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“Isn’t it time that Congress started living like the rest of us?” Ro Khanna asks in an ad on primetime ESPN. “Here’s my promise to you: I will never take money from corporations or lobbyists,” Khanna says in the 30-second spot, “And I’ll say no to the special perks in Congress: no pay raises, no fancy trips funded by special interests, and no gold plated pensions.”

The ad is drawing the battle lines between Incumbent Mike Honda (Democrat), Ro Khanna (Democrat), Vanila Mathur Singh (Republican) and Joel Vandlingham (Republican) in a top-two primary on June 3 for the Congressional District 17 (CD17). The primary system in California lets anyone run for any open seat, but only the top two winners go on to the general election in November, possibly from the same party. The 2014 general election is set for November 4.

CD17 is a hotbed of tech companies such as Apple, eBay, Intel, Seagate, Tesla, Yahoo and encompasses the cities of Cupertino, Fremont, Milpitas, Newark, North San Jose, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale. Politico Magazine calls this CD17 race one of the “10 Must-Watch House Races” in 2014.

A survey by Public Policy Polling in February 2014 indicated that Honda was leading the race with 45% support. Singh, at second place, had managed to garner 29% to Khanna’s 26%. But those were early days. The race is heating up and it will most likely be a nail-biting finish to an exciting contest.

Mike Honda has been re-elected six times with no substantive opposition. This time around, Honda has his hands full running against, not one, but three other candidates. For a short time, there was actually a fourth contender, Republican Vinesh Singh Rathore, a Google attorney, but his candidacy was rejected by the courts and his name will not be on the ballot for the primary due to irregularities with his filing. According to a suit filed by an East Bay Republican official, Khanna was blamed for recruiting two Republican candidates Vinesh Singh Rathore and Joel Vandlandingham in an attempt to split the Republican vote. Khanna has vehemently denied these allegations.

We tried to meet Singh for a discussion on her candidacy. The meeting was scheduled, moved and ultimately canceled. Information about her has been gleaned from the public domain.

The Desi Candidates

Indian-American physician Ami Bera’s successful congressional run from 2012 has inspired other Indian Americans from the profession. Vanila Mathur Singh, 43, a professor and physician at Stanford University, who some might call a political novice, is running in this CD17 race. Singh, born in Bikaner, Rajasthan has lived in Fremont since she was four years old. Her parents Leela and Lalit Mathur were among the founders of the Rajasthani Association of North America and the Hindu Temple in Fremont. Singh’s medical degree is from George Washington University, and she completed her fellowship/residency at Yale University. Singh often proclaims her Indian heritage as a member and volunteer of the Hindu American Foundation. She traces the origins of her name to the Sanskrit word “Ila” referring to the goddess of sacred speech, and calls her run for office “sewa,” as in service to others.

According to a Jan 27, 2014 report in SFGate, Singh was recruited by Shalabh Kumar, a Chicago based Republican activist and founder of the super PAC Indian Americans for Freedom. After multiple conversations with him and “other Replublican insiders,” Singh filed her candidacy on December 26, 2013. It is alleged that Kumar wanted Singh’s support in getting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi (and a Prime Ministerial candidate in the 2014 elections in India) a U.S. visa. Interestingly, Singh has backpedaled her association with Kumar and has endorsed the State Department’s rejection of Modi’s visa.
Ro Khanna has quickly positioned himself as a tour de force, with many Democratic party members calling Honda’s race “tough.” The CD17 race is on track to become the costliest congressional race in the nation.

As of March 31, Khanna had almost $2 million cash on hand without taking money from any political action committees, lobbyists or corporate interest groups. Many elite members of the tech industry have donated to Khanna’s campaign including Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Honda’s kitty holds about $1 million and Singh has reported an amount of $107,286 as 2013 year-end cash-on-hand.

