I heard Ro Khanna speak for the first time at a local gathering of Indian Americans a few months ago. He was preceded by a group of loquacious speakers, which caused me to zone out. When Khanna was invited to the stage, I was shaken out of my stupor because of his clear voice, crisp message and because he did not drone on. He was done in three minutes.
“Well, this guy is different”, I thought to myself. I experienced that again at a local meet and greet, where Khanna was a compelling messenger.
Rohit “Ro” Khanna, 36, is an Indian-American lawyer from Fremont, Calif. He served as a deputy assistant secretary in the Commerce Department of the Obama administration and is a rising star in the Democratic Party. In April he announced his intention to run for Northern California’s District 17 House seat in 2014. He will challenge incumbent Mike Honda, 71, a Japanese-American Democrat seeking an eighth term in Congress, whose views on politics and civil rights are shaped by his internment during World War II.
Khanna grew up in Bucks County, Pa., the son of Indian immigrants, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in Economics from the University of Chicago, and received a law degree from Yale University before heading west to work in Silicon Valley. Like many immigrant families, Khanna’s parents emigrated from India to seek opportunity and a better life for their children. Ro’s father studied engineering at the University of Michigan; his mother was a substitute school teacher.
His commitment to public service was inspired early on by his grandfather, who told him stories about participating in Gandhi’s independence movement in India and spending several years in jail for promoting human rights. Khanna’s view is that, “Politics is a noble calling and allows one to think of issues larger than themselves.”
He became involved in politics while attending the University of Chicago, where he worked on the campaign of the then unknown candidate for state Senate named Barack Obama. In fact, Khanna was one of a few volunteers to walk precincts with Obama during that campaign. He went on to work on Obama’s presidential campaign. Dipping his own toes in politics in 2003, Khanna ran a protest campaign in California against a Democratic incumbent, the late Tom Lantos (12th Congressional District) who voted for George W. Bush’s decision to attack Iraq. Although he lost badly (74%-20%), he had taken a principled position standing up for his beliefs.
Ro Khanna’s Platform
Personally, Khanna is very articulate, intelligent, earnest and humble. He is clear about his message:
• Drive innovation across technology and business
• Enable 21st century education
• Promote sensible pro-growth and pro-business policies
• Take a global view to all problems because it will drive growth in America
• Create good, high-paying jobs locally
• Reinvigorate America’s manufacturing capacity
Khanna admits to being surprised at the level of public cynicism about Congress. When walking door-to-door in Santa Clara, around the time of the partial Government shutdown in Washington, D.C. in October 2013, he faced scorn and disgust about politicians. He heard constituents expressing disappointment and “wanting to throw the lot in prison.” He wants to change that by solving actual problems faced by constituents.
Khanna and opponent Honda have very similar positions on social issues such as support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Ro talks a lot about the growing divide between the “governing class” and the “middle class.” However, Khanna is not an old-style Democrat. He supports sensible corporate taxation that may allow repatriation of U.S. corporate funds parked overseas so that they can be invested in expanding payroll or in new equipment at home. He is also open to holding teachers in public schools to performance standards while ensuring high performers are rewarded. Given his education and work experience, it should come as no surprise to anyone that he has a great grasp of United States History and the Constitution. This is a passion he loves to share with young students. Cheryl Cook-Kallio, the vice-Mayor of Pleasanton, and a teacher at Irvington High School in Fremont, recalls visiting his office in DC with students from her AP U.S. history and U.S. government classes. He would come in and talk to the students and was very generous with his time. According to Cook-Kallio, her students came to regard him as their friend and he stayed in touch with some of them and mentored them through college.
Although Khanna has never held elected office, he has managed to sign up one of Obama’s top-three fundraisers, Steve Spinner, as his campaign chairman; Obama’s national field director, Jeremy Bird, as his chief strategist; Larry Grisolano, Obama’s ad-buying chief; and Mark Beatty, Obama’s deputy battleground states director.
District 17-The Epitome of High Tech
CA District 17 sits at an interesting edge between the high tech industry and the government. On the one hand it is home to companies such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Intel and Apple. On the other hand, revelations about the government’s intrusion into individual private information have created outrage among its denizens. District 17 is also the largest district in the continental United States to have an Asian-American majority of almost 50% (Hawaii’s District 1 is ahead with 58% Asian-American majority). The district came into being as a result of an initiative passed during the 2010 election, when California’s system of nonpartisan citizen-driven redistricting created the 17th Congressional District from parts of neighboring ones.
