SAN FRANCISCO -- Resentment is brewing among several donors who thought Democratic House candidate Ro Khanna would use their money in a different race -- and now want it back.
The dispute goes back to 2011, when Khanna, a former Obama administration trade official, was expected to run for then-Rep. Pete Stark's seat in California's 15th District if the veteran Stark decided to retire. Khanna courted San Francisco and Silicon Valley heavyweights, building up an impressive $1.2 million campaign war chest and coaxing the likes of Jerry Brown and Nancy Pelosi to appear at fundraisers on his behalf.
But Stark did run for reelection, deferring Khanna's congressional aspirations to the 2014 cycle. Stark, meanwhile, lost to a business-friendly Democratic challenger, Eric Swalwell, an outcome enabled by California's new top-two primary system.
Instead of challenging the freshman Swalwell, Khanna announced he would instead run in the 17th District and challenge fellow Democratic Rep. Mike Honda, another veteran Bay Area progressive. If voters exchange Stark and Honda for Swalwell and Khanna, the region will have been jolted considerably in the conservative direction.
The move surprised some of Khanna's 2011 donors, who were also longtime supporters of Honda. Earlier this year, three of those contributors, after consulting with Honda's campaign, approached Khanna's campaign about getting their money back.
"You are not using our money the way you promised," read the letter from Sophia Yen, Steve Silberman and Ted Fang. "Instead, you’re using it to run against Congressman Mike Honda, a man who has spent his life increasing opportunities for people to better themselves, including you. We cannot support you in this and we don’t want our money to play any part in it either."
Khanna's campaign has refused to return the donations, arguing that too much time has gone by.
Yen, who is a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, told The Huffington Post that she had worked with Khanna during Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign and has appealed to him personally on getting her donation back.
"He just kind of said, 'Well, it's been spent. It's gone. You asked for it too late,'" Yen said.
But according to Khanna's latest campaign filings, one 2011 donation has been refunded -- that of tech entrepreneur Carl Page, the brother of Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page.
Filings from 2011 show that Page donated $2,500 to Khanna's campaign committee on Nov. 27, 2011, around the same time that Yen, Silberman and Fang gave money. Khanna's first-quarter filings for 2014 show a disbursement to Page for the same amount.
The payment to Page was made on Jan. 13 -- the same day Yen says she requested her money back.
Khanna's campaign told The Huffington Post that Page's request for a return came immediately after Khanna announced his bid in April 2013.
"Carl requested a refund the same month that Ro launched his campaign and we honored our commitment to return the donation within a year," Khanna press secretary Tyler Law said in a statement. "These other requests were done as a political stunt and came after Ro had been campaigning for nearly a year. It was impractical to return them. Ro's received many contributions from people who donated to Honda in the past. We wouldn't expect them to ask for refunds, nor for the Honda campaign to provide them."
Yen wouldn't comment on the circumstances of Page's refund, but said she still believes her refund request should be honored as well.
"I think that Khanna has far more than enough money, and the fact that he chooses to return money to the 0.001 percent and not me is telling," she said.
Khanna has billed himself as a tech-friendly Democrat, picking up endorsements from major Silicon Valley players such as Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer and Sean Parker. The tech industry also helped line his campaign coffers -- while Honda outraised his opponent for the first time last quarter, Khanna has about $2 million in cash on hand compared with Honda's $1 million.
"I'm totally fine with using the money in another race," Yen said of her donation to Khanna. "I didn't want a single cent of my money to be used against Mike Honda. … You give somebody money and you hope they will use it for the reason you gave it to him."
California's primary will be held June 3. Honda and Khanna are expected to lead the field in the state's top-two primary and face off again in November's general election.