o Indian-American political
aspirant — Piyush ‘Bobby’
Jindal included — as far as
this correspondent in his
nearly three decades of covering United States politics
and diplomacy can remember has created the buzz and
controversy as has Rohit ‘Ro’
Khanna, 36, in mounting a
primary Congressional challenge to the iconic seven-term Asian American lawmaker
Mike Honda, 71, in California’s 17th district — considered
the heart and soul of Silicon Valley.
The mainstream media, from The New York Times to
the Washington Post, from Time magazine to
BusinessWeek, and The Wall Street Journal to Politico, not to
mention television and radio, have reported on this primary race (still to get down and dirty) as it has never done
before on the candidacy of any Indian-American Congressional candidate — for that matter any US Congressional candidate.
This is largely because the Democratic establishment
from President Barack Obama downwards is solidly
behind Honda, while Silicon Valley heavyweights from the
Sheryl Sandbergs to the Romesh Wadhwanis and the
Vinod Khoslas to the Marissa Mayers are in Khanna’s corner.
Many second-generation Indian-American political
activists and lawmakers led by the likes of the only Indian-American member of Congress, Dr Amerish Bera, are
backing Honda. They are incensed with Khanna’s decision
to go up against Honda — who has always been there with
his support and fundraising efforts for any Indian-American Congressional candidate.
Khanna, buoyed by the support for him by the Indian-American community in District 17, is unmoved.
Khanna — a longtime Bay Area resident who returned to
Fremont after a two-year stint serving as Deputy Assistant
Secretary at the Department of Commerce in the Obama
Administration — had raised over $1 million even before
he officially declared his candidacy April 2 for the primary,
not scheduled till May 2014.
According to his camp, he was the ‘first non-self-
financed challenger to an incumbent to raise seven figures
in an ‘out-of-the-gate’ quarter.’
He has now raised nearly $2 million and counting,
such incessant buzz that the San Francisco Chronicle ran a
headline, ‘Honda v Khanna: Could Silicon Valley be
Ground Zero for 2014 House Asian American Battle
A WashPo blog by Aaron Blake, said Khanna’s fundrais-
ing numbers were ‘nearly unheard of for a House candi-
date, much less a non-incumbent in a non-election year.’
A blog post in Roll Call — which reports exclusively on
Capitol Hill — said Khanna’s fundraising numbers made
him ‘Honda’s first legitimate primary challenger during
Honda’s tenure in Congress.’
Politico called Khanna ‘the new fundraising powerhouse
of the 2014 midterms.’
The Los Angeles Times quoted Larry Gerston, a political
science professor at San Jose State University, as saying
that Khanna’s early fundraising haul demonstrated, ‘his
seriousness as a candidate and to give the incumbent
something to think about, perhaps gracefully retiring.’
Bloomberg Businessweek went as far as saying Khanna’s
high profile technology donors ‘could indicate that Silicon
Valley may be ready for a new representative in Congress.’
Adding to the buzz has been the fact that Khanna has
hired some political operatives who were part of Obama’s
re-election campaign, raising the perception that this gives
him a distinct edge in strategizing.
Honda’s endorsements from the President and other
Democratic Party heavies on the other hand, sources say,
“is a clear indication that he’s running scared.”
A Silicon Valley insider tells India Abroad, that consider-
ing that Khanna has the support of more than 80 percent
of the Silicon Valley high-tech constituency, “it would do
well for Congressman Honda instead of the endorsements
by President Obama, Nancy Pelosi (Minority Leaderofthe
Houseof Representatives) and others, gets himself a job in
the administration, so that he doesn’t have to face the
embarrassment of a primary defeat to Ro.”
Besides challenging Honda, Khanna is currently a
Silicon Valley technology lawyer, a visiting lecturer in eco-
nomics at Stanford University and adjunct professor of law
at Santa Clara University.
He flew down to Washington, DC recently to sit down for
a no-holds-barred chat with India Abroad and spoke not
like a candidate but like a winner.
Why did you decide to run for Congress? You could have
easily stuck in out in the administration and perhaps got-
ten an even more senior position in the Obama second
term. Why quit?
Moreover, why take on an established Asian-American
iconic incumbent, who has been a mentor to all Indian-American Congressional candidates?
I loved my time in the administration and I had the opportunity to learn a lot working with business, with manufacturers, about what our country needs to do to be competitive in a global economy.
I was working on a book (Entrepreneurial Nation: Why
Manufacturing is Still Key to America’s Future) and I felt
the ideas about how to grow the economy and be competitive in the 21st century were absent in Congress. I wanted
to get my ideas out. So, partly, I left to publish the book.
When I got back to Silicon Valley and started showing
the draft of the book, the agenda in there resonated —
what we need to do for upgrading our skills in education,
what we need to do for tax reform, what we need to do for
regulatory simplification, how we have to embrace the
global economy. That led to me to believe that I could offer
some new perspective in the public domain.
Then, of course, the lines all got redrawn in California
and you had a district where the heart of Silicon Valley, the
heart of innovation for the nation (resides)…
It was in my mind a confluence between a district that
was the heart of Silicon Valley, the issues of innovation and
competitiveness that I cared about.
I thought this is the place that I can represent and make
a mark in the country and for the world.
Was the book a strategic step? Were you contemplating
it while serving in the administration?
It was honestly an organic thing. I kept visiting businesses and manufacturers and hearing these inspiring
stories about how they were still making things in the US
or competing — the stereotype is that all of the advanced
manufacturing has gone offshore or that American
entrepreneurship is stagnating — and I said here are all
these counter-examples. So, I started keeping in my
mind, a sort of track of all these stories and I wanted to
It emerged, out of all these visits and all those stories.
That’s really what became the theme of the book. Then at
the end, I draw these policy conclusions. But it was really inspired
by my travel across the country — I
felt like I really got to understand
America in the job.
India Abroad November 29, 2013
Ro Khanna, center, during his
stint as Deputy Assistant
Secretary at the Department
of Commerce with then
Commerce Secretary Gary
Khanna says his time in the
administration taught him
about what the country needs
to do to be competitive in a
Khanna with volunteers.
PHOTGRAPHS COURTES Y: RO KHANNA