The Money Race
Khanna’s campaign will not accept any PAC, lobbyist, or special interest money. Despite this, they are leading in the money race. Sound familiar? Ro has outraised Honda two quarters in a row. He’s raised $2.8 million total since entering the contest, according to his campaign
The Honda campaign has been quick to point out that Khanna is burning up cash faster, as both campaigns netted the same gain of approximately $200K in this past quarter. But as of the end of the third quarter, Khanna had almost three times as much money in the bank as Honda. As David McCuan, Professor Dept. of Political Science, Sonoma State University, likes to say, “Money is a necessary though not sufficient condition to beat an incumbent.”
Chalking Up Support
Defeating Honda will not be easy. In March, Honda’s campaign released a poll showing him with a 52-point lead over Khanna, who drew a meager 5 percent support-vs. 57 percent for Honda with the Republican Evelyn Li pulling 13% and 23% undecided. A more recent poll, conducted early August of 806 likely voters in the district, found 49 percent support Honda, 15 percent support Khanna and 36 percent are now undecided. It shows that Khanna is gaining momentum, but more alarmingly for Honda, places him below the 50% mark, which must worry a seven-term incumbent. One voter I talked to, expressed his views in favor of Honda, which could be a prevailing attitude-“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
In five months, Khanna has tripled his share of the vote. And he has yet to spend serious money on an opponent-defining ad campaign.
Nothing illustrates the difference between the two candidates than the dueling list of top supporters both campaigns recently trumpeted. Khanna cites over 100 Silicon Valley innovators, entrepreneurs and tech leaders who have endorsed his campaign. He’s received donations from the likes of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, and Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s president and chief executive officer. A number of top givers to Khanna’s campaign in the September quarter were major donors to President Barack Obama, including Sandi Thompson, an attorney and wife of former Symantec CEO John Thompson; Andy Spahn, a movie studio lobbyist turned consultant; and Ellen Sussman, a journalist and activist from Houston. Other notable Bay Area donors to Khanna’s campaign in the third quarter included former Palm Inc. CEO Donna Dubinsky; eBay President and CEO John Donahoe; former San Francisco 49er Ronnie Lott; venture capitalist David Wagonfeld; Google senior vice presidents Vic Gundotra and Sundar Pichai; Zynga cofounder Mark Pincus and his wife, Alison, cofounder of the upscale Web marketplace One Kings Lane; and Hewlett-Packard senior vice president Tony Prophet.
Honda does not have an equally powerful and deep celebrity list but he has the support of the Democratic Party establishment including President Barack Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and CA senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
The Difference between Khanna and Honda
Looking past the glitz and title, the difference is obvious-it is the traditional steady politics vs. fast-moving and forward-looking next generation. Khanna’s candidacy also reflects a long-standing frustration among many young California politicians that have been waiting patiently for their turn. The induction of an independent redistricting committee and an open primary system in which the top two finishers in an open primary advance to the runoff regardless of party affiliation, has pushed some senior members into retirement.
A disciplined politico, Honda is well-liked and popular and has, for the most part, ignored Khanna and taken pains to address some of the opposing campaign claims by highlighting his focus and accomplishments in areas such as high tech, education, immigration, environment and energy.
Khanna benefits from speaking the language of Silicon Valley and leveraging his strong resume. According to Kamil Hasan, General Partner, Granite Hill Capital Partners, and a long-time Democratic party activist, Khanna’s appeal lies in his dynamism, an ability to solve problems with new ideas, work across aisles, and bridge the business-labor divide. A former supporter of Honda, Hasan switched his backing to Khanna because he believes it is time for new blood and new thinking. He thinks Khanna is running a new type of campaign that is more aligned with the needs of Silicon Valley and believes that Khanna will garner the votes of many Republicans in the general election.
Rusty Rueff, Chairman of The GRAMMY Foundation and Coordinating National Co-Chair for Technology for Obama, takes a more philosophical view of Khanna’s appeal. He distils the importance of this congressional seat down to-policy, leadership and influence. He thinks we need leaders like Khanna who have a deep and nuanced understanding of a range of issues-technology, patent reform, immigration, manufacturing, globalization, the power of the internet, etc. He applies the litmus test by posing the same question he asks start up founders with ideas looking for funding-“What is the problem you are trying to solve?” He says, “This seat needs the right representation. We need someone who understands innovation. Khanna can sit with people in Congress, understand problems that need to be solved and bring people from this district to develop creative solutions to those problems” In fact, he thinks we need many more candidates like Khanna all over the country.
What Would a Khanna Win Mean for the Indian Diaspora?
Indian Americans have excelled in a range of professional fields across the United States. After quietly building behind-the-scenes influence, they are entering public and political life in record numbers. Today, two are serving as state governors (Bobby Jindal (LA) and Nikki Haley (SC)) and dozens more are either holding or seeking seats in state legislatures. In 2012, six Indian Americans ran for Congress. This race will be a test of the rising strength of the Indian American community, especially in tech-savvy Silicon Valley, where many Indians have done well as start up founders, technology advisors, VCs, and senior players in key companies. According to Khanna, “if I win this seat and become the voice of this district, it would be a recognition of the contributions of the Indian community in Silicon Valley. It is more a testament to the community than to me.”
