Pete Stark

Feb 272013
 
Congressman Mike Honda

Congressman Mike Honda

The battle for California CD 17 promises to be intense.

Don’t mess with Congressman Mike Honda.  He may look soft and cuddly, he may be one of the darlings of the human rights movement, but the man is a force to be reckoned with. Don Corleone could have learned a thing or two from this Silicon Valley congressman.

Mike Honda’s take-no-prisoners approach to politics came into play in the last few weeks, after former Obama administration official Ro Khanna fed rumors that he is considering running for CD 17 in 2014.  Khanna originally planned to run for CD 15 and had amassed a $1.2 million war chest towards that end, but he’d given sitting congressman Pete Stark his word that he wouldn’t run against him.  Stark refused to retire and after an abysmal re-election campaign, he was defeated by a young, unknown, first-term city councilman, Eric Swalwell.   Khanna, apparently, started looking south.

Honda was swift in his response to a possible challenge from Khanna. Within days he announced his endorsement by President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, soon followed by those of Rep. Steve Israel, Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Howard Dean, the past Chair of the Democratic National Committee.  After the San Jose Mercury News quoted a political science professor in favor of the proposition that a key indicator of Khanna’s chances would be whether the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus endorsed Honda or remained neutral, the Chair and 19 members of the Caucus expressed their support for their chairman emeritus.

Khanna’s supporters have attempted to interpret these unusually early endorsements as “signs of [Honda’s] fear and desperation” at the prospect of their guy entering the race.   But they are actually a demonstration of Honda’s political acumen.   Khanna’s credibility as a candidate is largely based on his fundraising talent and his DC political connections – which his campaign has repeatedly touted.  By announcing these endorsements, Honda makes it very clear to would-be Khanna backers that Khanna no longer enjoys the support of the Democratic power structure in Washington.  Support him at your own peril.

Ro Khanna

Ro Khanna

Despite his million dollar campaign chest, Ro Khanna will need a lot of support to have a chance to win.  Though Khanna supporters have emphasized the fact that redistricting has left Honda with low name recognition and voter loyalty in much of CD 17, Khanna has practically none of either.   To overcome this, he will need to build grass roots support from the ground up.  He needs volunteers to knock on doors, make phone calls and throw “meet the candidate” events .  He also needs to develop a sophisticated media strategy and raise a lot more money.  Honda has already started.  To make sure he’s available to voters, he has opened satellite offices in Fremont and Newark.  He updates his Facebook page often, tweets regularly and even blogson the Patch.  He introduces and pushes high-profile legislation, which means his name is often in the press.  He is ready for a fight, and has already announced his campaign team for the 2014 election.

Much of Khanna’s support so far has come from the Indian-American community, but it came with the presumption he would run for an open seat in CD 15.   Challenging Mike Honda is another matter altogether. As Varun Nikore, past president of the Indian American Leadership Initiative, told India Abroad:  ” [Honda] has done an enormous service to the Indian-American community and continues to do so.  He’s mentored countless numbers of Indian-American politicians across the county including Ro.  Not because he had to, but because Mike Honda so deeply believes in this cause of empowerment for not only Indian Americans, but for all Asian Pacific Americans…  We cannot let the ambitions of one trump loyalty here.  If we start going after our friends, who will stand with us in future battles to come?  Our successes as a community didn’t just come because an Indian American was at the table fighting for our rights and causes.  We were helped by leaders in the larger Asian Pacific American community who helped build broad coalitions and represented our community in our issues, like Patsy Mink, Daniel Inouye, Norman Mineta and Mike Honda.  We would be nowhere without them.” Echoing the sentiments, newly elected Indian American congressman Ami Bera told the publication that “in recent years, Mike Honda has done more than any member of Congress to help support and grow Asian-American representation in the House of Representatives.  Congressman Honda was instrumental in helping me and other Indian-American candidates build out our races, and gain credibility.  He has always been there for us, raising funds, providing advice, and being a mentor.”  Bera has apparently been trying to dissuade Khanna from challenging Honda, with little success.

