We’ve watched U.S. Rep. Mike Honda for decades, since he was a planning commissioner and Santa Clara County supervisor, and have always known him as a nice, friendly, feckless liberal who never did much except vote the Democratic Party line as handed down by party and labor leaders.
No member of Congress has a more left-wing voting record than the 72-year-old Honda, which explains why former DNC Chairman Howard Dean recently endorsed Honda as “one of the strongest progressives we have in Congress . . . facing a corporate-backed challenger whose big money donors are intent on buying Mike’s congressional seat.”
So it was with great curiosity that we sat down for coffee the other day with 37-year-old Democrat Ro Khanna, a lawyer and former Obama administration trade representative, with a progressive pitch, an impressive resume and backing from scads of Silicon Valley luminaries. Just who is this corporate-backed pond scum, Calbuzz wondered.
Turns out he’s a really smart young Indo-American with intelligence (Chicago, Yale law) and energy to match his considerable ambition. Taking out a 12-year incumbent congressman is a heavy lift, especially when the old warhorse has endorsements from President Barack Obama, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, almost all of the California congressional delegation, labor unions, teachers and most of the rest of the Democratic Party Establishment.
New District, New Rules But this is no fool’s errand. CA 17 – from Cupertino, Sunnyvale and North San Jose, to Milpitas and Fremont, with Apple, Cisco, Intel, Yahoo, etc. – is not Honda’s old stomping grounds. And since it was redrawn after the 2010 census, it’s now is 44% Democrat, 19% Republican and a whopping 32% Decline to State. In other words, when you take into account that under the new rules the June “primary” will send the top two finishers on to the November general election, there will be a decisive majority of non-Democrats voting in the run-off.
At which point, the dashing young guy — arguing for manufacturing, education and government reform against an old-time, true blue, labor liberal with few (if any) singular accomplishments – has an actual chance to win. Especially when he’s raising money at about a 4-to-1 clip (about $2 million on hand vs. $500,000) even while he’s refusing (and making a BIG point of it) to take donations from political action committees. And when his campaign is being run by the key operatives from Obama’s 2012 technologically brilliant 2012 re-election.
Silicon Valley Elite Yes, Khanna’s backing comes from a Who’s Who of Silicon Valley movers and shakers: supporters have included John Doerr, Eric Schmidt, Marc Andreessen, Sheryl Sandberg, Sean Parker, Marissa Mayer, Marc Benioff and Craig Newmark, for example. But he’s basically a liberal Democrat who speaks high-tech and who vows he won’t take PAC money, a pay increase, free trips from interest groups or a Congressional pension and who argues for a five-year ban on lobbying for ex members of Congress.
He’s not seeking to increase the capital gains tax as Honda would, but he wouldn’t lower it either. He’s for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, but he doesn’t like it that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us has helped finance the likes of arch Republicans Paul Ryan and Lindsey Graham just to get their votes on immigration reform. (Calbuzz has been more than a little critical about FWD.us)
He’s pro-choice (on the board of Planned Parenthood), supports gay marriage, opposed the war in Iraq and supports pension reform but not taking back benefits from already-retired public employees.
In an excellent piece of actual reporting, Andrew Leonard of Salon, explains that Khanna’s book, Entrepreneurial Nation: Why Manufacturing Is Still Key to America’s Future, “is exactly what Khanna says it is, a fact-based defense of government’s role in spurring domestic manufacturing jobs. Based on his experience as an assistant deputy secretary in the Commerce Department during President Obama’s first term, the book is a series of case studies of American companies that have flourished in the age of globalization, along with careful analysis of the government programs and policies that have helped them compete. Khanna routinely recommends increased spending and support of those government programs. (He is also a supporter of significantly expanded government investment in education, vocational training and job retraining.)”
We asked Khanna to explain why Honda should be tossed out and he should replace him. His first response was to suggest we didn’t understand the New World Order (always a mistake when being interviewed by cutting edge Calbuzz whippersnappers).
“That’s the wrong question. [Again!] That’s the old way of looking at politics. I think the new way of looking at politics is, ‘What is your vision for the future?’ And I think the president showed this. He ran more on his vision for the future about what he wanted to achieve.”
But Obama wasn’t running against an incumbent, we noted, you are.
New district, top-two primary, he replied, suggesting it’s not like running against an incumbent under the old system.
But when we pushed, he did make his case.
“Honda’s world view is of an industrial economy and I think we are now in a digital economy with global presence. I just don’t think he understands the innovation, digital economy, which is this new district,” Khanna said. “And I have a better vision for what is going to create jobs and I’m more in touch with this new economy…He’s the wrong fit to represent the most important constituency in the world, which is the heart of innovation and economic growth for the nation.”
Moreover, he said, “He’s part of a Congress that is broken and people want reform…There is a palpable sense that Congress is broken and that we need new blood and new ideas…Usually they say that in order to beat an incumbent you have to have a scandal. But Congress is the scandal itself.”
In a nutshell, Khanna is arguing that Honda is out of touch and mired in a corrupt system: “He has an old model of looking at the economy and I think he’s emblematic of what’s wrong with Congress.”
Freshman Voice Honda argues he has preparation, experience and seniority, all invaluable for the district and that he has deep ties to labor, teachers, civil rights and environmental groups. While he’s worked hard on nanotechnology and other high-tech issues, his supporters say, he’s always been there for the poor and middle-class folks for whom the Democratic Party is the standard bearer.
Khanna runs into a bit of a problem when he tries to make his case as a new voice for Silicon Valley in Washington: there are a couple of other members of Congress who also represent Silicon Valley interests – Democrats Anna Eshoo (who hasn’t endorsed Honda) and Zoe Lofgren (who has).
How’s a freshman congressman going to have much influence? Calbuzz wondered.
“That’s the wrong way of looking at politics [Damn!],” Khanna replied. “I think politics has fundamentally changed in this country. Look at [Texas Republican Sen.] Ted Cruz. He’s a freshman senator and he’s had more influence, though wrongly, than people who’ve stayed there for generations. Look at the president, who was a freshman senator. What matters now in politics is your ability to articulate ideas, to communicate a vision, to be able to do it in social media and other places in the media, to understand and be a thought leader.”
“No, I have a lot of respect for Anna Eshoo.”
But somehow you’re going to eclipse them?
“No. I don’t think so.”
Well, if they’re providing the leadership, what’s the problem?
“Well, I have a lot of respect for Anna Eshoo’s leadership,” he said, mentioning Eshoo’s stands on transparency, repatriation of foreign profits and biotech. “But I do think there’s a new generation in Silicon Valley that I can help mobilize, that I can bring back into the fold, and people who are just engaged for the first time in politics. I also think we need a new generation to push back against the Paul Ryans [R-WI] and the Marco Rubios [R-FL]. And I’ve written a book on manufacturing and economic thinking and I articulate an economic vision for the Democratic Party that can push back against free-market absolutism and articulate that from Silicon Valley.”
What about Lofgren?
“I like her. I don’t know her as well,” he said. “Anna Eshoo is I think has been a tremendous leader for Silicon Valley. I think she’s kind of the heart and soul of Silicon Valley. But I respect Zoe Lofgren. What I hear from many folks who are supporting me is that the person they look to when in comes to Silicon Valley is really Anna Eshoo. There’s a universal love and admiration for her in Silicon Valley. She’s really seen as a congressperson from Silicon Valley and if I get to Congress, my aspiration would be to be a junior partner of hers.”
OK, we get it: He likes Eshoo and has nothing against Lofgren, chair of the California delegation. And he’s trying not to look like he’s out to eclipse them, since he would be just a lowly freshman. But really, he’s arguing that he’s the guy with the chops to go on TV and elsewhere against the right-wing media favorites on the economy and to alter the discussion about government’s role in the economy. (If the Dem leadership gives him an office and a parking space.)
“I think it would be highly presumptuous for anyone to presume that they could be the voice of Silicon Valley,” Khanna said. “That said, I think Silicon Valley needs more voices, more influence from Silicon Valley in Washington. I can bring a new generation. I can be a junior partner to Anna and to help think through the new way that economically we need to look at income inequality and a transition to technology and what those policies would be.”
FWD.us and Immigration We wondered if he was willing to take on Zuckerberg’s FWD.us, so we asked him about their tactic of backing right-wingers like Paul Ryan and Lindsey Graham in order to secure their votes on immigration reform.
He was cautious. After initially saying FWD.us is a “good start (because) it shows a new generation of folks getting involved” he was uncomfortable with their support of knuckledraggers just to advance immigration reform.
“It’s not the tactic I would use. I would never give Paul Ryan or Lindsey Graham money to get their vote on a piece of legislation. I believe we should lead with our conviction and our ideas and convince the American people. But it’s a free country so I’m not going to pronounce on their strategy. It wouldn’t be the approach I would use.”
Why would you not use it?
“Well, I’m a strong Democrat.”
“He did what he did and he has to suffer the consequences of the law. I say that as someone whose grandfather was a freedom fighter [in India] and was sent to jail under British colonialism and that was a moral wrong there but the law is the law and he violated the law and he suffered the consequences. On a broader thing, I think the NSA is disturbing in some of the overreach and the violations.”
Is Snowden a hero or a villain?
“My concern is that the NSA has overreached. And if I were in Congress, I would strongly defend civil liberties. I think Congress needs to err on the side of defending civil liberties. And I would push for the declassification of certain Justice Department opinions so we know what the scope of the project is, allow companies like Google and Facebook to disclose how many people are being affected and let’s have an open and transparent debate…
“I don’t condone the leaking by an individual of sensitive, classified information. So I would never say someone is a hero for leaking classified information. But the fact is that what has come to light as a consequence is something that needs to be fixed.”
Ellsberg and Iran When we asked if he thought Daniel Ellsberg was a hero, Khanna, who was 5 during the historic uproar, had to check what we were referring to.
“That’s what I thought,’ he said when we said we were talking about the Pentagon Papers “This is a different generation. The publishing of the Pentagon Papers was a good thing. I’m all for transparency and increasing knowledge and accountability of voters.”
So, he agreed, it was a good thing that the information that Snowden leaked was published.
Khanna was reluctant to say whether there is a point at which he would support military action against Iran, unless the U.S. were attacked by them, when he would retaliate.
If it appeared that Iran were close to developing a nuclear weapon, would he support the U.S. or Israel striking against Iran?
“It’s a hypothetical. I would not support military action right now. There’d have to be a very strong case…But I would never take the military option off the table.”
“You don’t compromise your core values. I would never compromise a woman’s right to choose, on gay marriage, the fact that I care deeply about income equality…but you are civil in tone, not gratuitously attacking people on cable, and look for pragmatic areas to have common ground and I think we need a new generation who are not scarred by battles of the past , who can be principled but do a better job in looking for that common ground.”
Is that possible with the Tea Party crowd in the House?
“No. There are x percentage who are ideologues but that’s not the entire Congress…I would put the blame on the Tea Party,” he said.
“What matters in Congress is influencing the thought leadership of the nation and articulation ideas to shape the public debate. And what Silicon Valley has lacked in this district is someone who’s going to say, here is what’s working in Silicon Valley, the lessons of entrepreneurship, the lessons of risk taking, the lessons of adjusting to the new economy.
“How can I help convince my own colleagues that the world has changed in a dramatic way and that we need new thinking and influence the thinking of my own caucus and how can I articulate a vision for the role of government in economic growth and competitiveness to take on Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz?”
Winning Against Endorsements Shouldn’t voters be swayed by the fact that Obama, Feinstein, Boxer, Pelosi and damn near every Democrat from California is supporting Honda?
“The reality is, being part of the Establishment, which Mike Honda clearly is, is not an asset in an election where people want change,” Khanna said. It didn’t help Pete Stark with voters, he said. “What they care about is who’s going to do something to improve their lives and to change the system. I actually think being tainted with all those endorsements is going to be a negative rather than a positive.
“If people are happy with the way Congress is acting and they don’t want disruption, then they should be voting for Mike Honda. And if they think that something needs to be done to change something differently, then they’ll take a chance and vote for me. That’s really what the election will come down to.”
As Khanna got up to head off to a speaking gig in Sunnyvale, across the Bay, he offered a final parting shot at Honda, perhaps his best summation: “He’s running a 1980s campaign on a 1960s platform in a district that demands a 21st Century vision.”