The 8Asians Interview: Ro Khanna for California’s 17th Congressional District


A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to interview Ro Khanna, candidate for Congress for California’s 17th Congressional District. My first recollection of hearing his name and seeing him was I believe when then Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean was visiting the San Francisco Bay Area back in 2008. In April, I had been at Khanna’s campaign kickoff and while I was at Netroots Nation back in June, was able to meet him briefly and schedule a follow-on conversation. I had first heard of Khanna’s race ironically not from a local publication, but a story on Khanna’s anticipated entry in the New York Times earlier in the year.

We met, along with his press secretary, at a local cafe in Fremont, not too far from Khanna’s campaign office. We gave each other some background information about each other, and me about Much like him, I was against the Iraq war in 2003 and I became politically active in 2004 due to my opposition to the war, volunteering for Democratic Presidential candidate and eventual nominee Senator John Kerry and trying to prevent President George W. Bush’s re-election. Khanna informed me that he had run a 3-month protest campaign back in 2004 against Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos (who in 2002 had voted to authorize the Bush administration to use force against Iraq).

In doing some research on Khanna, I was surprised to learn that Khanna, as a undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, supported Obama’s run for State Senator in Illinois. Never in Khanna’s wildest dreams back then that he thought Obama would be the future Commander in Chief. Although Khanna had served as Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Commerce from August 2009 to August 2011, he did not want to overstate his past ties to Obama.

On Running for Office Now for 2014

Khanna had originally thought of running for then Democratic Congressman Peter Stark’s seat, California’s 15th Congressional district in 2011, but opted not to. He was still in Washington, D.C. as Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Commerce Department and transitioning and re-establishing his roots back in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Once he settled back into life in Fremont, where he was a long term resident prior to going to D.C., after a few years of teaching at both Stanford University and Santa Clara University as well working part-time for a well known Silicon Valley law firm, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati (practicing litigation and has represented companies such as Apple, Google, as well as startups) did he think about running for Congress.

Democratic newcomer Eric Swalwell barely defeated Stark – a remarkable accomplishment to defeat a 20-term veteran incumbent!  So even deeply entrenched incumbents such as Congressman Honda have the possibility of being displaced and I am sure Honda is taking Khanna’s run very seriously.

Khanna’s parents are supportive of his run for Congress as well as all of his past pursuits, they just want him to get married (that made me laugh – he, like myself, have a younger married brother with a child). Khanna’s grandfather, on his mother’s side, was involved in India’s independence movement and was imprisoned for four years in the 1940s and his mother certainly understood about how one person could make a difference and how caring and being involved in the community through public service is a noble endeavor.

The first misconception that Khanna wished to clarify is that he was not after Congressman Mike Honda’s seat – in the sense that in 2012, due to redistricting, that new boundaries were created and that Honda himself was technically a  newcomer to the newly drawn 17th Congressional district, which covers “Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Newark, Milpitas, Cupertino, Vineyards-Avalon, Baylands, Berryessa and parts of North Valley, North San Jose, Fremont, San Jose, and Alameda County.”

Still, I think in many voters minds, the fact still remains is that only one person can represent California’s 17th Congressional district, and that is currently being represented by Congressman Honda, a seven-term elected official (first elected in 2000)  with deep ties to the greater San Jose and Silicon Valley region.

California Congressional redistricting occurred in 2011 and Honda ran for the newly drawn 17th Congressional district in November 2012, defeating Republican candidate Evelyn Lin 73.5% to her 26.5%. In my previous post about Khanna, I had forgotten that California now has an open primary and that two candidates with the most votes go to the general election in November. So conceivably, given how Democratic the 17th Congressional District is (registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2-to-1), both Democratic Congressman Mike Honda and Democratic Candidate Ro Khanna could face each other both in the primary next summer 2014 as well as November 2014 in the general election.

Khanna reiterated his great respect for Congressman Mike Honda, and that he was great representing San Jose, but the redrawn district contains the “heart of Silicon Valley” with parts of San Jose, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, etc. Khanna is not per se running against Honda but running to represent Silicon Valley with new ideas, leadership and vision to represent this new district.

