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Ro Versus the Machine

Melissa Griffin Caen | April 30, 2014 | Story Politics

“It’s just a jump to the left,” read the huge, hand-painted letters on the wall. And then a step to the right, my brain instinctively continues, as I sip wine from a plastic cup and wait around for Ro Khanna to arrive.

Khanna is running against incumbent Mike Honda to represent Silicon Valley in the House of Representatives, and today’s event, organized by the Khanna campaign, is being held in the offices of YouNoodle, a San Francisco startup (actually, it helps startups find funding, so it’s a startup for startups). Its offices look like a Saturday Night Live set for a sketch about techies: Every item seems to be winking at me—from the Rocky Horror Picture Show lyrics on the wall to the Ping-Pong table surrounded by huge sticky notepads to the bikes hanging from the walls. The whole place makes me feel old.

The speaking engagement is dubbed “Women in Technology,” which seems like an odd platform for a 37-year-old man. But Khanna receives a warm ovation. Tall, slim, and sporting gray dress pants and a button-down shirt, he would go unnoted at the Battery. He gives a brief introduction, asks the attendees for ideas about how to increase the number of female leaders in tech, and then listens for almost an hour as the group airs its grievances. Given that candidates are usually the ones for verbosity, his is an impressive performance: He leans in, his shoulders hunched a bit forward, as he nods and makes eye contact.

At the end of the presentation, he thanks the attendees for their suggestions and quickly admits the limitations of public office, saying that he doesn’t know how much just one out of 435 members of the House can accomplish. “But what I do know is that these discussions aren’t even taking place. Ideas aren’t being proposed, and people are so risk-averse.” People like Mike Honda, he seems to imply.

Khanna—a Democrat, a former Obama appointee to the Commerce Department, and an attorney specializing in intellectual property law—is hoping that his tech-friendly, anti–special interest approach will help him unseat the 17th District’s current congressman, Honda, who is also a Democrat—and a popular one at that. For Khanna to win, he’ll need to do more than jump to the left, step to the right, let’s do the time warp again. He’ll also need his opponent to self-destruct.

Which is not likely to happen: Honda, who is 72 years old and has been serving in Congress for 13 years, is an amiable man with the support of a broad swath of the Democratic establishment. He is, as the wags at the political blog Calbuzz once wrote, “a nice, friendly, feckless liberal who never did much except vote the Democratic Party line as handed down by party and labor leaders.”

Khanna, on the other hand, fancies himself a political disrupter, a thought leader, a visionary. For him, Washington, D.C., is just a swampier Y Combinator: It’s a place where you network, pitch ideas, incubate them, iterate on them, and turn them into dating apps—oops, laws. His campaign has positioned him as something of a tricked-out Tesla, as opposed to his adversary’s dependable, uninspiring hatchback. (In this analogy, Honda is, aptly enough, a Honda.)

The approach appears to be working. “It’s hard to remember this kind of enthusiasm for a primary challenger to an incumbent congressman,” observes Dan Schnur, a politics professor at the University of Southern California (currently on hiatus while he runs for California Secretary of State, independent of any party). At a moment when the electorate is less than thrilled with either president or party, much of what makes Khanna attractive is that unlike Honda, he’s a Democrat who doesn’t moon over the Democratic establishment. “I want to put the country ahead of our party,” Khanna told a group at the Sunnyvale Senior Center. “I will go to Congress to be my own person.” His words match his deeds: The mere fact that he is challenging a good party soldier like Honda is a brisk slap in the face to the Democratic Party and its unspoken pecking order.

Not surprisingly, the Democratic Party is slapping back. Howard Dean, founder of Democracy for America, called Khanna “a corporate-backed challenger whose big-money donors are intent on buying Mike’s congressional seat.” Honda has the endorsement of President Barack Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and the Democratic Party itself.

But being snubbed by party leadership isn’t always a deal breaker, and there’s reason to think it won’t be for Khanna. Believe it or not, the Democratic Party boasts only 43.6 percent of California registered voters—and thus depends on independent voters to cobble together a majority. In the 17th, a whopping 32 percent of voters are proud Decline to State–ers. Honda’s campaign expects independent voters to make up 24 percent of the electorate in the primary and 28 percent in the general election in 2014—more than enough to turn the tide in an insurgent candidate’s direction. Nevertheless, voters need a good reason to show up and vote for the new guy—and so far, Honda hasn’t given them one.

If the history of local congressional elections tells us anything, it’s that House members have to screw up or be swept aside by a massive political sea change before most voters will go looking for an upgrade. Among the Bay Area’s current congressional delegation, the average age is 62, with 16 years in the House. And unfortunately for Khanna, Honda is neither a gaffe machine nor a scandal magnet. Though he has few major accomplishments in his congressional record, he also hasn’t brought shame or embarrassment on his district. He’s been solid, dependable, good enough—and voters don’t generally fire good enough. You can hack a lot of things, but you can’t hack that.

Though Honda doesn’t have a lengthy list of bills passed with his name on them, he might have something better: a history of, as he puts it himself, “bringing home the bacon.” The congressman estimates that he’s brought some $500 million in federal funds to the district since he was elected back in 2000. That pork buys a lot of goodwill, and so does a strong local presence. “The reason more than 90 percent of House incumbents go on to get reelected is that they constantly, in one way or another, communicate with the district,” says San Jose State politics professor Larry Gerston. Honda is a constant presence in the district, and, after 13 years in Congress and more than 40 in public office, he’s now a household name. Khanna is not.

The only two polls that had been made public at press time were commissioned by Dean’s Democracy for America, but they show Khanna at a serious disadvantage. In August 2013, Khanna had 15 percent of the vote, compared to Honda’s 49 percent. A February 2014 poll showed Honda at 45 percent, Khanna at 26 percent, and Republican candidate Vanila Singh at 29 percent.

I ask Gerston what could possibly flip those numbers. “Well, one thing that could upset that is some sort of scandal,” he explains. “Another thing could be a radical change to the district. And the third thing would be some sort of new force introduced into the original arrangement—and, of course, that could be a large amount of money.”

Let’s examine those factors. Honda is squeaky clean, regarded by most who know him as Congressman Care Bear. “A real touchy-feely, cuddly, sincere kind of guy” is how Gerston describes him; in the words of Politico, he’s a “genial, grandfatherly figure.” Even his enemies aren’t enemies. Khanna and his supporters all begin their critiques with “I like the guy, but...” or “He’s great, but...” Suffice it to say that Khanna’s not going to win based on public anger toward his opponent or (one hopes) a sex scandal rocking the office.

As for the district, it has undergone a change—but not a radical one. All the congressional districts were redrawn after the 2010 census, so Honda, who was initially elected to District 15 in 2000, is now running in a somewhat different area. But he’s already won once in District 17, in the 2012 election, when he got 73 percent of the vote. The new District 17 contains a little more than 50 percent of the same voters as the old District 15, and the demographics overall are similar to those of the old 15, where Honda was successful for so long. So, that’s a wash.

Which brings us to the money. Central to Khanna’s independence is his pledge not to take money from lobbyists or political action committees. None of this has stopped him from raising $3.4 million, vastly outstripping Honda’s $1.2 million. Of course, Honda’s supporters like to point out that Khanna is taking money from some high-profile donors that sure look a lot like special interests. And it is true that Khanna’s donor roster resembles the cool kids’ table at Silicon Valley High: Facebook cofounder Sean Parker, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, to name just a few. But Khanna is only taking donations from individuals, and individuals (even tech titans) are limited to giving $2,600 apiece. There are no pro-Khanna groups taking money and operating outside of his campaign.If he is se lling his soul, he’s doing it in teeny-tiny shares.

The upshot, as the Cook Political Report described it, is this: “Khanna’s biggest challenge won’t be money or finding supporters on Twitter or Facebook; it will be finding a reason for voters to fire Honda, who has been a reliable and unoffensive Democratic vote in the House.” Which means that Khanna has had to distinguish himself. It hasn’t been easy.

In 2012, author and psychology professor Jonathan Haidt wrote an article in the Guardian titled “Why Working-Class People Vote Conservative.” In it, he argues that at a time when the nation is still reeling from financial catastrophe, people want a return to “national greatness, not a more nurturing government.” Khanna, who authored a book in 2012 called Entrepreneurial Nation: Why Manufacturing Is Still Key to America’s Future, is angling his message to address this yawning need. He predicts an era of economic greatness in America created by manufacturing and innovation.

Honda talks about this issue too, but, as Schnur puts it, “He’s always talked just enough about business to appear engaged, but he’s really more of a Democratic Party foot soldier.” The representative from Silicon Valley should be “leading the debate on the economy and on what we need for the 21st century on education,” says Khanna. “It’s the most unique district in the country, in the world—the heart of economic growth, the heart of innovation.” Giving tax breaks to companies that don’t move jobs overseas, raising the minimum wage, and teaching coding in every elementary school are just a few of the planks in his platform. And some people are eating it up.

“I don’t often get involved with campaigns at all,” says Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator. “But I think that restarting innovation is the key to our economic problems, and Khanna is one of the only politicians I’ve ever met who understands that.” The high-profile fan club extends beyond tech, too: Even former 49er Ronnie Lott is sold. “Some of the things he is talking about are things that made the country great—keeping jobs here, finding ways to innovate, finding ways to encourage manufacturing to stay here,” Lott tells me. “I’m not thinking about me. I’m thinking about my kids.”

Khanna has pretty well cornered the market on visionaries and early adopters who are less interested in incremental improvements than in major breakthroughs. But only 30 percent of Silicon Valley’s workforce is employed in tech, and it seems safe to assume that the region’s retired people, who vote in large numbers, have no particular allegiance to the technology sector. For Khanna to have a chance against Honda, he’ll have to go beyond the early adopters and visionaries to reach pragmatists who are more cautious about grandiose schemes. While he can rightfully claim that he has been politically active most of his life, much of his activity was in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. He’ll need to stay in the district and let people get to know him in order to earn their trust.

But being on the ballot helps build name recognition, and it’s not uncommon for candidates to run several times before being elected. Honda has held political office of some kind for 43 years. Already he refuses to debate Khanna, which has prompted the Chronicle to decry the incumbent’s “aloofness and/or obliviousness”—and observers to ask how many more terms he has in him. At some point, he’ll retire, or maybe even make a mistake that will send voters into the arms of the one who has been wooing them for so long: someone named Ro Khanna, who in a few years will have perfected his message and shown his commitment to the community.

There are few places more accepting of people who have failed than the Valley, where false starts are expected and encouraged as a normal part of creation. In fact, the seminal manual for software engineering, The Mythical Man-Month, warns all innovators to throw away their first prototype, because “even the best planning is not so omniscient as to get it right the first time.”

So when Khanna leans across the table in the conference room at his campaign headquarters and tells me, “I’m not afraid to lose,” I believe him. Unfortunately for the candidate, I also believe that he is going to test that sentiment come November, and that we may be analyzing these exact same candidates two years down the road.

Let’s do the time warp again.

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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