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Longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo faces the most serious challenger of her career in the race for the newly drawn 16th Congressional District seat, which covers a large portion of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Her opponent, Saratoga City Councilmember Rishi Kumar, also a Democrat, has a clearly drawn platform, alleging Eshoo has ties to the pharmaceutical industry and has been ineffective in her 30 years in office.
One of the cornerstones of Kumar’s campaign is that he has pledged not to accept donations from super PACs, a point he often flaunts in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of dollars Eshoo has received from pharmaceutical companies over the course of her political career, playing on a long-standing critique of Eshoo that in her career as a Congress member and chairperson of the Health Subcommittee, she has not done enough to further the progressive goal of making health care more affordable.
Kumar, though still early on in his political career, is not without his own controversies. Last election cycle, residents of the congressional district found lawn signs promoting Kumar they did not consent to being placed in their yards, and alleged that the candidate had rude campaign volunteers who didn’t like taking “no” for an answer. In December 2020, Kumar was denied his ceremonial turn as mayor for 2021 on the Saratoga City Council (which rotates annually among council members, as in Los Altos), with a fellow council member remarking that he was unsuitable for the job. In May 2019, Kumar was confronted during a city council meeting by a group of activists asking him to answer for the enthusiastic support he showed for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a key member of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, who has been accused of eroding Muslims’ human rights in India and condoning violence during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
In stark contrast to Kumar’s campaign marketing, Eshoo has highlighted her own accomplishments rather than attempting to deconstruct any of Kumar’s arguments. In a recent Town Crier interview, Eshoo made little mention of him, but she did refute some of his claims.
The Town Crier sat down with each candidate in advance of the Nov. 8 election to discuss the campaign and both local and national issues.
Kumar: Tech idealist
Kumar said he is running because he feels Silicon Valley is missing the perspective of someone in high-tech. As new technologies like cryptocurrency gain traction globally, he believes the district needs a representative who understands the landscape of the innovation economy.
“We have never had a tech-savvy leader in a million years of Silicon Valley, and I would fix that,” Kumar said. “We should focus hard on seeing how we can create jobs, how we can dominate the world with our technology – which we have done a fabulous job on, but China and India are eating our lunch and dinner.”
Kumar chose to target Washington rather than Sacramento as the next step in his political career because he wants to approach the tech economy at a larger scale.
“You can jump-start our economy in every part of the United States through simple policies, so my plan is to essentially create a tech economy also for West Virginia, for Montana,” he said.
Kumar is a big believer in approaching issues from a tech perspective. He boasts that his actions as a city council member reduced burglaries in Saratoga by 50% between 2016 and 2017, a success he partially credits to negotiating a discount for residents with Ring for security cameras. Although Ring technology is somewhat controversial for its surveillance implications, the strategy appears to have worked – the cameras in addition to Kumar’s push for Neighborhood Watch organizing appear to have reduced burglaries by nearly half, and the rate has remained low.
Although Kumar consistently hits progressive talking points on crime and racism, his more moderate beliefs become apparent when discussing housing. In line with his tech-centric mode of thinking, Kumar said Silicon Valley leaders should be innovating their way out of the housing crisis by pursuing a long-term solution by way of increased public transportation – namely, a hyperloop connecting the Bay Area to 21 California counties as far as Yuba City and Merced to create what he dubbed a “Northern California Megaregion.”
Kumar, who has long been critical of statewide housing mandates and has opposed local high-density housing projects, suggests that the key to fixing the South Bay housing crisis is allocating workers elsewhere.
His solution to the airplane noise issue also involves technology and huge changes to travel infrastructure. His first suggestion is to implement “GPS systems that can be deployed to reduce the noise that will impact the urban areas.” Beyond that, he recommends building another airport that connects to the Bay Area via a tunnel-based system.
“What if we decided to build an airport by Los Banos and connect a tunnel-based system that will carry people back and forth? I think we need to innovate a little bit, you know, I mean, we cannot just resign and say, this is a problem,” Kumar said.
Noting Eshoo’s handling of the issue, he said “it’s an error of resignation of somebody who has been in office for 30 long years, and perhaps may not have the energy to tackle these tough problems, but we do.”
Eshoo: Congressional veteran
Eshoo is running for what would be her 16th term in Congress. Over three decades on Capitol Hill, she has remained consistent in her values, voting similarly on issues including abortion access, LGBTQ rights and health care throughout her career. Her votes align with those of progressive House Democrats. Eshoo, however, describes herself as holding “very traditional values,” saying she believes “family is the most basic and sacred unit in our society.”
Eshoo is not concerned about the chance of a Republican-controlled Senate come 2023, remarking that it’s a possibility, but not a probability.
“I have prevailed for my constituents, let me put it this way, during rain and shine,” she said. “And I’m very proud that over the years serving with Republican presidents, Democratic presidents, I’ve had legislation that was signed into law by them, though I don’t welcome a Republican-controlled Congress.”
A point of contention between Eshoo and Kumar is the number of bills Eshoo can claim to have put into law over the course of her time in Washington. Kumar often points to the passage of only four bills, but that number represents the number of bills of which Eshoo has been the primary author. When considering the number of her bills enacted by incorporation into other bills, the total is a lot closer to Eshoo’s claimed number of 59.
“If I had only renamed post offices in the distant past, my constituents would have thrown me out of office, because the people of this district have very high standards,” Eshoo said. “I’m not a pretender. I could never go out and say, ‘These are my bills that were signed into law,’ if that wasn’t a fact. And the record is replete with this in Congress – you can have a bill that then becomes an amendment and it’s put into larger legislation. So, Mr. Kumar does not know what he’s talking about. And I think it’s purposeful.”
Eshoo addressed allegations that financial contributions she has received from pharmaceutical companies have influenced her politics on health care.
“We have more biotechnology here in our congressional district than any other place in California,” she said in response to the fact that she is one of the top individual recipients of pharmaceutical funding. “The biggest issue for the pharmaceutical industry was to prevent Congress from allowing Medicare to directly negotiate the price of drugs, because that goes right to the heart of their businesses. My subcommittee is the first table that’s set on all health legislation. And thank God we were finally successful.”
However, some affordable-drug advocacy groups have found her ineffective in lowering the price of drugs.
“Eshoo’s name has for years been conspicuously absent from important pieces of legislation that could lower drug prices,” Patients for Affordable Drugs Action said in an announcement of an ad campaign against Eshoo in 2018, the first the group had made against a Democrat. The advocacy group opposed her role in creating a provision included in the 2010 health-care overhaul that “launched a framework for regulating generic versions of complicated biotech drugs known as biologics,” according to Roll Call.
The Washington, D.C., newspaper reported in 2018 that most of the generic “biosimilar” drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration were still not for sale because of the 12-year patent exclusivity period that Eshoo and Republican Joe Barton wrote in, and that drugs for cancers and autoimmune diseases didn’t have enough competition to keep prices down.
In response, Eshoo argued that before her legislation, the exclusivity period for biologics was unlimited, and she rejected that pharmaceutical-based donations were connected to the legislation.
Despite the criticism, Eshoo said she has remained faithful to the people of her district.
“I have been faithful to my constituents. I have been faithful to the oath that I have taken to protect and defend our country,” she said. “And I believe my legislation, my votes have reflected their hopes, their aspirations and, most importantly, their values.”