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Silicon Valley Boosts a ‘Tech Groupie’ for Congress | The Nation

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Silicon Valley Boosts a ‘Tech Groupie’ for Congress

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Ro Khanna

(Illustration: Louisa Bertman)

The ascendant technology industry has become an economic behemoth, but its recent forays into politics have proceeded only by fits and starts. Perhaps the most famous example is FWD.us, Mark Zuckerberg’s abortive effort to advocate immigration reform via a tax-exempt 501(c)4 “social welfare” organization—now dead in the water after it paid for ads pushing the Keystone XL pipeline and provoked a public outcry.

The industry has been dominated for decades by an anti-establishment, libertarian strain of thought, one that has made for sloppy calculations in the rough-and-tumble of public life. But as tech companies start to explore how much the government can do to benefit them, that outlook is changing. Enter Ro Khanna, Democratic primary challenger in California’s 17th District and the industry’s $2.5 million man.

On a warm evening in early May, the candidate geared up—as he has several times daily for more than a year—to sell himself. Before a standing-room-only crowd inside the Fremont City Hall, a squat building in this quiet Silicon Valley suburb, the intellectual property lawyer and Stanford economics lecturer asked the room to vote for him over the man standing beside him, incumbent congressman (and fellow Democrat) Mike Honda.

“People feel that Congress is broken,” Khanna says. “How are we going to prepare people to understand programming, computer coding?” he asks the crowd, waving his hands for emphasis. “How are we going to get people to understand 3-D printing and robotics so we can compete in the twenty-first century?”

Here in one of the few Asian-American-majority districts in the country, turbans bob above the crowd and the spectators chat in Hindi, Cantonese, Tagalog. A few miles to the southeast, the Tesla Motors factory hums away; elsewhere in the district—which encompasses several cities in Silicon Valley—are the headquarters of Apple, Yahoo, eBay and Intel. With less than a month to go until the primary election, the energy in the room is palpable. As a result of California’s relatively new “jungle” primary system, the top two finishers in June will make the November ballot regardless of party affiliation, thereby opening the door for a well-funded upstart like Khanna to challenge a party stalwart like Honda. It won’t be easy, however: if history is any indication, unseating an uncontroversial incumbent is difficult if not impossible, and the most recent poll, from February, showed Honda winning by a healthy margin, with Khanna and Republican Vanila Singh running neck and neck.

This isn’t Khanna’s first run for office, but it is his best-funded. In 2004, he ran against fellow Democrat Tom Lantos to represent California’s 12th District, which then encompassed an area a few miles northwest of Khanna’s current district; he ended up with less than 20 percent of the vote. In 2012, he raised $1.2 million before deciding not to run. This time, his tech-friendly, pro-business message has pulled in nearly $2.5 million. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Oracle and a half-dozen venture-capital firms have all thrown their weight behind Khanna, to the tune of at least $10,000 each. Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer are supporters, as is Google’s Eric Schmidt and Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla. So too, puzzlingly, is the famously libertarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel (Khanna is reportedly the first Democratic candidate to whom he has offered support).

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In person, at a coffee chain in a nondescript strip mall near Fremont’s downtown, Khanna offers a similar pitch when asked why the industry has thrown its weight behind him. “With me, [the tech community] sees someone who understands the issues, the complexity of the issues,” he says. “Honda isn’t conversant in the language and the issues.” He mentions his “coding in the classroom” initiative, which would give public schools incentives to teach computer programming. “If you asked Mike Honda, ‘What language would you teach?’, I don’t think he would know. His knowledge on these things is an inch deep. If you’re not going to speak the language, you’re not going to get to the values.”

Lanky, soft-spoken and dapper in a navy suit, Khanna is a polished candidate. And he has a politician’s gift for tailoring his message: when speaking with The Nation, he uses words like “progressive” and “liberal” and is quick to mention that he came out early for gay marriage and against the war in Iraq. It’s a marked change in rhetorical tactics from last May, when Khanna told the crowd at a $2,600-a-plate fundraiser well attended by the tech elite that “it’s time we actually change politics,” adding that “Silicon Valley has the potential to do this.”

Honda, by contrast, is a Democrat with strong ties to labor and the support of almost all his Democratic colleagues, including President Obama, Attorney General Kamala Harris and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. His campaign has raised a half-million dollars less than his opponent, largely from unions and small donors. On the trail, he’s made a point of courting not Silicon Valley’s “investor class”—that is, its CEOs and founders, most of whom live outside the 17th District—but rather the industry’s rank-and-file programmers and semiconductor fabricators, and he’s been forthright about his intentions to make sure this working- and middle-class district is “for everybody and not just for a few.”

Incredibly, the Khanna campaign has used Honda’s commitment to progressive economic policy to paint its candidate as an underdog, an outside-the-box thinker—a “disruptor,” in Silicon Valley parlance. But what’s obscured in the dichotomy created by the Khanna campaign—tech-savvy innovator versus out-of-touch elder statesman—is that Honda has, in fact, taken a series of clear positions on tech questions. In some cases, those positions have been much clearer than those of his competitor.

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