While Khanna’s supporters acknowledge that he might have lost the support of the Indian-American community nationwide, they trust they can build on the relationships Khanna has made with Silicon Valley and southern Alameda County South-Asian-Americans.   And he’s likely to have at least some success at that.  Unlike Honda, whose job, after all, keeps him in DC for much of the year, Khanna actually lives and works in the Bay Area and thus he should be able to spend much more personal time cultivating relationships, in particular with those members of the Indian-American community that have not been politically active.   A “meet and greet” that three South-Asian-American supporters are throwing for him in early March has over 50 “going” responses on its Facebook page.

In person, Mr. Khanna comes across as an intelligent, well spoken, well educated and thoughtful young man, and he is sure to impress many who meet him.  Each event like this will likely win him supporters who will themselves throw further events to introduce him to more community members.  And while “meet and greet” and “coffee with the candidate” events are not meant to be fundraisers, they often become that, which should help his finances.

Khanna can also benefit from the many political splits within the local Indian-American community which will guarantee him the support of at least one faction in Fremont.  But he can also take advantage of ethnic/religious splits.    For example, he signed on to a letter written by supporters of Gujarati Chief Minster Narendra Modi, asking Mike Honda to withdraw his signature from a letter asking the State Department to continue denying Modi a visa to come to the US.  Modi has been denied a visa because of his involvement in the 2002 riots.  According to Human Rights Watch, the so-called riots, which resulted in the deaths of up to 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were “planned in advance and organized with extensive participation of the police and state government officials.”  UPDATE Ro Khanna has reached out to clarify that the letter he wrote only asked Honda to meet with Indian-Americans to discuss this issue. He did not ask him to remove his signature.  I apologize for the error.

Khanna’s other fundraising success came from his connections in Silicon Valley.  He works as an attorney at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a business and intellectual property law firm headquartered in Palo Alto, and for two years was as a Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Commerce Department, where he got kudos for his work.   He has recently published a a well-received book on the future of American manufacturing.    Support from Silicon Valley donors, however, is likely to be strategic – and Khanna will have to make a very good case that he has something to offer them that is worth antagonizing Honda, the President and the Democratic party leadership.

Honda, meanwhile, is working hard to take on the mantra of modern manufacturing from Khanna.  Two days after President Obama announced on his State of the Union speech that he wanted to establish three more manufacturing innovation hubs in different parts of the country, Honda sent him a letter making a case for why one should be located in his district.  The next day, he published  an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News, co-written with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Kevin Surace, on how Congress can revive American manufacturing.  The clear message is “you don’t need Khanna, I’m on top of this”.  To be fair,  this is not a new area of concern for Honda; last July he introduced a bill also aiming to boost domestic manufacturing.

Khanna, for his part, has also been throwing himself into Honda territory.   Khanna also had an op-ed in the Feb. 15th issue of the San Jose Mercury News, his on the subject of the growing conflict between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The op-ed was co-written with Peter Stanek and Ignatius Y. Ding, two activists with an organization that seeks reparations from Japan for WWII crimes.   In the past, both of them have supported Mike Honda, in particular on his efforts to get justice for comfort women.  Khanna’s play for the Chinese-American vote, however, seems clumsy.   In the op-ed he argues that China, and not Japan, is America’s most important trade partner and he suggests that the US should not back Japan on this dispute.   This stance might gain Khanna some Chinese-American votes, though it seems unlikely that a significant portion of the electorate would vote on a US congressional election based on that particular issue.  Moreover, it may prove divisive within the broader Asian-American community and suggest to general voters that Khanna doesn’t have the stomach to stand up to China when needed.

Khanna supporters have been encouraged by Eric Swalwell’s defeat of Pete Stark in CD 15 and emphasize the similarities between the races, namely, the age difference between both candidates and the effects of redistricting.  Both are red herrings, however.  Pete Stark’s age only became a factor in his campaign because his behavior made voters – and the press – question his mental competency.  Even his supporters acknowledged that he was no longer effective.   There is no question, however, that Honda is mentally spry and that he is one of the most influential members in Congress; not everyone can call the President and get an immediate endorsement two years before a race (by contrast, Obama only endorsed Stark three weeks before the 2012 primary election).

Redistricting, moreover, does not appear to have hurt Honda.  While Stark was left with a district that now includes much wealthier and conservative areas, the demographics of Honda’s new district are not significantly different.  Indeed, he won CD 17 with 73.5% of the vote, 5 points more than what he received in his last election in then CD 15.

Eric Swalwell was able to win his election on the strength of the Republican and conservative votes that he openly courted.   But he only succeeded at this because there was no Republican candidate in the race (Chris Pareja, a tea partier, ran as an independent).  Khanna will not be that lucky.  Evelyn Li, who ran against Honda in 2012, seems ready for a rematch.   If she’s able to keep her 27.6% of the primary election vote, Khanna will be left having to convince a third of all the people who voted for Honda in 2012, that he is no longer their man.  That’s a pretty high bar.

And it’s a bar that Eric Swalwell was not able to pass himself.   When everything was said and done, Swalwell was only able to carry roughly 14% of former-Stark voters.  Only in those cities that had not previously been represented by Stark,  Swalwell was able to gather a third of the vote that had previously gone to the Democratic candidate for Congress.  Khanna will have to make those numbers in all the cities in his district, and against an opponent that is willing and able to fight hard.

Can Khanna do it?  Perhaps.  For one, he might get very, very lucky and be able to uncover some very deep, dark secret from Honda’s past.  And, of course, there is always the possibility that Honda may mess up big time, though, given his district, it will have to be something worse than a weiner tweet, bathroom footsie or shirtless photos on Craigslist.

Absent that, instead of running against Mike Honda, Khanna may consider running against Paul Ryan.   In other words, Khanna could concentrate on building his own political persona, and hope that it can overshadow Honda’s on the ground.  Khanna’s background is in economics, and he has already been seen on national TV news shows talking about manufacturing.  If he is able to develop his own economic policy for the country, one that provides a credible, progressive answer to Paul Ryan, he may be able to use the power of the national media to bring even more attention and credibility to himself.   Khanna can actually benefit from having been spurned by the Democratic leadership, as this frees him to write a plan focused only on what’s best for the country and the American people.  Khanna might also want to hit Honda at his core on the issue of education reform, though he will have to develop a plan that makes sense for his district.

While the road to victory will be long and arduous, Khanna does have an ace in his pocket: the local media.   Both the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle are salivating at the possibility of a Honda-Khanna race (which has even grabbed the attention of the New York Times).  Not only have both papers been leaning to the right lately, but a race of this type is sure to generate a lot of copy.  Khanna has been developing a good relationship with both papers’ political reporters, so he probably can count on a lot of good press.  And if Khanna can do it, and win on the merits of his platform, he will arrive in Washington with the credibility and gravitas of a true leader and not of just a good fundraiser.

Feb 122013
 
Ellen Corbett

Ellen Corbett

She can, but only if she stop playing it safe.

Last October, in the midst of the 2012 electoral battle between veteran Congressman Pete Stark and Dublin City Councilman Eric Swalwell for Congressional District 15, California Senate Majority leader Ellen Corbett took the unprecedented step of announcing she would run for that seat in 2014.

Corbett had been angling to run for Stark’s seat, after he retired, for years.  And there was much speculation that Stark would retire in 2012.  He was in his 80’s, frequently in bad health, and had been marginalized in Washington.  Furthermore, his district had been redrawn and he had lost much of the more liberal parts of western Alameda county, while gaining the conservative Tri-Valley area where his liberal policies were unlikely to be popular. Corbett already represented some of these areas – namely Castro Valley and Pleasanton – and her more moderate Democratic views would be an easier sell.

Stark, however, declined to do the “right thing” (for the local party, at least) and retire and while Corbett entertained the idea of challenging him, she eventually backed off. My guess is that labor would not support her against the aging incumbent.

Eric Swalwell

Eric Swalwell

Her decision proved to be like manna from heaven for Eric Swalwell.  The young Dublin City Council member had little to lose by taking on Stark.  A prosecutor from a conservative Bay Area suburb, Swalwell was too young and had yet to pay enough dues to be taken seriously by the Democratic establishment or by labor.  He had no support to lose by challenging the incumbent.

Swalwell, however,  proved to be a consummate campaigner, willing to knock on door after door, attend event after event, and embrace the power of social media and new campaign technologies. He was also able to draw on the expertise of local politicos disaffected with Stark and the local Democratic party. Our own Mayor Stephen Cassidy, for example, shared his own tips and experience on defeating incumbents (he’d done it twice in San Leandro) while Swalwell’s former High School teacher and mentor Dublin Mayor Tim Sbranti, an upcoming political force himself, once again took him under his wing. It certainly didn’t hurt that Stark made some serious gaffes during early debates and then disappeared altogether from the campaign trail, leaving it all in the hands of his campaign managers and his supporters in labor and the Democratic party.

Pete Stark

Pete Stark

Ultimately, it was the new open-primary system in California that gave Swalwell his win. After his surprisingly good showing in June, which put him in a one-to-one contest with Stark in November, Swalwell started drawing on support and money from more disaffected politicians and individuals. He became the new darling of the news media, which covered Stark’s gaffes with gusto. And he was able to make the race about personalities, rather than issues, which allowed him the flexibility of appealing to voters with very diverse ideologies.

By the end of the campaign, Swalwell had raised $826K and spent $800K of that. That still pales in comparison with the almost $1.4M Stark spent on this race, but it definitely made him competitive.

At the end of the day, in the November election, Stark’s incumbency held and he easily won the part of the district that he had historically represented, while Swalwell easily won the rest.

The question, of course, is what all of this means for Ellen Corbett. While nobody can predict the future, it’s helpful to look at the differences between Corbett and Stark and what she can and cannot bring to a Congressional campaign.   Let’s also keep in mind that as everyone wants to back a winner, Corbett’s chances at winning are also dependent on the analysis politicos, contributors and voters make of those same chances. If people think Corbett has a shot, they are more likely to give her their support. And she will definitely need lots of it.

Ellen Corbett is not Pete Stark – in either the bad or the good ways. She is a calm, measured politician; she’s pleasant, smart, compassionate and empathetic, without being overly emotional. She is unlikely to make offensive statements on the campaign trail and give Swalwell the type of ammunition that he had with Stark.  However, Corbett has been in public office for a couple of decades: first as a City Council member and Mayor of San Leandro, and then in the California Assembly and now California Senate. If Swalwell decides to run a negative campaign against her, he will probably be able to find plenty of things to criticize.

In 2012, Corbett’s advantages over Pete Stark were that her Senate district included most of CD 15 and that her views were more moderate, and thus more attuned to the voters.   She’s always been a grass-roots politician, and knows the importance of one-to-one contact with voters. Voters have seen her at community events in their cities throughout the years. Since the district was redrawn, Corbett has also been seen in community events in those cities she does not currently represent: Dublin, San Ramon and Livermore.

In order to win, Corbett will have to make sure that the votes that went to Stark in 2010 now go to her and that the Democratic voters in Castro Valley and Pleasanton who voted for Swalwell, now vote for her instead. Of course, she will also have to make inroads with other Tri-Valley voters.

The first proposition should be the easiest. Southern Alameda county voters are used to seeing her name on their ballot and seeing her at events, and they may still be bitter about Stark’s loss. However, Swalwell is well aware of this and he is reaching out towards those parts of the district, attending events and trying to ingratiate himself with the local political establishment.  He might have made a mistake by locating his district office in Pleasanton, however, as that sends a message that his heart is really in the Tri-Valley (plus it’s awfully inconvenient for voters in the southern part of the district to drive to Pleasanton), but Corbett is not helping herself either by keeping her district office in San Leandro.

Converting Swalwell voters to her is likely to be more difficult. While it’s true that many of the votes that Swalwell got were “anyone but Stark” votes, Corbett will need to make a case to the voters as to why she’s a better choice for them than the man they just put in office.   Attacking his youth or inexperience did not work for Stark, so she will have to try to draw other distinctions.

