Top-Two Challenges Good for California Voters

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

In newspapers, there’s an old saying: “Vote the story.”

For reporters, that means when there’s a political choice between good government and good stories, well, there’s really no choice.

In that vein, even the folks who don’t particularly like California’s new top-two primary system have to admit that it’s going to make elections a lot more fun to watch in the state.

Take, for example, San Jose’s 17th Congressional District, one of the many Bay Area legislative bailiwicks so Democratic that Republicans need not apply. Since 2000, it’s been represented by Democrat Mike Honda, who under the old election rules likely would have held the seat virtually unopposed until he decided to retire.

But now, instead of facing a Republican like the one he massacred 73 percent to 27 percent last November, the 70-year-old Honda is likely to be challenged by another Democrat, 36-year-old Ro Khanna. And, under the top-two rules, Honda has a real good chance of facing the Silicon Valley attorney in the June 2014 primary and then again in November.

See, it’s already more interesting than the old one-party contest and election day is still more than a year away.

Khanna’s an interesting guy. A first-generation Indian American, he has an economics degree from the University of Chicago and a Yale law degree and spent two years in the Commerce Department under President Obama.

He also has a real itch to be in Congress. He ran an unsuccessful race against San Mateo Democrat Tom Lantos in 2004, then planned to challenge Democrat Pete Stark in the East Bay’s 15th Congressional District last year, only to back off when Stark decided that the 2012 campaign would be his last, clearing the way for Khanna to run for the open seat in 2014.

Well, Stark was right about it being his last race, but not the way he intended. Dublin Councilman Eric Swalwell, another Democrat, didn’t back away from the contest and sent Stark into retirement after 40 years in Congress.

Now Khanna, with $1 million left from the race he didn’t run against Stark, is taking on Honda, which could leave people to believe that either Khanna is convinced Bay Area Democrats have elected a whole bunch of lousy congressmen that it’s his duty to try and replace or that he doesn’t much care who he runs over – or where he has to live – to move to D.C.

This desire for a political career apparently doesn’t mean Khanna is willing to dirty his hands or curb his ambitions by running for a local office or state Legislature, since his only experience in elections is in the voting booth.

It’s not a requirement for a member of Congress to have held office before (see Pelosi, Nancy), but the experience of a campaign, where you have to talk to people who aren’t all wealthy movers and shakers, or of holding an actual political office, with its demands to work with others to get things done, are both important experiences for a political wannabe.

It’s hard also to forget the words of former House Speaker Sam Rayburn, when Vice President Lyndon Johnson was telling him about the intellectual power of “the best and the brightest” that President John Kennedy moved into his administration in 1961.

“I wish one of them had been elected to dogcatcher or something,” the speaker complained.

Honda has run for more than dogcatcher, serving on the San Jose Unified School District school board, the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors and in the state Assembly before being elected to Congress. His ties to labor and education, his longtime links to the district and even his fluent Spanish make him a much tougher target than Stark, who seemed to go out of his way to burn his bridges with his district.

Still, though, competition is always a good thing. With the 2010 redistricting, much of Honda’s district is new to him and South Asians are a growing political force both in Silicon Valley and the new parts of the 15th District like Fremont and Milpitas.

Khanna is a sharp guy with links to the Obama administration who has shown he can raise money. And if raging ambition disqualified people from running for office, Sacramento and Washington, D.C., would be ghost towns.

Khanna’s looking at an uphill battle, with even his old boss Obama endorsing Honda, but that’s fine. Even a well-run losing campaign will serve as a reminder to Honda and plenty of other California Democrats that they hold office not by right but only as long as they can convince their constituents they’re doing the job they were hired for.

If the top-two primary can teach that lesson, it’s already a success.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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