Silicon Valley Boosts a ‘Tech Groupie’ for Congress
In 2003, Honda introduced a landmark nanotechnology bill that authorized more than $3.7 billion to be invested in nanotech. He vocally opposed the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act—House and Senate bills, respectively, that would have dramatically advanced the government’s ability to intervene against websites hosting copyrighted material. Today he opposes the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, which would allow companies immunity in sharing user data with the NSA. He describes himself as an “ardent defender” of net neutrality. He is co-chair of the Democratic Caucus New Media Working Group and has championed funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields. All told, there don’t appear to be many substantive tech issues that Honda doesn’t “get.”
But in an industry that takes the techno-utopian view that government is made to be hacked and that legislators are merely the hackers, the investor class may be looking less for a set of policies than for someone who will prioritize their needs over time. Silicon Valley donors don’t describe Khanna in terms of positions and platforms, but rather in impressionistic terms, in cultural platitudes and buzzwords. They are particularly fond of saying that Khanna “gets it,” that he understands their values and speaks their language, whereas Honda doesn’t. Khanna himself plays into this cosmetic-level criticism with his argument that his opponent doesn’t know the intricacies of various coding languages, perhaps forgetting that the congressman is a legislator, not a developer.
There’s a term for this in tech: “culture fit,” the qualitative sense that a job candidate would assimilate to a given company’s culture. As Paul Graham—co-founder of the tech incubator Y Combinator, Khanna’s second-biggest single campaign donor—told The New York Times Magazine in 2013: “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg…. There was a guy once who we funded who was terrible. I said: How could he be bad? He looks like Zuckerberg!”
Khanna looks close enough. He uses techie jargon fluently, unabashedly and often—“disrupt” appears to be a personal favorite—and frequently describes his district as the “heart of innovation.” He’s gone on record calling himself a “tech groupie.” He behaves, in other words, exactly like the sort of person that Silicon Valley companies like to hire. It’s not that Khanna is more in touch with technology than Honda; it’s that he’s far more in touch with the donors who control it, and who treat him like the employee they might expect on Capitol Hill.
In a region where the titans of industry are extremely (and almost exclusively) young; where Mark Zuckerberg famously told a Stanford audience that “young people are just smarter”; and where the corporate culture is notoriously inhospitable to anyone over 40, Mike Honda—a white-haired 72-year-old who often mentions his childhood in a Japanese internment camp as part of his stump speech—is simply not “a culture fit.”
Although not a single member of Silicon Valley’s investor class would go on record and into policy-level specifics about why he or she is supporting Khanna, their companies have a lot to gain from having a sympathetic ear on the Hill. The largest tech firms’ interests begin with standard legislative concerns like lowering corporate and capital gains taxes and increasing the number of visas for the types of workers they employ. Khanna is opposed to increasing capital gains taxes and supports increasing the number of H1B visas, which are frequently used by tech employees and were lobbied for by Facebook’s FWD.us. He is also broadly supportive of free trade, getting behind the Korea Free Trade Agreement opposed by many Democrats, including Honda.
These companies’ services have the size and scope of public utilities, although they are not regulated as such, and the industry-specific nature of their interests is sometimes obscure. Take Google: Khanna’s largest corporate donor has long since ceased to be a mere search engine—it’s now selling broadband Internet in the heartland through Google Fiber and phones all over the world through the Android operating system. That means it has a significant stake in issues ranging from patent law to land use to free trade to net neutrality. Google’s voluntary lobbying report for the fourth quarter of 2013 lists dozens of such issues and bills. In 2012, Google was among the deepest-pocketed corporate lobbying operations in Washington (second only to General Electric among corporations), with more than $18 million in expenditures. That’s an astronomical increase from just ten years ago, when Google had a single lobbyist and a lobbying budget of around $100,000. On the essential issue of net neutrality, Google’s position has shifted from full support to partial opposition after getting into the broadband business in 2013. Today, Google’s position on the contentious issue of net neutrality is mixed: it would like to charge content providers for faster access to consumers, instead of keeping all traffic on an equally fast lane.
Should Khanna make it to Capitol Hill, these issues will be the priorities of his major donors—a far cry from those of the less wealthy Californians Mike Honda has represented for four terms. It remains to be seen whether Khanna’s campaign will succeed in eliding the difference between understanding the tech industry and serving its interests in Washington. Silicon Valley certainly hopes so. To have someone on the Hill who can disrupt regulation and perhaps throw some visas their way? Now that would be a culture fit.
Read Next: Back in 2004, John Nichols reported on the 27-year-old Ro Khanna’s primary challenge to twelve-term Democratic incumbent Tom Lantos, who supported the October 2002 “blank check” resolution authorizing George Bush to order a pre-emptive attack on Iraq.