So far the only message I’ve heard concerns Swalwell’s political stances. Rumors are being circulated that he has reached out to Blue Dog Democrats and to Republicans and that he is really a Republican in disguise (though that can also be said about President Obama).  But rumors are just rumors and Swalwell is smart enough to know that it behooves him, at this point, to entrench himself within the Democratic party and follow  Nancy Pelosi‘s lead.  So far, all indications are that he’s doing just that.  He has co-sponsored gun control legislation and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and he happily accepted being appointed an Assistant Whip, which means he is now responsible for making other Congress members fall into the Democratic party line.  If Corbett wants to go after Swalwell on the issues, she will have to be ready to make strategic attacks on the party line.

One area in which Eric Swalwell and the Democratic leadership are particularly weak is the protection of civil liberties.  Swalwell approves of the Patriot Act, going to war with Iran and  has dodged questions about whether he supports US Presidents having the power to assassinate American citizens (which would imply that he does).  Swalwell, moreover, has made it explicit that he doesn’t believe in a separation of Church and State and has suggested there is no place in government (or maybe even America?) for non-believers. While those positions may play well with his conservative base in both parties, they will make many voters on his district – both in the Democratic left and the libertarian right – very uncomfortable.  Indeed, his support for gun control legislation is already losing him support in the Tri-Valley.  Corbett could seize on this and develop a strong civil liberties agenda that would put all those voters in play.  Indeed, this would also draw her closer to her potential colleagues to the north and south, Barbara Lee and Mike Honda, both staunch civil liberty advocates.  That said, Corbett has not focused on civil liberties in the past and seems to be in favor of stronger federal gun control measures.

Corbett has two other big hurdles to clear: money and support. It’s almost impossible to win a Congressional campaign without money. Candidates need to put their names out there and that involves sending out mailers and putting out radio and TV ads, all of which are very expensive. A crafty candidate can save some money by manufacturing news events and getting free media coverage, but Corbett has not exhibited those media skills. Corbett started the year with only about $100K in her campaign account for Congress, that’s less than a tenth of what she will need in order to run a competitive race. And it’s not clear where her funds will come from. Her previous campaigns have been funded almost exclusively by PACs, so she doesn’t have a network of individual contributors on whom to rely on (by contrast, 85% of Swalwell’s contributions came from individuals). PACs, however, are unlikely to support her unless she can give them something that Swalwell can’t or won’t.

It’s also unclear how much support Ellen Corbett will be able to get from the Democratic party, labor and other groups.  She is extremely entrenched within the local party, while Eric Swalwell has received the cold shoulder – at least publicly – from local politicos.  But Corbett is not without her detractors: it’s hard to be in politics for so long without making enemies. She also has a reputation for not paying back her political debts, something which may come back to haunt her.  She does, however, have a good shot at winning the party’s endorsement, though it’s definitely too early to know how that will play out.

Local Democratic insiders seem to be under the impression that Corbett’s gender will play in her favor.  Some believe that Corbett will get the support of Nancy Pelosi because Pelosi wants to see more women in Congress.  While I’m sure she has that goal in general, I will note that in 2011 she participated in fundraisers for Ro Khanna, who at the time was planning to run for CD 15 against Ellen Corbett.  And if Swalwell falls into line, Pelosi would have no incentive to back Corbett – in particular, when there are plenty of more important races for her to concentrate on. It’s also doubtful whether Corbett will enjoy the support of Emily’s List,  which also has more important races to focus on.  Plus Swalwell has been playing it smart, not only did he co-sponsor re-authorization of VAWA but he joined the pro-choice caucus.

Even without overwhelming party support, Corbett is likely to have the support of the Alameda Labor Council. She has been faithful to labor for many years and chances are they will go to bat for her. However, it’s unlikely that the AFL-CIO will go against an incumbent Democratic candidate – in particular, if he doesn’t do anything to offend them – which could put local labor in a pickle. Without labor’s money and volunteers, her campaign is a non-starter.

