Democratic Civil War Heats Up In Silicon Valley

Attorney and former Obama administration official Ro Khanna announced the launch of a “Truth Squad” to disseminate facts about his background and record on Tuesday. Khanna is challenging Rep. Mike Honda, a fellow Democrat, in California’s 17th District this year.

The race is drawing more attention than a typical House primary because President Barack Obama has endorsed Honda, a seven-term incumbent, while several of the president’s former campaign aides are now working for Khanna. The challenger is positioning himself as a much-needed new voice, while Honda’s campaign has slammed Khanna as a front for “far right conservatives.”

The 17th District covers parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, including Silicon Valley. Honda easily won reelection in 2012, with 73 percent of the vote. As Roll Call notes, the district has an Asian-American majority. Honda is a Japanese American, while Khanna is Indian American.

Tyler Law, Khanna’s press secretary, told The Huffington Post that the “Truth Squad” website is intended “to help fight back against mischaracterizations that have already appeared in the campaign.”

The website seeks to debunk comments made about him by, among others, the progressive group Democracy for America’s founder, Howard Dean, and its executive director, Charles Chamberlain. Dean called Khanna “a corporate-backed challenger,” and Chamberlain said he is “a Silicon Valley groupie looking to buy support from wealthy CEOs.”

Khanna served in the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary of commerce from 2009 to 2011 and currently works at the high-powered law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati handling intellectual property issues. He also teaches economics at Stanford and law at Santa Clara University.

The challenger has the backing of a number of Silicon Valley notables — Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Napster co-founder Sean Parker have all donated to his campaign — while Honda has received donations from a number of technology companies’ political action committees.

The Truth Squad website hits Honda for taking such contributions from corporate PACs — including those of Pfizer and Lockheed Martin — and says that Khanna has pledged not to accept campaign donations from “special interest PACs.”

But Khanna has also received donations from wealthy individuals better known for funding conservatives. Marc Leder, a hedge-fund executive who hosted the fundraiser at which Mitt Romney made his infamous “47 percent” comment, has given $5,200 to Khanna’s campaign. Peter Thiel, the libertarian-leaning PayPal cofounder and venture capitalist, has given $2,500.

Khanna’s website calls him “a lifelong Democrat [who] is committed to furthering progressive causes,” an apparent response to characterizations of him as running to the right of Honda.

Honda has been endorsed by a long list of Democratic politicians beyond Obama, including California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents another Northern California district. He was rated one of the most liberal members of Congress in 2012 by National Journal. Planned Parenthood Action Fund also endorsed Honda, though Khanna is on the board of directors of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, which provides services in mid-California and northern Nevada.

Khanna outraised Honda in the third quarter of 2013. Neither has announced fourth-quarter fundraising numbers.

In an interview with Calbuzz, Khanna characterized Honda as “part of a Congress that is broken and people want reform.”

“Honda’s world view is of an industrial economy and I think we are now in a digital economy with global presence. I just don’t think he understands the innovation, digital economy, which is this new district,” Khanna said. “And I have a better vision for what is going to create jobs and I’m more in touch with this new economy. … He’s the wrong fit to represent the most important constituency in the world, which is the heart of innovation and economic growth for the nation.”

Honda meanwhile has touted his service to the district, including his role in securing $900 million in funding for an extension to the region’s BART transportation system.

“The truth is Mike Honda has a proven record delivering for this district and doing the right thing,” said Vivek Kembaiyan, communications director for the Honda campaign. “This is why his re-election campaign is funded by over 2,500 people with over half of the contributions being $100 or less. From bringing home over $1 Billion in funding and more than 10,000 jobs for his district, to leading the charge on expanding Social Security, to pushing for expanded educational opportunity, Mike’s record speaks for itself.”

Some speculated that Khanna would switch out of the 17th District and run in the nearby 11th District after Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) announced Monday that he would not seek reelection. The Khanna campaign immediately shot down the suggestion that he avoid challenging Honda.

The 17th District was redrawn after the 2010 Census and is now 44 percent Democratic and 19 percent Republican. A significant proportion of its voters — 32 percent — decline to state their party affiliation. California has a top-two primary system, which means the two candidates who receive the most votes in the June 3 open primary will face off in the November general election regardless of their party affiliation.

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