5 candidates make their case to replace Eshoo in Congress

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Friday January 19, 2024
Share this Post:
Assemblymember Evan Low, foreground, addressed the South Bay's Jewish community congressional candidate forum to replace retiring Congresswoman Anna Eshoo at the Oshman Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto on January 17. Photo: Heather Cassell
Assemblymember Evan Low, foreground, addressed the South Bay's Jewish community congressional candidate forum to replace retiring Congresswoman Anna Eshoo at the Oshman Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto on January 17. Photo: Heather Cassell

Five of the 11 contenders — including two queer candidates — vying for outgoing Congressmember Anna Eshoo's Silicon Valley seat made their case to the Jewish community in a moderated discussion in Palo Alto.

Eshoo, 80, a Democrat who has represented parts of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in the House since 1993, announced last November that she would not seek reelection to her 16th District seat. Her term ends in 2025.

Big-name politicians and unknown candidates quickly crowded the field by the December filing deadline, reported KQED-TV.

"This seat could be filled by the winner for a generation," said Tyler Gregory, a gay Jewish man who is CEO of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council of the Bay Area. He was proud that JCRC's Democracy Initiative, which produced the January 17 candidate forum, was able to get five of the contenders together on stage to speak about Jewish issues and other topics of interest to Bay Area residents.

"I think it's really important for different communities, the queer community, the Jewish community, and other communities to have a chance to see [the candidates] up close and get to know them," he said.

The fact the candidates said yes to the forum "means a lot to us right now" Gregory told the Bay Area Reporter following the event. "Our community, I think, is largely not feeling seen. To have this attention, to understand that the Jewish vote matters in this district, I think was the really the most important outcome here."

Gregory co-moderated the evening's discussion with Zack Bodner, president and CEO of the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center.

Two LGBTQ candidates were present on the stage Wednesday night: gay Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Cupertino) () and Palo Alto City Councilmember Julie Lythcott-Haims, a bisexual woman of color.

Low, 40, and Lythcott-Haims, 56, joined other South Bay Democrat political heavyweights and LGBTQ allies former San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo and former state legislator and current Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian. Liccardo, Low, and Simitian have already racked up major endorsements and campaign war chests, putting them in the front of the race.

Fellow congressional candidate tech entrepreneur and former Saratoga councilmember Rishi Kumar, whom Eshoo defeated in the last two general elections, also joined his fellow contenders on the stage.

Gregory noted that "all five candidates support LGBTQ rights" and their responses to the questions folded in LGBTQ rights, women's rights, and minority rights into Jewish rights "really demonstrated that, so we were happy to see this."

The discussion

The discussion focused on issues of concern to the Jewish community — the Israel-Hamas war, U.S.-Israel relations, rising antisemitism, rising housing and the cost of living, homelessness, immigration, and the future of American democracy.

The Israel-Hamas conflict started on October 7, when Hamas terrorists went into Israel and killed 1,200 people in the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. Hamas also took hostages back to Gaza. Israel responded with an extensive bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip, governed by Hamas, and a ground invasion, which has led to the deaths of at least 24,000 Palestinians, according to media reports, making it the deadliest conflict in the region in over four decades.

The candidates did not debate with each other. Each candidate was given two minutes to present their position on questions from the moderators and some preselected from the audience.

All five candidates spoke about their connection to the Jewish community and expressed their support for Israel and the need for the U.S.'s ongoing support for Israel.

A majority of the candidates spoke about freeing the hostages in Gaza, a humanitarian way to help the people in Gaza, a pathway to peace between Israel and Palestine, and independence for Palestine.

"I know that many of you have felt afraid, targeted, and alone since that day, but please know that you will find a safe harbor with me," said Lythcott-Haims, who is married to a Jewish man and raised two Jewish children though she is not Jewish herself.

"America has been and must continue to be Israel's greatest ally. That should not change," she continued, stating diplomacy is the U.S.'s power with Israel regarding the war against Hamas. "Israel must defend itself from terrorism. We need to be doing everything to eliminate Hamas, but we need to be doing it in a way that leaves a path to peace. Israel's attack on Gaza jeopardizes Israel's security because of what's happening every day in Gaza. Generations of Palestinian people want to avenge the deaths of their loved ones and that is not going to lead to peace."

Low spoke about a past visit to Israel and Palestine he made where he learned from political leaders on both sides and experienced Jewish and Palestinian people's daily lives. He asked, "What is the role of the United States and promoting democracies?"

"This is not just about rhetoric," Low said. "It's about the lived experiences that exist. The solidarity of understanding that this is a democracy" committed to human rights, including LGBTQ rights.

Low noted Israel was a safe haven for LGBTQ people in a region where most countries do not accept queer people, including Hamas.

"Someone, like myself, would be celebrated in Israel, with same-sex marriage and equality," he said, pointing out that in "neighboring countries" ruled by terrorist organizations, like Hamas, LGBTQ people "would be beheaded."

Antisemitism and hate crimes

The candidates also spoke out against antisemitism as they talked about hate crimes and assaults committed against women; LGBTQ rights; and racism; as well as gun violence; homelessness; housing; and the rising cost of living and their approach to bipartisan politics. They agreed mostly about how to tackle these issues, but not on the same routes to achieve solutions and working across the aisle.

"I began to appreciate the similarities in the journey that the Black diaspora and Jewish people have taken," Lythcott-Haims said about rising antisemitism and racism. "We felt it coming, Blacks and Jews. We don't have the luxury of not noticing it happening."