Even with them, Corbett’s campaign has one additional problem: it has not embraced digital campaign technologies. As of this writing she doesn’t have a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a blog, a mailing list or even her own campaign website. This means that, at least online, the story of her campaign is being told by others (including me, if you search for “Ellen Corbett” you’ll see a link to San Leandro Talk). While in the digital age, it’s impossible for any politician to completely control their message; they still need to attempt to do so. And digital technologies not only allow politicians to interact with voters and maintain name recognition, but they also make it easier to run organized campaigns cheaply.

Swalwell knows all of this only too well. He has been tweeting out a storm (though he doesn’t respond to tweets), keeping up his Facebook page, posting videos on YouTube and making sure he’s seen everywhere. According to a recent tweet: “January by the numbers: 50 mtgs, 30 dist. events attended, 10 hearings, 200 guests from #ca15 for swearing-in & 9,000+ miles in the air.” He could have added his office issued 10 press releases in January, all available on his website (Corbett’s last press release is from September 2012). Moreover, Swalwell has been keeping the eyes of the media on him by hosting quirky events (e.g. “Ride with your Rep“) and vowing to try out one job held by people in his district every month.

One of the keys to Swalwell’s victory in 2012 was the support that he got from the news media, in particular San Francisco Chronicle’s Carla Marinucci and Bay Area Newspaper Group’s Josh Richman, who were happy to write about the many gaffes of Pete Stark.  Stark’s personal arrogance and disrespect for the media had made him many enemies, of course. It will be interesting to see what type of coverage Corbett gets.

One final factor on this analysis are what other candidates might enter this race. It seems unlikely that any serious Democrats will throw their hat into this ring, but stranger things have happened. Ro Khanna, who raised over $1 million in anticipation of a run, has since transferred his ambitions towards a run in CD 13 against Mike Honda. If a serious moderate Republican entered the race, however, things could get complicated very quickly. Roughly 40% of the votes in CD 15 are conservative/Republican votes. Swalwell got all of these in November 2010, but he would likely lose a large percentage of them in June 2014 if a serious, well-funded Republican entered the race. If Corbett was able to hold on to Stark’s votes, it’s possible that Swalwell could be eliminated in June, sending her and the Republican candidate to November (when the 60% Democratic votes would give her a win). If I was Corbett, I would be looking hard through my Rolodex with anyone with an R by their name.

Jun 162012
 

Tea Partiers for Stark, Neocons for Swalwell?

If you want to find out how topsy-turvy American politics really are, you can’t do better than to look at the race for California’s 15th Congressional district.

Pete Stark, easily the most colorful, outspoken and liberal member of Congress and its only atheist, is facing his first real challenger in 39 years: Eric Swalwell, a Dublin councilman and prosecutor.  Swalwell is your all-American guy – he even looks like a Ken Doll – and is currently selling himself as a moderate Democrat.

Chris Pareja ran against both of them in the June Primary.  This time he did it as an “independent”, but in 2010 he ran against Stark as a write-in Tea Party Candidate, after losing the Republican primary.

Conventional wisdom was that Pareja would endorse Swalwell as he’s by far the more conservative candidate.  However, Pareja is one of those rare candidates who run because they believe in greater principles of government – and for Pareja those include a distaste for government corruption and a respect to civil liberties and property rights.   Unfortunately, given our “pay to play” system of government, there are few politicians on either party that fit into this mold.  Stark does, but only because he’s been in Congress so long and his seat has been so secure that he hasn’t had to worry about fundraising.

So Pareja took the probably unprecedented step of issuing a press release anti-endorsing Swalwell.   Among his reasons, he cites Swalwell’s lack of  “life experience and character to effectively represent this district” and worries “about his positions on property rights and individual liberties.”   While he disagrees with Stark on most issues and is not endorsing him, Pareja offers his respect for Stark’s  “service to the community and the country”.  He discourages his followers from voting for Swalwell calling him “more dangerous to the future of the country.”

A cynic could also point out that a Swalwell win wouldn’t be particularly beneficial for Pareja.  As things stand now, Stark is likely to retire after this term, leaving an empty seat for the