory.
“Lots of swings, no knockout punch. The challenger needed to make a showing here, and didn’t make it,” said Adam Alberti, spokesman for the Honda campaign.
Honda did not meet with reporters afterward, but Khanna was there to talk about the debate.
“It was civil, but I think it made the point, who is up for the job and being effective in this time, in this district?” Khanna said. “This campaign has never been personal for me — it’s about who’s going to be effective in doing the job.”