Jeremy Bird, former national field director for Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012 joined Khanna’s campaign team early as a general campaign consultant, and is taking the same grass roots and innovative social media and Internet-driven campaign strategy to this Congressional race. As BusinessWeek had described Khanna in a headline earlier this Spring:  “Ro Khanna, Silicon Valley’s Wannabe Obama.”

On a side note, it personally bothers me that the city of San Jose co-opts the Silicon Valley monkier and likes to call San Jose the “capital of Silicon Valley.” Technically, due to its geographic size and number of people, San Jose may employ more people than any other city in the San Francisco Bay Area in the tech industry, but in terms of influence, I’d say the heart of Silicon Valley lies in Mountain View and its neighboring city Palo Alto, where Google is headquartered and Stanford University is located respectively (and HP really being the first Silicon Valley startup spawned out of Stanford headquartered in Palo Alto). Increasingly, San Francisco is becoming an Internet Mecca with companies such as and Twitter, along with a slew of startups in South of Market (“SOMA”) area.

I asked Khanna, with Congress so broken and regarded so low, why would Khanna even want to run for Congress? Khanna responded to that challenge and said that because it was the very reason why he wants to run – Congress is *so* dysfunctional that he is so motivated to run to help change things in D.C.

I guess where one sees frustration and challenges, others see opportunity. Khanna passionately expressed his desire for change in Congress – to make America for the better and to tackle the challenges that America must make –  through education, better policy for advanced manufacturing, etc. – with his experience in the private sector as well as in government.

He’s frustrated at the lack of vision and leadership in Congress (I think most Americans are). Around this time, a patron at the coffee shop had overheard our conversation and had expressed this very same frustration over the gridlock and partisanship in Congress. Khanna willingly wants to work with the other side of the aisle with the few Republicans that are open to working together as well as compromise.

The one argument I really though Khanna succinctly captured my imagination and feeling about Silicon Valley is that both Democrats and Republicans do want to be associated with Silicon Valley – it is the one region, really – an idea, that all politicians and Americans at large , feels that is right about America. The idea of bringing Silicon Valley thinking to Washington, D.C. I think does resonate with Americans and voters at large – especially on issues like education and jobs. When one sees Tesla, the electric car startup with a factory in Fremont, help reinvent the auto industry, it is hard not to be idealistic.

Now whether or not Khanna can embody Silicon Valley ideas, thinking, innovation, policy issues into his candidacy to potential supporters and ultimately the voters and defeat Congressman Honda, we will see. And if elected, if Khanna can bring Silicon Valley thinking to D.C. is also something that many might find skeptical. But the possibility resonated with me as someone who has seen the up’s and down’s of Silicon Valley’s boom-and-bust and periodic hype cycle since moving here in August of 1999.

Personally, I think it will be difficult for one person to change Congress, especially a freshman Congressman. I wonder how many Democratic newcomers are running for office in 2014 and if there can be a similar Democratic wave like in 2010 (I am doubtful). Certainly, the elected Republican Tea Party class of 2010 has brought change to Congress – horrible change and gridlock if you ask me, and if it’ll be a wonder if the Republican Party can survive another generation if the more moderate, rational and division of the party can take control of the Party. I would love a Democratic wave of Khanna’s to be able to push back against the extremist wing of the Republican Party and have a Senate and House. I don’t think that’ll happen though in 2014, and there is a chance the Democrats may lose the Senate.

Policy Issues

Immigration Reform

Given the cultural diversity of the San Francisco Bay Area and District 17, and being the son of Indian immigrants, it’s no surprise that Khanna is for pro-comprehensive immigration reform. Additionally, the tech industry in Silicon Valley is all for comprehensive immigration reform specific to its needs for raising the H-1B visa cap and securing more green cards for highly skilled foreign workers. Given the fact that recently I’ve met two computer science college dropouts so that they could start their $100k starting salary jobs only reinforces the heated tech job market (the national average for CS graduates is around $66k, but throw in 20% to 30% for a cost-of-living adjustment and a heated local job market, you get to $100k).

