Ro Khanna likely to contest Congressional race in California

Fascinating match-up against Rep. Mike Honda splits Asian American voters.

Bureau Report

SAN FRANCISCO: Ro Khanna, 36, an Indian American lawyer who served as a deputy assistant secretary in the Commerce Department and is a rising star in the Democratic Party, is likely to challenge long-time incumbent Rep. Mike Honda in the 17th Congressional District in Cupertino, in the 2014 elections.

Ro Khanna
Ro Khanna

Home to Apple, Google and other high-tech pioneers, the 17th Congressional District here recorded a political first in last Fall’s elections, becoming the first majority Asian-American district in the mainland United States, reported The New York Times.

At the same time, voters sent candidates of Asian descent to the Legislature and to local city councils, where Asian-Americans account for 63 percent of the population. The Congressional seat itself was easily retained by Honda, a Democrat first elected in 2000 and one of the most influential Asian Americans in Congress. A Japanese-American whose views on politics and civil rights were shaped by his internment during World War II, Honda, 71, helped build a network for Asian American political aspirants here and served as a mentor to many.

But the likelihood of Khanna challenging Honda has already set off intense maneuvering inside the district. Even as Asian Americans represent the nation’s fastest growing racial group, the attention focused on this potential contest underscores the diversity, and possibly emerging rivalries, among different Asian groups, said Times.

Khanna said he has yet to decide whether to run. Honda, perhaps in one of the earliest moves to fend off a potential challenge next year, recently secured the endorsements of President Obama, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California and other Democrats. The possible face-off has put many Asian-Americans here, especially Indian Americans, in an awkward situation.

“I really appreciate what the congressman has done for the Asian-American community, and I have worked closely with him,” said Kamil Hasan, an Indian American who has long been involved in the tech industry and the Democratic Party, the report said. “Ro Khanna would be a very strong candidate in whichever district he runs. The Indian community has wanted him to run for office for a long time.”

Hasan, who said he would not take a position until Khanna decided whether to run, has held fund-raisers for both Honda and Khanna.

California’s system of nonpartisan redistricting created the 17th Congressional District, where Asian Americans total 51 percent of the population. Asian American politicians and activists had long sought such a district from which to build power nationally.

Although the district includes parts of San Jose, suburbs like Cupertino, Milpitas and Fremont have the highest concentration of Asian Americans, especially the most recent waves of immigrants, said James S. Lai, the director of ethnic studies at Santa Clara University, Times said. Institutions like the Silicon Valley Asian Pacific American Democratic Club remain under the leadership of more established groups like Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans. The San Jose airport, for example, is named after Norman Y. Mineta, the Japanese-American politician.

But newer Asian American groups have begun exerting influence. Democrats and Republicans have especially courted Indian Americans, many of whom work in Silicon Valley and have proved formidable fund-raisers.

“The question is what Asian Indians feel ideologically aligned with,” Lai said. “This election could be an example of whether Asian Indians see themselves along the lines of pan-Asian, progressive politics that are part of what Mike Honda stands for, or whether they will they go for his challenger’s politics, which are more conservative and pro-business.”

Rep. Ami Bera, an Indian American physician elected to Congress last fall in a district near Sacramento, said he approached Honda for advice four years ago when he was considering running. Speaking after a panel on Asian Americans and politics with Honda here recently, Bera said of the Asian Americans serving in the House, “Each of us has our own unique story of how Mike took us under his wing, mentored us and then was out there probably the most active of any member of Congress helping us getting elected.”

Khanna has been laying the groundwork for a possible campaign by meeting influential people in the district and writing op-ed articles on subjects that resonate here, like American relations with Asia and manufacturing. Under California’s top-two primary system, Khanna and Honda, both Democrats, could end up facing each other in a general election, said the Times report.

In a Democratic primary a decade ago, Khanna unsuccessfully challenged Representative Tom Lantos in a district north of here. He drew attention last year by easily raising $1.2 million for an exploratory committee seeking an unspecified seat; he considered challenging Representative Pete Stark, a longtime Democratic incumbent in the East Bay who was defeated last fall by a young Democrat, Eric Swalwell.

In a district that is heavily Democratic but includes a large percentage of undeclared voters, Mr. Khanna could try to woo moderate Democrats from Honda, who has a liberal voting record and favors higher taxes.

