Ro Khanna, a possible challenger to Representative Michael H. Honda, spoke at this rally in San Jose, Calif., against gun violence.
Posted on February 26,2013
CUPERTINO, Calif. — Home to Apple, Google and other high-tech pioneers, the 17th Congressional District here recorded a political first in last fall’s elections, becoming the first majority Asian-American district in the mainland United States.
At the same time, voters sent candidates of Asian descent to the Legislature and to local city councils like the one here, where Asian-Americans account for 63 percent of the population.
The Congressional seat itself was easily retained by Michael M. Honda, a Democrat first elected in 2000 and one of the most influential Asian-Americans in Congress. A Japanese-American whose views on politics and civil rights were shaped by his internment during World War II, Mr. Honda, 71, helped build a network for Asian-American political aspirants here and served as a mentor to many.
But a possible challenge to Mr. Honda in 2014 — coming from Ro Khanna, 36, an Indian-American lawyer who served as a deputy assistant secretary in the Commerce Department and is a rising star in the Democratic Party — has already set off intense maneuvering inside the district. Even as Asian-Americans represent the nation’s fastest growing racial group, the attention focused on this potential contest underscores the diversity, and possibly emerging rivalries, among different Asian groups.
Mr. Khanna said he has yet to decide whether to run. Mr. Honda, perhaps in one of the earliest moves to fend off a potential challenge next year, recently secured the endorsements of President Obama, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California and other Democrats. The possible face-off has put many Asian-Americans here, especially Indian-Americans, in an awkward situation.
“I really appreciate what the congressman has done for the Asian-American community, and I have worked closely with him,” said Kamil Hasan, an Indian-American who has long been involved in the tech industry and the Democratic Party. “Ro Khanna would be a very strong candidate in whichever district he runs. The Indian community has wanted him to run for office for a long time.”
Mr. Hasan, who said he would not take a position until Mr. Khanna decided whether to run, has held fund-raisers for both Mr. Honda and Mr. Khanna.
California’s system of nonpartisan redistricting created the 17th Congressional District, where Asian-Americans total 51 percent of the population. Asian-American politicians and activists had long sought such a district from which to build power nationally.
Although the district includes parts of San Jose, suburbs like Cupertino, Milpitas and Fremont have the highest concentration of Asian-Americans, especially the most recent waves of immigrants, said James S. Lai, the director of ethnic studies at Santa Clara University. Institutions like the Silicon Valley Asian Pacific American Democratic Club remain under the leadership of more established groups like Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans. The San Jose airport, for example, is named after Norman Y. Mineta, the Japanese-American politician.
But newer Asian-American groups have begun exerting influence. Democrats and Republicans have especially courted Indian-Americans, many of whom work in Silicon Valley and have proved formidable fund-raisers.
“The question is what Asian Indians feel ideologically aligned with,” Mr. Lai said. “This election could be an example of whether Asian Indians see themselves along the lines of pan-Asian, progressive politics that are part of what Mike Honda stands for, or whether they will they go for his challenger’s politics, which are more conservative and pro-business.”
A teacher, Mr. Honda got his political start in 1971 when Mr. Mineta, as mayor of San Jose, appointed him to the planning commission. Mr. Honda rose steadily — from the school board to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to the State Assembly — before being elected to Congress in 2000 in a district that had been represented by Mr. Mineta.
Ami Bera, an Indian-American physician elected to Congress last fall in a district near Sacramento, said he approached Mr. Honda for advice four years ago when he was considering running. Speaking after a panel on Asian-Americans and politics with Mr. Honda here recently, Mr. Bera said of the Asian-Americans serving in the House, “Each of us has our own unique story of how Mike took us under his wing, mentored us and then was out there probably the most active of any member of Congress helping us getting elected.”
Mr. Khanna has been laying the groundwork for a possible campaign by meeting influential people in the district and writing op-ed articles on subjects that resonate here, like American relations with Asia and manufacturing. Under California’s top-two primary system, Mr. Khanna and Mr. Honda, both Democrats, could end up facing each other in a general election.
In a Democratic primary a decade ago, Mr. Khanna unsuccessfully challenged Representative Tom Lantos in a district north of here. He drew attention last year by easily raising $1.2 million for an exploratory committee seeking an unspecified seat; he considered challenging Representative Pete Stark, a longtime Democratic incumbent in the East Bay who was defeated last fall by a young Democrat, Eric Swalwell.
In a district that is heavily Democratic but includes a large percentage of undeclared voters, Mr. Khanna could try to woo moderate Democrats from Mr. Honda, who has a liberal voting record and favors higher taxes.
In an interview, Mr. Khanna said he favored “a pro-economic growth agenda.” The district’s majority Asian-American status, he said, “can be a huge asset to our nation in figuring out the right policies for global competitiveness.”
His economic message draws favorable comments from some Democrats, though none are willing to say so publicly for fear of offending Mr. Honda. Mayor Jose Esteves of Milpitas, a Republican and Filipino-American, recently endorsed Mr. Khanna and has been gathering support for him among other Filipino-Americans.
“Ro is more focused on Silicon Valley,” Mr. Esteves said.
In an interview, Mr. Honda, who previously helped Mr. Khanna with fund-raising, brushed off the potential challenge. Competition among Asian-Americans, he said, is a sign of political maturity. “Whites get challenged by whites — how’s that different?” Mr. Honda said. “When a community gets more diverse, you’re going to run into that.”
But some of his closest allies have reacted angrily.
“We could have gotten behind Ro if he ran against Stark, but he’s going against our leader,” said Paul Fong, a Chinese-American assemblyman from here. “Mike is the leader of the Asian Pacific Islander movement.”
A run by Mr. Khanna against an established figure twice his age could be regarded both negatively and positively in the district, said Madison Nguyen, the vice mayor of San Jose and a Vietnamese-American.
“Speaking from an Asian perspective, it could be seen as a sign of disrespect,” she said, adding, however, that Silicon Valley’s culture of risk-taking offered a counterbalance. “When is the right timing to run for public office? Are you going to sit and wait for someone to retire?”