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Focus on Khanna, Not Honda, During First Face-To-Face Forum

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Silicon Valley congressional candidates (l to r) Republicans Peter Kuo and Ron Cohen, and Democrats Pierluigi Oliverio, Congressman Mike Honda and Ro Khanna.  (Beth Willon/KQED)

After months of scathing campaign attacks, San Jose Rep. Mike Honda and Democratic rival Ro Khanna played relatively nice Friday during the first, and likely only, taped candidate forum before the June 7 primary.

But when all the Republican and Democratic candidates running for Silicon Valley's 17th Congressional District seat could ask one question, Khanna was clearly in the hot seat.

At one point Khanna even defended the incumbent congressman when Republican candidate Ron Cohen accused Honda of voting in "lockstep" with House Minority  Leader Nancy Pelosi on hundreds of bills. He then asked Khanna how he would be different if his vote were ordered by Pelosi.

"I've had strong disagreements with Congressman Honda, but to say that someone just votes  lockstep I just don’t think is fair," said Khanna. "People have their own judgments and we have a debate, and let’s debate the issues. But I don’t think people just vote lockstep."

The leading Democratic contenders agree on many issues, ranging from health care to immigration, but Cohen pressed Khanna on one specific bill he would have voted on differently than Honda.


"I wouldn't have voted for No Child Left Behind. I think that created standardized testing and high-stakes testing in a way that was extraordinarily detrimental to teaching," said Khanna.

The forum -- sponsored by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Fremont-Newark-Union City -- included five of the six candidates running for the congressional seat. They were Republicans Cohen and Peter Kuo, along with Democrats Khanna, Honda and outgoing San Jose City Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio. After accepting the invitation, Libertarian Party candidate Kennita Watson was a no-show.

The forum was a quiet contrast to the one held by the league in the same location in May 2014, when Honda and Khanna first ran against one another. It was again held inside the Fremont City Council chambers, but this time was closed to the public. Two years ago there was an overflow audience of 300 people, and shouting supporters outside from both campaigns. This forum, instead, was broadcast live on Comcast in Fremont and San Jose.

The most heated it got between Honda and Khanna was over Republican campaign donors. The congressman gave a mini-speech leading up to his question, pointing out that Khanna criticized him and other progressives in order to sound more like a Republican to get support in 2014.  He said Khanna has taken money from right-wing corporate executives who are hostile toward living wage ordinances, labor groups, public pension plans, privatizing Social Security and sending good jobs overseas.

"Since you seem to be willing to say or do anything to get elected, how can Silicon Valley's middle-class families trust you to act in their best interest and not like the other party?" asked Honda.

Khanna shot back: "I know you didn't write that question. One of your political consultants wrote that."

He continued: "You have donors, too, who have given to Republicans, and yes, there are certain donors. But I would just urge people to go to my website. I have come out for scraping the cap and strengthening Social Security benefits. It's a lie that I want to privatize jobs. I have written a book on manufacturing jobs and bringing them back to the United States."

In his rebuttal, Honda addressed Khanna's campaign criticisms that the congressman has missed a certain number of House votes.

"If you took the time to find out when I missed them, they were when my wife passed away, my mom passed away, my daughter had three children. And I think those are good excuses for missing votes," said Honda.

Khanna was also questioned by Oliverio about his lack of experience in public office as a local politician. Cohen also tried to press him on accepting special interest money because Khanna has pledged not to take any political action committee money.

Surprisingly, when Khanna had the  opportunity to ask Honda one pointed question, he choose Republican long shot Peter Kuo and a question about congressional gridlock and working across the aisle.

Khanna made no mention of Honda's alleged House ethics violations of mixing campaign and government business and improper favors like fast-tracking visas to top donors. Those are now under investigation, and Khanna frequently brings them up on the campaign trail.

The 17th Congressional District seat includes all or part of Fremont, Newark, Milpitas, San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale.

Under California's primary rules, the top two finishers in the June election will advance to a runoff in November.

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