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Congressional Debate Interrupted by Calls for Ceasefire

5 mins read

On Jan. 31, nine of the eleven candidates running to represent California’s 16th congressional district debated intensely at the Palo Alto City Hall. The event, hosted by the Embarcadero Media Foundation, was repeatedly interrupted by protesters scattered throughout the room who chanted for a ceasefire in Gaza, and the debate ultimately ended early.

The seat is currently held by Anna Eshoo, who has represented California’s 16th district in the House of Representatives since 1992. The district covers most of San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. In 2022, Eshoo was challenged by Saratoga City Councilmember Rishi Kumar, who lost with 42% of the popular vote. 

Now at 81 years old, Eshoo announced her retirement in November of 2023, choosing not to run for re-election this year. 

Protestors donning banners, Palestinian flags, tambourines, and “Ceasefire Now” stickers crowded the entryway to Palo Alto City Hall before the debate even began. 

Kumar and business owner Karl Ryan were the only candidates not present at the debate. The remaining candidates were introduced by Embarcadero Media CEO Adam Dawes, who said in his introduction speech to the crowd, “There are many international issues that our candidates will cover while in Congress.” It was the first of many attempts throughout the evening to focus on the candidate’s perspectives instead of soliciting calls from the audience. The debate was moderated by Mountain View Voice reporter Zoe Morgan and Palo Alto Online reporter Gennady Sheyner.

Policy Debates

To begin the debate, the moderators asked candidates to share an issue that they had changed their mind about or a policy that they regretted enacting. Palo Alto City Council member Julie Lythcott-Haims shared that she has had no regrets. Greg Tanaka, another member of the Palo Alto City Council, expressed a similar sentiment. 

Sam Liccardo, who was the mayor of San Jose for eight years, said that he regretted not advocating for a higher minimum wage in the earlier days of his political career. Joby Bernstein, a graduate student studying climate science at Stanford regretted not running earlier, saying, “We need fresh voices, not conventional politicians, to bring new policy ideas.” When a moderator asked if he did not previously believe that young people could run for Congress, Bernstein clarified, “I thought that business and investing could do it, but there’s enough we need to do in D.C. to fight the issues we care about, and now is the time.”

Candidates expressed varying views on expanding the taxing of capital gains—profit from selling assets—to also include appreciation from unsold stocks. Joe Simitian, a Santa Clara County supervisor and the only candidate endorsed by Eshoo, opposed the tax revision and said, “The flow of capital into long-term investments is what’s made [Silicon Valley] successful. We need to close tax loopholes, but looking at them one by one doesn’t change the issue of tax reform.”

Peter Dixon, a veteran and entrepreneur, also opposed the tax. He said, “I built and scaled a tech company. The ability to do that was predicated on venture capitalists taking strong bets on us. Putting a wet blanket across the innovation economy which is powering this ecosystem is a mistake, and for a public benefit corporation like mine, it was key.”

On the other side of the debate, Lythcott-Haims favored the tax. “I believe everyone should pay their fair share,” she said.

Regarding the recent bipartisan Congressional movement for border security to be tied to Ukraine aid, Tanaka said that he opposed both Ukraine’s entry to NATO and a Russian takeover, advocating for a “buffer state” solution instead. In his answer, Dixon said, “This idea, that it was an expansion of NATO, is a Russian propaganda talking point that you typically see on the MAGA side of the Republican party. The idea that we won’t stand up here as Americans and fight for this is absurd.”

The Hot Seat

Later in the debate, each candidate was placed in a “hot seat” where the moderators asked a question specific to their campaign or political career. When asked about his age, Simitian, who is 71, said, “It is time for a new perspective and I offer that fresh perspective.”

California State Assemblymember Evan Low was asked about the repeal of a 2016 bill he authored that banned state-funded travel to states with anti-LGBTQ+ policy. His refusal to support the repeal of this bill highlighted an unwillingness to compromise on discriminatory policies. He said, “You cannot legislate people like me out of existence.”

Lythcott-Haims said her decision to run for Congress despite being in her first term in public office makes her “disruptive, and there’s nothing more Silicon Valley than a disruptive candidate.” 

Dixon gave a vague response when asked about specific defense technology regulations that he had mentioned in his campaign.

“It really is a hot seat,” former Menlo Park mayor Peter Ohtaki said after being asked about his status as the only Republican in a race to represent a historically Democratic district. He continued,  “Whoever gets elected has to work with Republicans. In the [California] assembly, it’s been a supermajority with over twenty years of polarization. You need someone who has experience working in a bipartisan fashion much like I did in the Menlo Park city council.” Low condemned Ohtaki’s choice of political party in a post-Roe country. In response, Ohtaki said, “I think the Republican party is bigger than Donald Trump.”

Ahmed Mostafa, a women’s rights attorney, defended his bold congressional goals and said, “A global treaty on tech is reasonable and realistic. All you have to do is talk to people. The majority of Democrats and the majority of Republicans support a ceasefire. When I say people’s voices should be heard, I mean everyone’s voices.”

Pro-Palestinian Protesters Disrupt

During Liccardo’s response to a question on transparency in public office, a protestor yelled from the audience, “Enough! Who cares about your emails? Tax dollars have been spent on genocide.” A series of scattered shouting ensued, and soon spectators were waving Palestinian flags and repeating chants in unison. The candidates stood from their seats but remained on the stage; both Bernstein and Lythcott-Haims attempted to leave their posts to talk to protestors. Many observers got out of their seats or le​​ft. 

The disruption continued for over twenty minutes until Dawes was able to communicate that the next candidate question was covering Israel-Palestine. “We were explaining… that if they stopped their protest everyone could have the benefit of the candidates’ comments,” Dawes wrote in a statement published in the Palo Alto Weekly. The candidates were able to share their responses but were repeatedly interrupted by clamor depending on audience agreement with the opinions expressed. “Take your opinions to the ballot box,” Dawes said in response.

Low pointed out the respect that the candidates had for one another despite running competing campaigns, and asked for the same respect from the audience.

Dixon stood up and said, “I think, uniquely on the stage, I have some perspective from serving in the Middle East. But I’ve also served alongside the Israeli Defense Forces. I’ve been to the communities where people were murdered, and Israel has a fundamental right to defend itself. Any politician who tells you there’s an easy answer is out of depth.”

Lythcott-Haims said, “I deplore the actions of Hamas on October 7. I call for a bilateral humanitarian ceasefire for the return of hostages, for the neutralization of Hamas, for prompt release of food, water, and diplomatic negotiations where everyone can live in safety and freedom.”

“I support the current diplomatic efforts to negotiate an end to the fight,” Liccardo said. “We can disagree on words, whether it’s a pause or a ceasefire, but let’s agree that we want to end the fight.”

Mostafa called for an immediate ceasefire, Ohtaki criticized Iran, and Simitian asked to recognize the larger context and humanity in the issue.

Following further audience interruption, the debate was cut short fifteen minutes early, preventing candidates from delivering their planned closing statements.
These congressional candidates will be on the ballot in the primary on March 5 and the two with the most votes will face off in the general election on November 5. Register or pre-register to vote here and watch a recording of the forum here.

Allegra Hoddie is a junior in her first year of journalism. She enjoys covering current events and the arts. She also makes Instagram posts, drinks lattes, and copy edits.

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