CA-16: Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo announced Tuesday that she would retire after 16 terms of representing Silicon Valley in Congress, a declaration that came the day after San Jose Spotlight first broke the news. The departure of Eshoo, whom Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi once described as "one of my dearest friends in the world," is likely to set off a crowded and expensive race to replace her in California's dark blue 16th District.
All contenders will face off in the March 5 top-two primary, which coincides with the state's presidential primary. Joe Biden carried this Bay Area constituency 75-22 in 2020, so there's a good chance that Democratic candidates will claim both spots in the Nov. 5 general election.
Eshoo's potential successors will have only about three weeks to decide whether they're running, though an unusual state law gives them a little extra time to make up their minds. The candidate filing deadline is set for Dec. 8, but it's automatically extended to Dec. 13 in races where no incumbent files for reelection.
However, one longtime Democratic politician doesn't sound like he'll need much time to decide. Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian told Spotlight that a "formal announcement" would be coming soon, and he'd begin the race with a hefty $680,000 stockpiled thanks largely to a 2009 special election that never took place.
Simitian, who at the time was a member of the state Senate, declared during the early months of Barack Obama's presidency that he was raising money in case then-Rep. Mike Honda resigned to join the new administration. A job offer never came, though, and Honda remained in the House until his career ended after another Democrat, Ro Khanna, unseated him in 2016.
But Simitian not only ended last year with almost $500,000 still in the bank, he also expanded his war chest this year as rumors intensified that the 80-year-old Eshoo would retire soon. The supervisor made it clear last December that he wouldn't oppose Eshoo, but he told the Spotlight, "This is a committee I have had in place for a number of years and I continue to keep it alive so that if and when the opportunity presents itself, I am ready to go."
Eshoo's own career in local politics began at a time when Silicon Valley was anything but the Democratic bastion it is today, and she even lost her first House race to a Republican. Eshoo, whose parents were both Christian refugees from the Middle East, began a four-year stint as chair of the San Mateo Democratic Party in 1978, watching Ronald Reagan carry the county 49-37 against President Jimmy Carter in the middle of her tenure. (Pelosi during those years served as party chair for Northern California and later the entire state.) Eshoo, who was also chief of staff to Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Leo McCarthy in the early 1980s, would win office herself in 1982, when she was elected to the county board of supervisors.
Eshoo decided to seek a promotion in 1988, challenging freshman Republican Rep. Ernie Konnyu, who had been accused of sexually harassing two of his aides, in a longtime GOP stronghold that was then numbered the 12th District. Eshoo beat her nearest primary foe 43-37 (California wouldn't vote to adopt the current top-two primary system until 2010), but she got some unwelcome news that same night when Stanford Law School professor Tom Campbell denied renomination to Konnyu in a 58-42 landslide.
Campbell, who had previously served in the Reagan administration, presented a much tougher foe for Eshoo in a race that would eventually cost $2.5 million, or $6.5 million in today's dollars. The Democrat tried to argue that Campbell, who campaigned as a moderate, was still too far to the right and even distributed potholders to bolster her argument that Campbell believed women belong in the kitchen. Eshoo, the Los Angeles Times wrote, also tried out "an unusual tactic that might appeal to some in the high-technology capital—an eight-minute videotape of Eshoo on the issues that is to be hand-delivered to 110,000 homes."
But Campbell nonetheless prevailed 51-46, running ahead of the top of the GOP ticket. According to analyst Kiernan Park-Egan, George H.W. Bush defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 12th by a tiny 50.1-49.9 margin; that same night, Bush became the last Republican presidential nominee to ever carry the Golden State.
Eshoo, who would remain on the board of supervisors, got a second chance to run for Congress in 1992 when Campbell left to wage the first of what would be three failed Senate campaigns. Eshoo ran under a revamped map for what was now the 14th District, but she wasn't the only Democrat who wanted to flip this longtime GOP stronghold. Eshoo, fellow Supervisor Tom Nolan, and Assemblyman Ted Lempert initially pledged to avoid negative campaigning in their primary, but a prominent labor group yanked its three-way endorsement over Lempert's tactics.
The Central Labor Councils of San Mateo and Santa Clara, as The San Francisco Chronicle wrote, were unhappy with the assemblyman's ads attacking Eshoo for accepting large donations from a waste-hauling company that wanted to build a new landfill. However, he earned yet more scorn for a mailer suggesting that Nolan, who would have been the state's first gay member of Congress, was almost entirely backed by LGBTQ+ groups; that same flier also charged that Eshoo's chief supporters were "'National Feminist (Political Action Committees)'' and the ''National Organization for Women.''
Eshoo beat Lempert 40-36, though it initially looked like she'd be in for another tough general election against Republican Tom Huening. However, while Huening had the support of Silicon Valley tycoons like Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, Eshoo had the advantage of running at a time when longtime moderate Republican voters were realigning toward the Democrats.
Eshoo won 57-39, a win that made her the first Democrat to represent this area in more than five decades as well as Congress' second-ever Assyrian American member. (The first was Adam Benjamin, an Indiana Democrat who served from 1977 until his death in 1982.) Bill Clinton, per Park-Egan, also beat Bush 53-27 in the district, with independent Ross Perot grabbing 20%. Those landslide wins represented the beginning of a new era in Silicon Valley politics, and Eshoo would never again need to worry about GOP opposition.
Eshoo would also have little to fear from fellow Democrats even as subsequent maps shrunk her longtime San Mateo County base, which was always smaller than the Santa Clara County portion of the seat. (Santa Clara County makes up 84% of what's now the 16th, while San Mateo forms the balance.) But thanks to the advent of the top-two primary, Eshoo's last two elections were closer than usual since she faced a fellow Democrat in the general election both times. However, she still won her final race by a comfortable 58-42 margin.
The congresswoman also benefited from her ties to Pelosi, though the longtime Democratic leader's influence could do only so much when Eshoo ran for the top Democratic spot on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee following the 2014 election. Eshoo ended up losing the high-profile contest to New Jersey’s Frank Pallone, though the congresswoman would remain a senior member of the panel.