In an interview to the Times, Khanna said he favored “a pro-economic growth agenda.” The district’s majority Asian American status, he said, “can be a huge asset to our nation in figuring out the right policies for global competitiveness.”

His economic message draws favorable comments from some Democrats, though none are willing to say so publicly for fear of offending Honda. Mayor Jose Esteves of Milpitas, a Republican and Filipino-American, recently endorsed Khanna and has been gathering support for him among other Filipino-Americans.

In an interview to the Times, Honda, who previously helped Mr. Khanna with fund-raising, brushed off the potential challenge. Competition among Asian-Americans, he said, is a sign of political maturity. “Whites get challenged by whites — how’s that different?” Honda said. “When a community gets more diverse, you’re going to run into that.”

But some of his closest allies have reacted angrily.

“We could have gotten behind Ro if he ran against Stark, but he’s going against our leader,” said Paul Fong, a Chinese-American assemblyman from here. “Mike is the leader of the Asian Pacific Islander movement.”

An editorial in the San Jose Mercury News earlier this month said the race between Khanna and Honda “sounds like good race.”

“Term limits in state and local offices have a cost in experience and in the tendency to work for short-term victories more than long-range community goals. In Congress, rapid turnover of representatives would not be a good thing. That said, every employee should be evaluated by the boss from time to time. In Honda’s case, voters are the boss. We hope Khanna’s in,” said the editorial.

In a column he wrote for The Washington Post recently, Khanna reiterated his commitment to creating jobs and strengthening the economy, writing about the importance of manufacturing to America’s future. He pointed out that manufacturing alone cannot solve the country’s unemployment problem, as in the foreseeable future, the lion’s share of America’s job growth will be in the service sector. But he said one can “outsource manufacturing as long as product design stays here,” and that in turn will bring manufacturing home and create jobs.

“It is naive to think we can keep design in America without retaining some manufacturing capacity. Harvard Business School professors Willy Shih and Gary Pisano have shown that the offshoring of semiconductor manufacturing that shifted silicon processing to Asia, for example, gave companies there an advantage in designing solar panels and energy-efficient lighting,” he wrote.

Khanna also made a case for American workers vs. global workers, saying “what keeps us in the race is our productivity advantage. U.S. manufacturing workers are almost six times as productive as Chinese workers and 11/2 times as productive as those in Japan and Germany.”

“The best American manufacturers customize products to meet customer needs, reduce the time required to make them and constantly improve their design. Vitamix in Cleveland, for instance, makes specialized blenders that are more expensive than those produced in Asia — but Starbucks buys them because they are quiet and leave few lingering ice chips in Frappuccinos,” he wrote.

Khanna’s father came from India to the University of Michigan to study engineering and still spends his Saturdays cheering for the Wolverines, says a profile of Ro on his website. His mother is a former substitute school teacher. Khanna was born in Philadelphia, in 1976.

During his time in the Obama Administration, Khanna was named to the White House Business Council. In this capacity, he held meetings with business and labor leaders across the country and advocated for policies to promote America’s economic growth.

Prior to his service in the administration, he was an intellectual property attorney with O’Melveny & Myers. He worked on a number of pro bono cases with the Mississippi Center of Justice to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. While at O’Melveny, Khanna also worked with Speaker Pelosi, Congresswoman Eshoo, and Congresswoman Lofgren to shape the party’s innovation agenda.

Khanna is also currently a Visiting Lecturer at the Department of Economics at Stanford University and also an Adjunct Professor at Santa Clara Law School. He has volunteered as a mentor with Irvington High School’s We the People Team.

Khanna’s recent book on American competitiveness entitled, “Entrepreneurial Nation: Why Manufacturing is Still Key To America’s Future” has helped contribute to the public debate. He has appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg TV, C-Span Book TV, MSNBC, The Forum, the Diane Rehm Show, and written for the Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Huffington Post.

Currently, Khanna is Of Counsel at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a Palo Alto based law firm, where he specializes in representing high technology companies. He is on the Board of Directors of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. Governor Brown has also appointed him to the Workforce Development Board for the State of California. Khanna chairs the Advanced Manufacturing Committee on this Board.

He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate in economics from the University of Chicago, and a graduate of Yale Law School. He was a clerk for Judge Morris S. Arnold on the Eighth Circuit.

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