Khanna, born in Philadelphia, is a University of Chicago and Yale Law School alumni. While at the University of Chicago, Khanna walked the precincts for Obama’s Illinois Senate run in 1996. Khanna was appointed to the United States Department of Commerce as Deputy Assistant Secretary in 2009, where he gained valuable skills. Today, Khanna is part of the law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, teaches economics at Stanford University and law at the Santa Clara University School of Law.

Singh’s campaign has issued statements on job creation and healthcare reform, and Khanna’s campaign has formulated a stance on Economy, Education, Environment, Women in the Workplace, Working Families, Social Security, Government 2.0, Women’s Rights, LGBTQ Rights, Immigration, Civil Liberties, Veterans as well as Healthcare. To even the playing field, let’s discuss the two issues that Singh considers most important.


Singh’s key concern is the Affordable Care Act (ACA) also known as Obamacare. This is an area that plays to her strength thanks to her medical background. Singh’s take is that doctors should have participated in drafting the legislation, instead of big businesses and insurance companies, to ensure that the problems such as high premiums, pre-existing policies, coverage of procedures are addressed. She believes that more doctors are needed in Congress to address Obamacare issues.

Khanna has broken down the issue of healthcare into several components: Keeping costs down and leveraging technology to improve healthcare; expanding primary care and adopting a local focus to healthy living; improving access to ACA by addressing healthcare disparities, ensuring small businesses benefit from ACA and reducing the projected physician shortage, among others. As part of community engagement, Khanna recommends that “in the 17th District, we should petition local officials to prominently display MyPlate guidelines in municipal and county venues where food is served. We need to ensure children and adults know what a balanced plate looks like, and have the resources they need to make healthy choices.”


Singh wants to create opportunities for the youth in terms of career skills. Singh’s huge concern is that the cost of living is skyrocketing, and the American Dream is getting out of reach for many. She is of the opinion that tax dollars should be invested wisely and there has to be a correlation on income to spending. According to Singh’s website, “A dollar wasted by the government is a dollar which cannot then be used for someone truly in need, in our schools, or on our crumbling infrastructure. What we spend should have some relationship to what we earn—just like we manage our homes.”

Khanna has a job plan for the future that includes computer coding, STEM emphasis and increasing women in STEM fields. Khanna is a proponent of increasing the minimum wage, and providing opportunities to the young with manufacturing jobs. Khanna is protective of small businesses and dislocated workers; and wants to create programs to help these groups thrive. In his words, “My comprehensive economic agenda will increase our manufacturing and exporting capacity, reward entrepreneurs who take risks and keep our economy dynamic, help small businesses thrive and grow, and create good-paying jobs in the industries of the future—all while strengthening our middle class.”

A tax policy suitable for a global economy, immigration changes, science education, nano technology, and socially progressive issues—all figure to make an appearance in this race. Indians are contributing in every possible way, and now it is time they contributed politically as well, and this race could be a harbinger for many more must-watch races in the country, that feature great Indian American candidates, seeking to make a difference.
Chuck Page, Candidate for CA Assembly District 28, summarizes the situation: “Ro is a moderate Democrat with broad appeal. He announced early and has been getting his message across. Vanila Singh, a doctor and professor at Stanford University, has also distinguished herself as a leader, highlighting the need for practical medical thinking to address this nation’s healthcare and health insurance issues. Both Ro and Vanila would represent CD17 well and make great decisions to help all Americans, and if I had to vote in that district, it would be a very, very tough decision for me.”

There will be an opportunity to hear from each of the candidates at a 17th Congressional District Candidate’s Forum organized by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters on Saturday, May 3 from 6:45 to 8 p.m. at Fremont City Hall. This debate will be televised, but will not provide an opportunity for candidates to question or respond to each other directly.

Rishi is the founder of the Bay Area Indian American Democratic Club whose charter is to further the interests and values of Indian Americans, work towards political empowerment and advance ethical standards in the political system. He is running for office this November for a seat in the Saratoga, CA city council elections.