The seven candidates vying to replace U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo in a newly redrawn Silicon Valley congressional district know they face an uphill climb.
Since she was first elected in 1992, Eshoo has been cruising to reelection in the heavily Democratic district, routinely picking up about 70% of the vote. California's switch to a top-two primary has barely blunted her political fortunes. Two years ago, she picked up 63% of the vote in the general election against fellow Democrat Rishi Kumar.
Kumar, a tech executive who serves on the Saratoga City Council, is hoping for better luck this time around. He one of seven candidates hoping to replace Eshoo in the new District 16, which stretches along the coast from Pacifica to northern San Jose and which encompasses large sections of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, including the cities of Palo Alto, Mountain View, Woodside, Portola Valley and portions of Menlo Park and Atherton.
On Tuesday night, Eshoo and six of her challengers tried to make a case for their respective candidacies at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters (Kumar was the only candidate who did not participate in the event). While Eshoo recalled her recent accomplishments in the House of Representatives, each of her opponents made the case that it's time for a change and that they are the best option for representing the dynamic Silicon Valley district.
Among the challengers was Palo Alto City Council member Greg Tanaka, a Democrat who over the years has stood out on the council for repeatedly voting against the city budget and, more recently, for his staunch opposition to the city's proposed business tax. A fiscal conservative whose jeremiads about the decline of innovation in Silicon Valley have been a staple of council meetings, he rejected on Tuesday the idea of voting along a party line.
"There's this kind of red team versus blue team idea, where the red team can't vote for a blue team idea and vice versa," Tanaka said. "What we really should be doing is rather than each elected official voting for their party, you should vote for the best idea."
Ajwang Rading, an attorney at the Palo Alto-based firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, is also vying to represent the district. Unlike Tanaka or Kumar, who opposes Sacramento's housing mandates and who pledges not to increase taxes, Rading leans blue all the way. He embraces an ambitious Democratic platform that revolves around issues of social justice, climate change and universal health care.
A former staff member for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, Rading's resume includes a stint at the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative and his political idols include the late Rep. John Lewis, who championed voting rights. Rading grew up homeless and recalled on Tuesday a childhood that involved spending nights in a 2001 Dodge Neon alongside his single mom. He believes his upbringing and background would make him an effective advocate for boosting affordable housing, tackling income inequality in District 16 and championing other progressive issues.
"I believe the upcoming primary and general election ahead will be a referendum on reproductive rights, equality and climate action," Rading said. "We should question how we got here and ensure we get a new kind of leadership that takes the actions necessary."
Eshoo is also facing a challenge from the right, with three Republicans hoping to win a seat in the heavily Democratic district. The most politically moderate of the three is former Menlo Park Mayor Peter Ohtaki, whose campaign calls for resisting unfunded housing mandates, fighting inflation and seeking more federal dollars for transportation projects. Ohtaki, who grew up in Menlo Park and spent eight years on the council, said his experience as both an elected official and as a chief financial officer at a tech firm make him well qualified for the seat.
"Voters want a credible alternative in the November election this year, not just another shade of blue," Ohtaki said.
The two other Republicans in the race position themselves further on the right of the political spectrum. Richard Fox, who leans libertarian and who has been a vocal opponent of vaccine mandates, is characterizing his candidacy as a battle not only against Eshoo but also against President Joe Biden's Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci and the pharmaceutical industry.
Benjamin Solomon is running as a pro-business candidate who wants to lower taxes. He also has, however, embraced in his campaign the national Republican Party's opposition to "critical race theory," an intellectual movement that emphasizes the role of race in shaping American institutions such as criminal justice and education. And like Fox, he is a skeptic when it comes to climate change. When asked about the topic on Tuesday, Fox suggested that government-funded research "usually reaches conclusions that the government wants it to reach," while Solomon rejected the international consensus about the threats of climate change and suggested that "global alarmist scientists" are not telling people the full truth.
The only candidate on the list who is not affiliated with either major party is John Karl Fredrich, a Palo Alto resident and retired government teacher who had made several unsuccessful bids for the City Council, most recently in 2016. Fredrich supports the "Medicare for All" plan, is skeptical about American military intervention and wants to abolish the Electoral College and pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which was introduced in 1923 but never ratified. The act aims to guarantee equal rights to all Americans, regardless of sex.
"It's long overdue, it needs to get done and I would hope to be a party to pushing that across the finish line," Fredrich said.
In making the case for a fresh term Tuesday, Eshoo touted her decades of experience, a quality that she said is particularly vital at a time when women's reproductive rights are being threatened by the Supreme Court and when the nation faces ongoing challenges such as climate change, inflation and a war in Ukraine that requires American leadership to defeat authoritarianism.
The political veteran also cited the legislation that she has championed and supported over the years, including her efforts to expand health care access for Americans. These efforts helped get an additional 6 million Americans enrolled in the Affordable Care Act in the past year, she said. Eshoo has also sponsored and supported the Women's Health Protection Act, which would prevent government restrictions on abortion access.
"I take a backseat to no one on health care, the progress that we made and for the progress that we need to make, including on the price of drugs, the price of insulin," said Eshoo, who chairs the House's Subcommittee on Health.
Her challengers, meanwhile, focused on outstanding issues that remain unresolved and argued that the district is due for a change. Tanaka and all three Republican candidates cited inflation as a major concern. He touted his experience as a tech entrepreneur and suggested that the district needs a "legislator for the digital age."
The difference between candidates was particularly apparent when it came to climate change policies. Kumar's plan centers on carbon capture technology while Tanaka champions nuclear energy. Eshoo and Rading, who both called climate change an "existential crisis," favor the more mainstream solution of ramping up investment in renewable energy, while Ohtaki talked about the need of boosting transit services and cutting emissions from transportation.
Eshoo pointed to her support for Build Back Better, a legislative package that included $555 billion in funding for climate change programs and that passed the House before petering out in the Senate. Rading said he wants to form a "climate innovation hub" that brings together communities and stakeholders from academia, the private sector and activist organizations to create innovative solutions and develop financing mechanisms to enable broad adoption.
"Climate change is still an issue reserved for wealthiest communities, and we need to conceptualize how to spread these ideas for the rest of the world," Rading said.
The candidates also took dramatically different positions when it came to regulations of tech firms. Eshoo, Fredrich and Rading all said Tuesday that they support the Digital Services Act, a legislative proposal spearheaded by the European Union that governs disinformation and that would require tech firms such as Meta and Google to provide more transparency about their algorithms.
Fox and Solomon said they agreed with Elon Musk, the billionaire who is now in the process of buying Twitter and who famously prefers a more hands-off approach when it comes to speech on the internet.
Ohtaki, meanwhile, said he supports stronger laws around privacy protection but is concerned about a situation where "the government is placed in the role of deciding what is misinformation or illegal information." Eshoo had no such reservations and said she was proud of the legislation that she had authored on both misinformation and privacy. Last year, she joined U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren in reintroducing the Online Privacy Act, which strengthens user data rights (the bill is currently going through the committee process in the House).
"We see the damage that is done to our democracy relative to disinformation, misinformation and the lack of privacy," she said.
The eight candidates will face off in the primary on June 7, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the Nov. 8 general election.
Watch the full forum: