Mike Honda and Ro Khanna.
As the 2014 political circus nears its grand finale, San Francisco magazine peers under the big top. Here, a series of insider stories about issues, candidates, and races both important and absurd. Check back between now and November 4, as more stories go online.
Monday, Oct. 20: Consultants for Chaos
Tuesday, Oct. 21: Yes We Ken
Wednesday, Oct. 22: Soda Makes You Fat & I'm Ok With That
Thursday, Oct. 23: Republicans for Ro
Friday, Oct. 24: Cars Are People Too
Monday, Oct. 27: Build, Berkeley, Build
Tuesday, Oct. 28: I'm With David. No, I'm With David
Wednesday, Oct. 29: Pissed & Proud
It’s a warm September night in the South Bay, and Ro Khanna, candidate for Congress, is confidently making the rounds before a town hall gathering at the Milpitas Library. The astounding ethnic diversity of California’s 17th Congressional District, which runs from Cupertino to Fremont, is on full display: Of the 50 or so attendees sipping cups of lassi and nibbling on spicy Indian doughnuts donated by a local restaurant, only a handful are white. This is how 21st-century California rolls: majority minority, vegetarian Indian food, and Democratic Party–dominated politics. Khanna, tall and dapper in a suit, chats amiably with a group of young men of South Asian descent who sport the slightly bedazzled look of rock groupies.
Social Security and Medicare are the topics of the day. When Khanna’s turn to speak arrives, he stakes out a standard liberal defense of these pillars of the safety net, positioning himself slightly to the left of President Barack Obama. He opposes raising the eligibility age and cutting benefits; he’d like to see Americans earning more than $250,000 pay higher Social Security taxes.
Watching Khanna deftly field questions from the audience—and considering his left-of-center positions on issues such as the minimum wage—it seems odd to imagine him as the conservative candidate in a congressional race. But that’s how this competition is playing out. Khanna is attempting to unseat seven-term incumbent Mike Honda, a Bay Area liberal stalwart endorsed by both Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Khanna, meanwhile, is backed by big names in the tech community, including Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer. The conventional wisdom is set in stone: Honda is labor’s candidate; Khanna is backed by business. Increasingly sharp rhetoric from both campaigns emphasizes these supposed fundamental differences: Khanna’s team has labeled Honda “ineffective”; Honda’s campaign has attempted to tar Khanna as supporting Tea Party politics.
It shouldn’t need saying that a politician who endorses raising the minimum wage and taxing higher-earning Americans to keep Social Security solvent is hardly a Tea Party radical. Even so, a cold political reality informs how Khanna must campaign down the stretch. In the May primary, Honda walloped Khanna by 22 points, taking 49 percent of the vote to Khanna’s 27 percent. But California’s four-year-old open-primary system pits the top two primary finishers against each other in the general election. Khanna finished comfortably ahead of the two Republican contenders, whose combined vote total added up to 24 percent.
So there’s your math. The most obvious way for Khanna to win is to peel off Republican voters who might see him as the least liberal of the two candidates. And that, in turn, might explain why the morning before the town hall, Khanna held a press conference endorsing pension reform. Pension reform is the kind of issue you are more likely to hear Chris Christie or Scott Walker fulminate over than a Democrat running for Congress in California. But Khanna, who would be considered a socialist in Texas, has no choice but to curry favor with Republicans if he wants to win in a district that voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2012.
“There are Democrats who support pension reform,” Khanna says in his own defense when I bring up this line of argument. “I’m not going to be down the line for any particular constituency.”
The pitch that he keeps coming back to is that his pragmatism—and his understanding of economics—will help him bridge partisan divisions and get legislation passed to enhance the welfare of the citizens of the 17th District. But at least one such citizen, sitting behind me at the Milpitas town hall, is unconvinced. “What makes him think he can do any better getting those Republicans to do anything with Democrats than Obama?” she grumbles. Despite Khanna’s optimism, it’s a question with no good answer.
Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco