Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and Democratic challenger Ro Khanna squared off in the only debate for California’s 17th Congressional District Monday evening in San Jose, with questions from The Huffington Post.
The moment that may linger longest was Honda's response to allegations that his staff used his public office to raise funds for his campaign. Honda said his chief of staff "missstepped" and expressed regret, but did not himself apologize. Khanna was quick to jump on the omission.
Khanna hammered Honda for backing the Congressional Progressive Caucus' annual budget, which includes tax increases on workers. Honda and Khanna agreed Congress would have to consider tax reform to remedy income inequality. Khanna argued that the reason Washington can't pass tax reform is because elected officials are beholden to special interests.
"So why does corporate tax reform not get done? it's not because there aren't enough smart people in Washington. The reason is because they're all bought and sold by lobbyists," Khanna said.
Honda said that income inequality will have to be addressed in a "fair, efficient, comprehensive way.”
Khanna repeatedly pledged to work closely with Republicans. He also referenced French economist Thomas Piketty approvingly, perhaps a first in a congressional debate.
Giving an answer that could rile immigration activists, Khanna said he'd be willing to take a "piecemeal" approach to immigration reform if Republicans pass legislation without a pathway to citizenship. Honda said he would be "hard-pressed" to support an immigration bill without a pathway to citizenship.
The debate, held at NBC affiliate KNTV, was moderated by NBC Bay Area anchor Raj Mathai and included questions from lead panelist Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post; KQED Newsroom host Thuy Vu; San Jose State University associate professor Melinda Jackson; and San Jose State University student LooLoo Amante.
Public speaking is not among Honda's gifts. Given the low expectations, he held his own, though his time in Washington showed, as he regularly referred to acronyms -- CIR, ESEA -- or last names -- Duncan, Mikulski -- that would make his answers difficult for non-political junkies to follow.
Khanna, a more polished speaker, stuck closely to his campaign themes, namely that Honda is over the hill and that the tech-savvy district needs a fresh voice.
Honda has represented the 17th District, which includes parts of Silicon Valley and a large Asian-American population, since 2000. Khanna, a former Commerce Department official in the Obama administration, finished 20 points behind Honda in the state’s nonpartisan primary in June. California’s “top-two” primary system requires that the top two finishers, regardless of party, face off in the general election.
Khanna, who has received backing from tech moguls including Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, has focused his campaign on bringing fresh perspective to Congress. Honda has run on his seniority and clout in Congress. Honda has been endorsed by prominent progressive groups like MoveOn.org, Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club, while Khanna has earned the backing of local newspapers.
Khanna repeatedly tried to tie Honda to an ineffective Congress and pointed to Honda's poor attendance record to try and paint him as an incumbent who had fallen out of touch with his district. He suggested that Honda had essentially become an irrelevant member of Congress.
“In a Republican-controlled Congress, we’re going to need someone to influence the debate,” Khanna said.