As the current immigration reform bill that has passed the Senate, Khanna was disappointed with the lack of sibling preferences as part of that bill (which many, many Asian American families have depended on). Khanna (as well as myself) see as wasteful spending increased border security, including building a fence – where 45% of illegal residents are in the U.S. due to overstaying their visas.

Most importantly, Khanna wanted to see the United States (and especially Silicon Valley) continue to attract the best and brightest to study, stay and build the new companies and jobs of the future. Countries like Canada are actively recruiting immigrants, most notably a billboard on Highway 101 near the San Francisco International Airport.

Khanna also supports the DREAM Act, allowing the children of illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. and enjoy the benefits of permanent residency. Personally, I am for the DREAM Act as well, because if you think it through – kids – whether they came to the U.S. legally or illegally, really have no option except to follow their parents wherever they go. If the DREAM Act isn’t included and passed, undocumented children of illegal immigrants are in a purgatory – essentially American, but unable to truly live fully the American dream – and certainly unable to really reintegrate into the countries where they had come from.

PRISM and the NSA
As society becomes more technologically advance, it is even easier for the government to monitor its citizens, and that technology is ironically reinforced by what has been invented and developed in Silicon Valley.

As Khanna had framed the issue and facts – the executive branch, i.e. President Obama, is responsible for national security. The legislative branch, is responsible for oversight. Congress should have done more oversight in a more transparent manner for the American public to *protect* American citizens’ civil liberties. The role of Congress should be on the side to err on protecting civil liberties and people need to know the size and scope of such surveillance.

Khanna did express concern about how easily an NSA contractor like Edward Snowden could have easily extracted information from the NSA and leaked it to the press.

Silicon Valley Industry & Community Support

Given that 17th Congressional district is quite diverse, with many from Far East and South East Asia, and the dynamics of the Congressional race with Congressman Mike Honda, a Japanese American and Ro Khanna, an Indian American – what kind of support Khanna was seeing.

Khanna reiterated the great support he has been getting (as well as his great fundraising numbers – $1 million in Q2 2013 for a total of $1.7 million, to Honda’s $345,000  for a total of $375,000) and that signals a desire, from at least some, that people are looking for someone new to represent them. Khanna has been pleasantly surprised and excited to see the strong support from the Southeast Asian and Indian community, as well as the Chinese American community, as well as the Latino community due to his strong views on immigration reform. Khanna was especially happy to see the strong interest by student interns, “Class Fellows,” volunteering for his campaign – with over 35 to 40 in his second 3-month volunteer class. Additionally, he was energize to see a wide range of support from those working in the tech industry to those of more blue collar “working class” backgrounds.

I then asked Khanna about any concern he had about being characterized by being “bought” by Silicon Valley Corporate America after announcing his most recent fundraising numbers, with many Silicon Valley luminaries backing him such as Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer,  Marc Benioff, Mike McCue and others.

I prefaced that question with some background context. Personally, I was disappointed that Interim Mayor Ed Lee went back on his word and did run to become full-time mayor of San Francisco. I was looking forward to Board of Supervisor President, David Chiu, who the San Francisco Chronicle had endorsed, to run and be elected. Of course, I’m glad that San Francisco was finally able to elect an Asian American mayor (given that San Francisco has the highest percentage of Asian Americans of any major U.S. city), but post-election many of his critics say that Mayor Lee has beholden to high tech moneyed supporters such as the super angel investor Ron Conway and giving what has been seen as special tax breaks to Twitter. Lee’s tech supporters had created an over-the-top MC Hammer inspired YouTube music video supporting Ed Lee’s run for election titled “Ed Lee is 2 LEGIT 2 QUIT.”

Khanna emphasized that he is proud to be supported by the Silicon valley tech community and business leadership, and if you don’t have the support of business leaders in the region you are representing, then that says something about your leadership. But of course, Khanna was looking to support the whole community – including local mayors, local city council members, educators, young people (the most volunteering in a long, long time for this Congressional district), working families and union members, small business owners and leaders.

Khanna seemed to understand the criticism and said that he was not being “bought” by his tech supporters such as and emphasized that he was only taken individual contributions (which legally, an individual can only contribute $2,600 for a primary and $2,600 for the general election has pledged not to take any (and hasn’t taken any) Political Action Committee (PAC) money, special interest or lobbyist money.