Not every Indian American supports Ro Khanna. Congressman Ami Bera, the only Indian American in Congress today has endorsed Mike Honda as have San Jose Council member Ash Kalra and Dublin City council member Abe Gupta. Jeevan Zutshi, founder of the Indo-American Community Federation is also a big fan of Mike Honda. He has fond memories of Honda speaking about the problems facing displaced Kashmiris at an international symposium in Fremont. “Silicon Valley interests are more than those of millionaires in high tech,” he remarks.
Labor-An Achilles Heel?
If you look at institutional and establishment labor support, you can see that it is a potential Achilles heel for Khanna. But not according to Sergio Santos, former President of UAW Local 2244 who was at New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) as it was being shut down. He recalls the tireless efforts of Khanna to save the plant and when that failed, his successful efforts to secure a $333,000 federal grant to create new manufacturing jobs in Fremont and around the district. Santos notes, “A bunch of politicians came out saying that they wanted to help, held press conferences, and did this or that. But all they really did was grandstand and try to get press for themselves. When the cameras were gone, so were our elected leaders. Ro was the only one left.” Santos, a former supporter of Honda, switched allegiances because he thinks “… the new district is not for Honda but ideal for Khanna.”
Can Khanna Win?
Khanna’s campaign is adopting many of the successful tactics from the Obama campaign, from social media to intimate meet-and-greets. Starting from a strong foundation but low name recognition, their goal is to raise Khanna’s visibility. McCuan believes that 2014 may be another anti-incumbent year. And the recent examples of dysfunction in Congress (Govt. shut down and Debt limit drama) will only reinforce the public disgust with anyone in office. Honda, the incumbent could suffer and Khanna, the challenger may benefit because of that dynamic. On the other hand, Khanna is not as well known and will need to expend more resources to raise name recognition. McCuan believes that Labor’s muscle can be a crucial difference in providing boots on the ground and manpower for phone banks.
McCuan classifies Khanna as a “strategic challenger.” He has a good resume and has staked out a special place with his diverse exposure in Silicon Valley. His work at the law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, representing high technology companies in intellectual property cases also gives him unusual exposure to a list of powerful clients within the high tech community. As a visiting lecturer in the Department of Economics at Stanford University and an Adjunct Professor at Santa Clara Law School, his network has further expanded into new niches of academia and an intellectual group of well connected people in the Bay Area.
If one steps back and considers his options, Khanna can pursue a two-pronged strategy to win:
(i) Build off the foundation of his high tech network and add to it by peeling off enough elements of the traditional Democratic constituency. He does not have to beat Honda in the primary but be in the top two.
(ii) Use the top two primary system to his advantage. Khanna and Honda are likely to be the top two vote getters who will advance to the general election because this seat is considered a safe Democratic one. Then Khanna gets to appeal to a broader pool of voters including NPPs (No Party Preference) and Republicans (who together constitute almost 50% of registered voters, Democrats are 44%), to move in for the kill.
Winning this House seat seems within reach for Khanna. McCuan astutely observes that Khanna can do in one election cycle what it took candidates from a previous era two to three election cycles to enter Congress. They would run first and lose, but use that opportunity to gain name recognition, get to know the movers and shakers in their party and come back a second or third time, stronger than before, to finally win in the same race. Because of the factors listed above, Khanna can potentially accomplish all that in one cycle, spanning a few months. Talk about good timing!
An Exciting Race to the End
Ro Khanna is well positioned to run a strong campaign. He faces a formidable challenger who has strong name recognition and the benefits of incumbency. Indian Americans in the district need not pick Khanna simply because of his ethnicity. They should go out and vote for the candidate who they think is closely aligned with their values and can best meet the interests of their district.
According to Tyler Law, Ro Khanna’s press secretary, in the 2010 primary elections, of the 23,000 registered Indian American voters only about 3,000 voted (approximately 13%).
Voter turnout is important to effect any change. So mark your calendars for the primary elections on June 3, 2014 and general elections on Nov 4, 2014 and do cast your vote. When the networks and cable channels call the results in November 2014, you can bet that the CA District 17 race will be closely watched and hotly contested all the way to the end.
Jawahar “Joe” Samagond is a technology communications professional based in Northern California. Originally from Mumbai, India he has spent time on both coasts (Boston and San Francisco). He is an avid reader and serves on the Fremont Library Advisory Commission. He is interested in global politics, science, law and social trends. More about his thoughts athttp://joes9.wordpress.com.