Palo Alto City Councilman Greg Tanaka faces uphill battle in race for Silicon Valley’s House seat

Feb. 23, 2022, 9:19 p.m.

Politics was the last place anyone expected Greg Tanaka to end up.

A self-described nerd who grew up in a low-income Los Angeles household, Tanaka began coding at age six and won his first coding competition at age seven. His passion and skills for computers earned him an acceptance into Caltech. It also prompted his high school classmates to name him “most likely to not have any elected office.”

Now, he’s running for Congress in California’s 16th Congressional District, which includes portions of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties and the entirety of the Stanford campus.

Forging his path into politics has been an uphill battle for Tanaka throughout his life. Tanaka’s father, a survivor of the U.S.’s WWII internment camps for Japanese-Americans, dissuaded his son from pursuing politics, instead believing that he should “keep his head down and not cause trouble,” as Tanaka recalls. Tanaka, a two-time Palo Alto City Council member and California Congressional candidate, hasn’t followed his father’s advice.

Tanaka, a Democrat, now faces yet another challenge as he vies to unseat incumbent Anna Eshoo, who has held a seat in the House of Representatives since 1993. Eshoo is the clear front-runner ahead of the June 7 primary and has raised more than 10 times as much money as Tanaka as of Dec. 31.

Despite the odds, Tanaka’s team is hopeful about his chances — “we aim for [the] win,” Tanaka’s campaign manager Bing Wei told The Daily.

His campaign argues that Silicon Valley’s representative needs to be “a legislator for the digital age.” Tanaka, a four-time startup founder, represents a stark contrast to his 79-year-old opponent.

As part of his platform of legislating for the digital age, Tanaka is not shying away from proposing big changes for the future. Armed with a series of charts, the city councilor described inflation as a “regressive tax” that is among the biggest threats to the future of the nation.

His solution: “I think we should allow Bitcoin to be legal tender” in the U.S.

Tanaka, the founder and CEO of a crypto trading startup, asserts that cryptocurrencies are “aligned to our democratic ideals.” Tanaka describes them as “race-blind” and “socio-economic blind,” which he says our current banking system lacks. As evidence for Bitcoin’s potential, he points to El Salvador, which began recognizing Bitcoin as legal tender effective September 2021.

(NIKOLAS LIEPINS/The Stanford Daily)

Some, however, look to El Salvador and cast doubts on Bitcoin’s ability to be successful. Low adoption rates by businesses, as well as cryptocurrency volatility and frequent digital infrastructure crashes plagued El Salvadorians following the change.

“If there are any lessons from this monetary experiment, El Salvador is a good example on how not to adopt a cryptocurrency as a legal tender,” two Georgetown professors, Alvaro Trigueros-Argüello and Marjorie Chorro de Trigueros, wrote.

Tanaka is also in favor of temporarily abolishing taxes on profits from cryptocurrency investments to foster growth in the technology. Identifying parallels between cryptocurrencies and e-commerce, Tanaka says that taxes on emerging technology should be limited in the same way early e-commerce was not taxed.

Outside observers doubt Tanaka’s chances in unseating a well-established incumbent, especially with his unorthodox policy positions and weak name recognition outside Palo Alto.

“I think the odds of him prevailing are essentially zero,” Joe Nation, a public policy professor, said. “He’s probably trying to build some name ID, trying to make sure that more people get to know who he is and to know a little more about him, in the anticipation that maybe [Eshoo] will leave in the next term.”

Even in Palo Alto, some voters are dissatisfied with the councilor’s voting record. After Tanaka was the only vote against an emergency ordinance to extend tenant relocation assistance, Palo Alto Renters’ Association community organizer Christian Beauvoir felt let down.

“It was disappointing to see that Councilmember Tanaka was in such strong opposition to renter protections, implying evictions weren’t a big issue in Palo Alto and discounting the stories and presentations given by community members and city staff about the necessity of this ordinance,” Beauvoir wrote.

(NIKOLAS LIEPINS/The Stanford Daily)

Wei, Tanaka’s campaign manager, said that even without a victory over Eshoo, Tanaka’s campaign can still show future generations that politics are not just about funding, but about making an impact.

Wei herself was so inspired and impressed by Tanaka that she left her past career in transnational business consulting to manage a campaign for her first time. The two first worked together on a Stop Asian Hate rally in May 2021, and Wei asked to be Tanaka’s campaign manager shortly after.

Wei describes Tanaka as a Stop Asian Hate activist with “21st-century solutions for 21st-century problems” who can represent younger generations in a way that “dinosaurs in D.C.” cannot. She also sees Tanaka as a type of politician rarely seen in American politics, something she says is a selling point.

“[A lack of Asian representation] is why we need to step up, why we need to have a voice — we need to be represented,” Tanaka said. “My dad still feels like we are guests in this country; we’ve been here since 1880, over 100 years. How can we be guests in this country? If we’re guests in this country, what about everyone else?”

Coming from a town that’s over a quarter Asian, Tanaka hopes that he can provide a voice for a group that’s currently underrepresented on Capitol Hill. 

This article has been updated to reflect that Tanaka will be running in California’s 16th Congressional District following California’s redistricting after the 2020 U.S. Census — Tanaka had originally filed to run in California’s 18th Congressional District.

This article has also been corrected to reflect that California State Senator Jerry Hill has not endorsed Tanka’s run for Congress, but rather endorsed Tanaka when he ran for City Council in 2020. We have also removed a previously included quote to reflect this inaccuracy. The Daily regrets this error.

Luc Alvarez ’25 is a Desk Editor for the Science & Technology Desk and Staff Writer for the news section. A design major originally from Downers Grove, Illinois, he can be found taking in California’s nature while working through CS psets and making niche Spotify playlists. Contact him at lalvarez ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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