I then asked his concern about special interest money entering in the race, and Khanna did express some concern. While re-emphasizing his respect for Congressman Honda and his years of service, Honda has a significant amount of campaign financing from those special interests, especially because that is how “old politics” works and that was no fault of Honda per se, but that of the traditional system of politics. The new way of doing politics is not to be beholden to big money interests. Obviously, this is quite challenging to raise money through individuals and requires a lot of effort, going into the community constantly and raising money in relatively small amounts.

When I heard that Khanna wasn’t going to take any PAC or other special interest money, I was impressed, especially given the amount he had raised. Still, that does not prevent outside groups from independently promoting his campaign. But I’m hopeful (maybe naively so?) that lobbying groups such Facebook Mark Zuckerberg’s backed will remain independent in this race, especially after their most recent stumbles. Of course, that goes beyond this Congressional race and more to the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United.

Khanna closed the interview on emphasizing new politics versus old politics, with more transparency and lobbying disclosures (which Khanna had pointed out, Honda had voted against – and later did some research – think that he was referencing H.R. 2317 (110th): Lobbying Transparency Act of 2007 (though for one reason or another, never brought up for a vote in the Senate); additional research also yielded that Honda did vote for HR 5175, The DISCLOSE Act in June 2010.)

By the way, candidates running for elected office have to disclose their campaign contributions every quarter to the Federal Election Commissions. This online tool lets you explore how much money a candidate has raised and from whom. Take a look for yourself for Khanna and Honda.

Khanna is spending most of his time meeting with the people within the community as well as trying to build a grass roots campaign and help restore people’s faith in their Congress.

Final Thoughts

Overall, it is hard not to be impressed with Khanna’s intelligence, passion, quick rise and accomplishments as well as I think his sincere interest to try change Congress. What voters in the district will really have to think is whether or not they want to replace existing and well known Asian American icon in Congressman Mike Honda in a heavily Asian American district with a new up-and-comer like Ro Khanna.

As a former supporter of Khanna had stated to me, Ro Khanna should run for Congress, but not to replace Honda. From an Asian American perspective, it would be great if both Honda and Khanna could be elected to Congress. I guess for Khanna’s Silicon Valley message to resonate, the alternative Congressional Districts Khanna could have considered running for would have been the 14th or the 18th, represented by Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Anna Eschoo respectively (which would have also both be very difficult races as well). There would be no chance in hell of Khanna running against former Speaker of the House and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi for the 12th in San Francisco. In California, when you run for a Congress, you don’t need to actually live there for a certain period of time (but of course, do after elected).


Needless to say, this will be an interesting race. Khanna has raised some serious money. Essentially the entire Democratic Party establishment is endorsing Congressman Honda, including President Obama, whom Khanna has seemed to have modeled himself after.  However, I do think that Khanna’s message will resonate with many. Although not exactly analogous, I’m drawn to my past support for San Francisco Supervisor David Chiu for San Francisco Mayo over “incumbent” Mayor Ed Lee, as I very much wanted an Asian American of my generation to lead the city San Francisco with potential for beyond that of city mayor. But one also cannot deny that Congressman Mike Honda’s local appeal given his deep strong ties to the greater San Jose region, from educator to elected official.

I’m hoping that the primary and the general election will be more about ideas and the people running for office than the amount of money raised and spent to potentially slander the other candidate. As a Democrat, I think it is pretty safe that this district will remain Democratic.

By the way, for full disclosure, I live in California’s 18th Congressional District, so I can’t vote for either Ro Khanna or Mike Honda, currently represented by Congresswoman Anna Eschoo, though I have attended in the past, a Honda fundraiser (as a guest of a friend) back in 2012 (I think). Having blogged both on Honda in the past and this post on Khanna, I’ll be refraining from donating to either campaign.

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About John

I'm a Taiwanese-American and was born & raised in Western Massachusetts, went to college in upstate New York, worked in Connecticut, went to grad school in North Carolina and then moved out to the Bay Area in 1999 and have been living here ever since - love the weather and almost everything about the area (except the high cost of housing...)
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