Responding to an audience member's question about allies' silence in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war and the rise in antisemitism, she said she understood the "loneliness" when allies are unaware or "don't seem to care" when a community is under attack.

Simitian said, "It's easy to be a friend when there's no controversy when there's no price to pay," but "when times are hard" and people stand up and there's a cost, that's when one knows who a true ally is.

He and other candidates spoke about where they were around the district supporting the Jewish community in the days and months since the fighting broke out and their thoughts about combating hate.

Liccardo and Lythcott-Haims said that it was educational institutions' responsibility to help people learn how to identify intolerance and hate speech and teach people how to respond.

"The antidote to speech we don't like is actually more speech," Lythcott-Haims said. "We have to get better at teaching our young people how to have these difficult dialogues and be their role models."

Low and Simitian said lawmakers and Congress have a role in curbing hate.

"There is a role for Congress to play in terms of fighting back against hate crimes," Simitian said.

He suggested lawmakers at the federal level could do more to increase safety, such as clarifying legal definitions of antisemitism and hate crimes and funding security grants organizations can apply for to keep themselves and members safe.

Low, who spoke about legislation he's written to increase safety, especially for hate crimes and sexual assault, agreed.

"A budget is a reflection of our values. It's imperative that we strengthen that deliverable," he said.

Low told the B.A.R. after the forum that there is no mistake with the more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills proposed across the country last year, the most homophobic speaker of the house "in recent memory" in Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana), and the threat of former President Donald Trump potentially returning to the White House, "We're on the chopping block."

"It's important that we send gays to Congress. That's the best way that we can fight it," he said. It's "imperative that we have representatives.

"The Bay Area has a unique and historic opportunity to elect its first openly LGBT person to Congress in Northern California," Low said.

California currently has two gay House members from Southern California, Mark Takano (D-Riverside), and Robert Garcia (D-Long Beach).

Liccardo believes in enforcing existing laws, rather than creating new laws.

"We need to spend the resources that are required to address hate in our country," he said. "We have to enforce hate crime laws aggressively."

In responding to an audience member's question about gun control Simitian noted that tougher gun laws took California's gun death rate from being above the national average to "well below the national average." Similar laws on the federal level "could cut the gun death rate in this country by a third," he said.

Lythcott-Haims concurred. "The evidence is clear," she said, "stricter gun laws lead to safer communities."

After the discussion

Attendees gathered with the candidates in the theater lobby after the forum.

The few queer Jewish constituents who attended the event expressed that they left less than hopeful for change in their congressional office than when they arrived.

Two women who reached out to Eshoo for support a call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war said they've been ignored by their representative for months.

"She doesn't seem willing to engage in the conversation around a ceasefire and around utilizing our budget to protect folks in this district," said Ayelet Marinovich. The 42-year-old Jewish woman attended the event with her friend, Rae Abileah, a 41-year-old Jewish queer woman, who was born and raised in District 16.

"We're hopeful that we might have a new representative come November [who] might actually abide by international law and human rights," said Abileah.

The two women's hopes were dashed by the end of the forum. They were disappointed by the lack of diversity of the candidates — including the sole Jewish and Arab candidates — who weren't on the stage due to the forum's participation criteria.

Candidates were required to meet a minimum of 20 endorsements from current San Francisco Bay Area elected officials and $250,000 in reported campaign funding to be on the stage.

Abileah called the criteria "a terrible excuse for not inviting a diversity of opinions and candidates" and "as a Jewish community to not invite an Arab American candidate" she said, referring to Joby Bernstein and Ahmed Mostafa, a former policy strategist at Google and women's rights attorney.

"It's just rude," Abileah said.

"Tonight, we saw a horrible display of people justifying genocide in a Jewish institution."

Bernstein, 28, the youngest candidate and only Jewish person in the race, greeted roughly 200 attendees as they entered the theater. Bernstein said he came in just under the minimum requirement to participate in the forum.

Speaking with the B.A.R. before the forum, Bernstein, an LGBTQ ally and climate change advocate, expressed his despair over the Israel-Hamas conflict and similar views about Israel and the war as the other candidates. Bernstein, who worked on policy in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Utah before moving to the Bay Area six years ago, believes Congress can do a lot to advocate and mediate for peace in the Middle East.

The debate was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, Joshman Family Jewish Community Center at the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, and Jewish Silicon Valley. The Jewish organizations were joined by event co-sponsors Congregations Am Tikvah, Beth Am, Beth Jacob, Sinai in San Jose, Peninsula Sinai Congregation, Temple Beth El, and Peninsula Temple Shalom.

Gregory told the B.A.R. there won't be any other candidate forums before the March 5 primary election, but "we're anticipating doing more for the general election," he said.

The top two vote-getters in the March 5 primary will advance to the November 5 general election.

Eshoo has backed Simitian, 70. Current San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan endorsed his predecessor Liccardo, 53. Democrat Congressman Ro Khanna (D-San Jose) backed Low. Former Redwood City mayor Giselle Hale endorsed Lythcott-Haims, campaign political director Gil Rubinstein texted to the B.A.R.

LGBTQ political organizations the LGBTQ+ Victory Institute, the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus — which Low formerly chaired — and Equality California, the statewide LGBTQ rights organization, immediately endorsed Low's bid after he entered the race.

Lythcott-Haims picked up lesbian political action committee LPAC for her bid, according to a January 16 news release. Rubinstein added that Lythcott-Haims, a lawyer, received an endorsement from U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), her Stanford University undergraduate classmate.

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife. Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!