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A Tale of Two House Democrats on Opposite Courses Toward the House Exits

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

They are a pair of congressmen looking to be in the prime of their public lives. Both are party loyalists with unabashedly progressive views and constituencies as deeply “blue” as they are. Both are emblematic of a caucus that’s trending less white and more liberal. Their names even appear close together on the alphabetical roll of House Democrats.

And yet it’s become clear in recent days they are on opposite political trajectories. One is getting pushed toward a potential ride to national prominence. The other is returning to a treacherous path pointed toward electoral oblivion, if not personal disgrace.

As a result, both Reps. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn and Michael M. Honda of the Silicon Valley may well be gone from Congress in two years. Their stories are another reminder that while the House Democrats will probably remain mired in the minority for years to come, there are all sorts of reasons why their membership roster is hardly static. And the most ambitious among them increasingly find themselves confronting others from their own party when they come to crossroads in their careers.

Neither situation that’s gained the spotlight this summer is a classic up-or-out story.

The 45-year-old Jeffries would not have to give up his House seat if he ends up heeding all the recent recruiting calls and challenges the re-election of Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York. That’s because the citywide Democratic primary in which they’d face off would be in 2017, in the middle of Jeffries’ safe-bet third term.

The 74-year-old Honda, meanwhile, is only trying to hold on to the seat he first won in 2000. But that’s become a potentially very tough task now, for two reasons: The House Ethics Committee last week extended its probe of “substantial” evidence, detailed by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, that the congressman not only put his House aides to work in his last campaign while they were supposed to be doing government business, but also overtly connected official events to political or campaign support.

That announcement came as fellow Democrat Ro Khanna, a former deputy assistant Commerce secretary in the Obama administration and darling of the technology industry, is ramping up his campaign for a rematch against Honda, who prevailed by just 4,700 votes last fall.

The two faced off under the unusual election system California instituted in 2012, in which the top two finishers in the all-candidate primary make it to the general election ballot regardless of party. One consequence is that it doesn’t take an ethical morass to create vulnerabilities for an entrenched Democratic incumbent — even in a district President Barack Obama carried twice with more than 70 percent of the vote — when his opponent appeals not only to the party’s base, but also to younger and independent voters and the region’s biggest economic engines. (Ethnicity isn’t an issue in a district where half the people are of Asian heritage. Honda’s grandparents were all born in Japan. Khanna’s parents emigrated from India before he was born in 1976.)

The congressman from Silicon Valley, in other words, cannot hope to benefit too much more from his powerful position, as the ranking Democrat on the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee, or from his record of almost always backing Obama and sticking with his party on the House floor. And, even before the most recent Ethics panel announcement, Honda this year had raised less than half the $1.2 million Khanna has collected so far for the 2016 campaign. (They ended up spending more than $3.2 million apiece on 2014.)

Jeffries, like Honda, has presidential allegiance and party unity scores several points higher than the already high Democratic Caucus averages for the year: 88 percent Obama support and 95 percent loyalty on votes falling mostly along party lines.

But the congressman born in Crown Heights seems to have an indefinitely secure place in the House. After a stint as a corporate lawyer and six years in the state Assembly, he won in 2012 after pressuring 30-year Rep. Edolphus Towns into retirement and secured his second term last fall with 92 percent, outperforming Obama by 3 points.

Jeffries is for now insisting he wants to make his career in Congress, where he’s become a force in the Judiciary Committee on criminal justice issues, especially aggressive police tactics and mandatory minimum sentences.

(His most public victory in the state legislature was a 2010 law to stop the New York Police Department from keeping a database of information on people detained under its “stop and frisk” policy but never charged.) On Education and the Workforce, he’s a reliable advocate not only for organized labor but also, in his most notable break from the liberal mold, for charter schools. The House leadership has enlisted him on several high-profile occasions to put his rhetorical skills and comfort around the press to work selling the caucus’ message.

Still, he acknowledges he’s been flooded with entreaties in recent months, from fellow leaders of the city’s black community as well as wealthy white donors, that he’s got the best shot at spearheading a coalition to oust the embattled de Blasio. Less than halfway into his term, the mayor is being lambasted by the city establishment as ineffectual and chided by fellow liberals as insufficiently committed to the cause. He’s also engaged in a bitter feud with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a fellow Democrat who has cultivated a public friendship with Jeffries.

Congressional history is replete with members who survived, and even thrived, despite getting in the Ethics Committee’s crosshairs and being marked for electoral death back home. And, in the past quarter-century, fewer than a handful have used congressional seats as their stepping stones into big city mayoralties. Whether Honda and Jeffries end up as the exceptions, or reaffirm the general rule, will become much clearer before the end of the year.

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