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Ro Khanna: Wife Ritu a game changer for 2016

The California Democrat, who has the backing of Facebook’s Sheryl Samberg, is engaged in a rematch with Rep. Mike Honda.

Ritu and Ro Khanna
Ritu and Ro Khanna; photo credit: Craig Paulson.

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By Raif Karerat

After narrowly losing out in his 2014 bid to represent California’s 17th district in the U.S. House of Representatives, Indian American Ro Khanna has entered the fray once again with the goal of bringing robust, progressive values to Capitol Hill.

A lecturer in the Department of Economics at Stanford University and an adjunct professor at Santa Clara Law School, Khanna was formerly appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce, where he blazed new trails in organizing clean technology trade missions and expanding the Green Embassy program, which enabled American clean technology firms to showcase their products at U.S. embassies overseas.

The 39-year-old Democrat also served on the White House Business Council, where he worked with both business and labor to enact policies that would repatriate manufacturing jobs in the United States.

Due to a federal investigation into incumbent Mike Honda for violating significant ethics laws, Khanna currently has more of an impetus than ever before. The congressional hopeful recently took some time away from his campaign to speak with the American Bazaar about his chances of reaching Capitol Hill, his inspiration, and plans for future policymaking. Here are the edited excerpts:

Why do you believe you are best suited to represent California’s 17th district?

I have a passion for education and making sure we are preparing young people with the skills they need in the 21st century and a platform that really talks about preschool education, STEM, music, and art in K-through-12. I also want to make college affordable. I think I have the best education platform for the district. I also have an understanding of what we need to do to compete in the global economy and help bring jobs back to the United States — those would be the two reasons.

What do you think are your chances this time around?

Very good! We have a lot of momentum and strong endorsements from the [San Jose] Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle, a lot of local endorsements, and the momentum seems to be headed in our direction.

How are the Indian Americans responding to you?

I think my story resonates because it’s so symbolic of the Indian American journey. My grandfather spent four years in jail with Gandhi during the 1940s because of the Indian independence movement. My dad was a chemical engineer and my mom was a school teacher; they immigrated here in the 1960s and I went to public school and they emphasized getting a good education — so I think Indian American community sees in me the hope to make a contribution to American life and politics. I’ve been honored and really appreciative of the outpouring of support. We’ve had grassroots support and contributions from across the country and I’m really grateful — I hope we can continue with that.

You had a lot of support from the tech industry in the last race. Do you have the same kind of support this time also?

I do. We have Sheryl Samberg [of Facebook], John Doerr [of KPCB], Ram Shriram [of Sherpalo Ventures], Sean Parker [of Founders Fund], Ron Conway [of SV Angel], [and many others among supporters.]

What are the cornerstones of your platform for the 2016 campaign?

Making colleges affordable, not taking any special interests money — I don’t take any PAC or lobbyist money — and putting more investment in K-through-12 education.

Are there any significant differences between your strategy during the 2014 midterm campaign and your current run for Congress?

The biggest difference is my wife, Ritu Khanna. She has been so supportive, and she has an amazing ability to connect with people. She’s made me a better, more empathetic human being and a better candidate; and people in my district like her more than me! There’s also a major ethics investigation that is ongoing with a six to zero finding that [my opponent Mike Honda] broke the rules and gave special favors to wealthy donors. A lot of people are upset by that and I think there’s been a large movement of local support from him to me.

You previously mentioned your grandfather, who was involved with the Indian movement for independence — is that who inspired your commitment to public service?

Yes, he would tell stories about his time in jail and that was really what inspired me. He stood up for human rights and believed that people could make a difference.

As a first generation Indian American, does your heritage influence the manner in which you approach policymaking?

It gives me a sense of the importance of education, culture, compassion for individuals, respect for the elderly, diversity, pluralism, and tolerance. I think those are values we need in our society.

Bilateral relations between the U.S. and India are currently stronger than they’ve been in decades. What are the key issues that the two nations must cooperate on in your opinion?

We need to cooperate on rooting out terrorism, which is a global threat, and we need to cooperate on creating innovation that can hopefully create jobs in the U.S., which is a large export market. A lot of people buy American products and I look forward to continuing to help expand that market for American manufacturers and businesses.

There has been significant backlash against the proliferation of H-1B visas, especially in California. Do you believe there ought to be a cap on said visas in order to bolster the domestic workforce?

I think there’s been a lot of abuse with H-1B visas where people have been exploited and paid wages under market value. I do think that there has to be a hard look at that and reform of that.

How do you think the H-1B program can be reformed?

Eventually I’d prefer that people have Green Cards instead of H-1B visas because in some cases people are being taken advantage of.

Do you believe California’s plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 is a sound idea? In the long run, will it help or hurt the local workforce?

I think having the minimum wage at $15 is basically keeping up with inflation. The other area where we need help is expanding the earned-income tax credit, which I think will help people survive on minimum income without also putting stress on small business, which is an argument that Warren Buffet has made.

In light of the federal investigation into your opponent, Mike Honda, President Obama took the rare measure of withdrawing support for an incumbent within his own party. Seeing as you’ve worked on both Obama’s senatorial and presidential campaigns, are you hoping for his endorsement during your current run for Congress?

No, the fact that he is not endorsing Mike Honda is a huge statement, and I don’t think one could really expect any more than that. That’s a big message right there.

The silence is deafening, if you will.

(Chuckles) Yes.

Mike Honda has referred to you as a “Trump Democrat,” what has your response been to that claim?

It’s just silly. He’s obviously gotten very desperate but the fact is if you look at my platform I’m a very strong, progressive Democrat. I stand for immigration, I stand for human rights, I stand for an economy that helps the middle class. I think he’s trying to throw mud to detract from his own ethics scandal but I don’t think it’s going to work.

As a “strong progressive Democrat,” do you believe you have the necessary tools to garner bipartisan cooperation across the aisle?

I do. I am a progressive Democrat but I’ve gotten support from people across the aisle in my district, and I think that shows that I can reach across the aisle and get support once in Washington.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Having a young, Indian American who is proud of his heritage representing Silicon Valley — which is the district of Apple, Google, Intel, Yahoo, Cisco, LinkedIn, etcetera and is the only Asian majority district in the continental United States — will be so huge, and a formative moment for the Indian American community to show that we have a voice in American politics. My hope is every Indian American across the country will see that and be part of our campaign in any manner, whether it’s liking us on Facebook, whether it’s giving $10 online, whether it’s tweeting — because it has such a profound consequence for the Indian American community.