Mercury News Editorial: Send Sam Liccardo to Congress to fill Anna Eshoo’s seat

San Jose’s former mayor tops the field of 11 candidates seeking to replace retiring 16-term incumbent

By the Mercury News Editorial Board

When Rep. Anna Eshoo announced just before Thanksgiving that her 16th term in Congress would be her last, it set off a three-week scramble by veteran politicians and inexperienced aspirants hoping to succeed her.

Eleven candidates — nine Democrats and two Republicans — will be on the March 5 primary ballot. It will be the first time since 1992 that there will be no incumbent running in the district, which now stretches from Pacifica to San Jose.

The quality of many of the candidates in District 16, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by better than 3-1, is impressive. For us, though, it came down to two of the best-known and highly regarded political veterans, former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian.

Accomplishments

They stood out above the field for their political experience, clear understanding and articulation of federal issues, realistic assessments of the challenges facing any new member of the badly divided House, and willingness to work in a bipartisan fashion to help break current stalemates. They are both well-prepared, able to hit the ground running and likely to earn the respect of their congressional colleagues.

Watching Liccardo up close during his 16 years of leadership as a member of the San Jose City Council and then as the city’s mayor, we saw his indefatigable energy and a long string of policy accomplishments.

He successfully championed protection of open space, making the city less reliant on fossil fuels, encouraging more development near public transit, building of accessory dwelling units throughout the city, strengthening gun regulations and housing homeless residents in converted motels.

Liccardo helped lead efforts to strengthen police oversight and ended the city’s wars with its Police Department over public employee pension costs, establishing funding stability for the retirement system while bolstering law enforcement’s badly depleted ranks.

Simitian brings to the table nearly four decades of elective office experience, from school board and City Council in Palo Alto to 12 years in the state Legislature and 15 years on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

He was one of the few Democratic members of the Legislature to recognize early on the weaknesses of California’s plan for high-speed rail. And he authored prescient legislation to balance the environmental health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta against the need for reliable water supplies.

Generational rebuilding

This race, however, is about more than the track records of two well-qualified candidates. It is also the latest chapter in the generational rebuilding of the Silicon Valley’s congressional delegation that began with Ro Khanna’s 2016 defeat of incumbent Mike Honda, then 75 years old. Jackie Speier, then 72, left Washington at the end of 2022. Eshoo, 81, has now opted to retire. And while Zoe Lofgren, 76, continues to work tirelessly and is seeking reelection, she could be the next to step down in coming years.

In Washington, seniority matters — influence often depends on longevity. Which means that, as we weigh the top two candidates in this race, we note that Simitian is 71 and Liccardo is 53.

We also cannot overlook that, of the four Silicon Valley incumbents, Lofgren is the only one rooted in San Jose and that Simitian’s home is in Palo Alto. Liccardo’s election would ensure that San Jose, which is split between the four districts, has a champion in Congress, when Lofgren eventually retires, who understands the unique challenges of the nation’s 12th largest city.

To be clear, age and residency were only considered after we narrowed the field based on the candidates’ policy and political strengths and experience, for which Liccardo and Simitian far excelled the rest of the pack. When those two key factors are added to the mix, Liccardo is the best candidate.

The other nine

Of the other candidates, Assemblyman Evan Low, who has served effectively in the state Legislature for nearly 10 years, struggled to answer questions about issues that overlap the state and federal government, including the cost of California’s high-speed rail and water policy affecting the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Julie Lythcott-Haims has an impressive resume as an author and Stanford administrator but only one year of elective office experience, on the Palo Alto City Council. Her council colleague, Greg Lin Tanaka, who ran for Congress in 2022, bases his campaign on the pipedreams of undergrounding Caltrain from San Jose to San Francisco and building a fixed-rail transit system to Half Moon Bay.

Former Saratoga Councilmember Rishi Kumar is making his third bid for the congressional seat. As we said in 2022, when he last ran against Eshoo, Kumar, who was unable to develop a working relationship with his fellow council members in eight years of office, would be ineffective in Washington.

Three smart political novices worth watching for the future: Peter Dixon, a former Marines intelligence officer who started a tech firm that converts commercially available software for military use; Joby Bernstein, a Stanford MBA student who has worked for investment firms focused on climate sustainability; and Ahmed Mostafa, an attorney who worked on elections security issues at Google.

Rounding out the field are the two Republicans running in a district dominated by Democratic voters: Karl Ryan, a member of the Santa Clara County Republican Party committee who declined to be interviewed, and former Menlo Park Councilmember Peter Ohtaki, a crisis management consultant for the banking industry who also ran unsuccessfully for the same congressional seat in 2022.

The March 5 primary will narrow the field to two candidates. In November, voters will pick the winner who, given the power of incumbency, will likely represent a key part of Silicon Valley for years to come.

As District 16 voters replace their 32-year incumbent, they should look for a smart policy analyst and savvy politician with a record of getting things done. That’s Sam Liccardo.

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