Future Democratic hopeful Ro Khanna takes on America’s Heartland from Silicon Valley

The average voter in Ohio might have no idea who he is — he’s working on that — but Khanna’s angling to be the Democratic Party’s forward-facing industrialist, revitalizing manufacturing across forgotten swaths of the heartland all with an eye towards higher office.

Mar 4, 2023 - 15:45
Mar 4, 2023 - 19:48
Future Democratic hopeful Ro Khanna takes on America’s Heartland from Silicon Valley

Mercury - banking for startups

Mercury - banking for startups

By Mackenzie Hawkins | Bloomberg

Ro Khanna was first elected as a whiz kid evangelist for Silicon Valley, the heart of his congressional district and home to Apple, Cisco and Intel’s headquarters. Today, though, the Californian’s stumping for a different crowd.

The average voter in Ohio might have no idea who he is — he’s working on that — but Khanna’s angling to be the Democratic Party’s forward-facing industrialist, revitalizing manufacturing across forgotten swaths of the heartland all with an eye towards higher office.

With the public souring on Big Tech and President Joe Biden popularizing a “Made in America” agenda, Khanna is seizing on last year’s Chips Act, a massive bipartisan achievement that dedicates around $50 billion to making computer chips at home to reverse decades of production in Asia. The Bernie Sanders acolyte wants to replicate that formula in sectors like textiles, steel and offshore wind, pitching a “new economic patriotism” that he estimates will cost $2 trillion over 10 years.

Turning a bumper-sticker slogan into actual policy from a divided Congress may prove to be a near-impossible task. And yet Khanna, despite acknowledging that he lacks buy-in from his colleagues, seems undeterred. His visits to the Rust Belt — as one of the wealthiest House members representing its wealthiest constituency — have been met with a skeptical, but curious, enthusiasm.

That could put him in a pretty good position to, say, run for president — but for the fact that Biden, 80, seems headed into 2024 eager for reelection, leaving Khanna, 46, among a crowd of young Democrats who will have to wait. He’ll make a decision on California’s open Senate seat by April. As for 2028, Khanna isn’t shy. “They say Bill Clinton showed up in New Hampshire in 1980,” he said. Khanna showed up in 2018.lico

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In the meantime, he’s sticking to an idea that could distinguish him as Democrats look to their bench to define the future of the party. And he hasn’t hesitated to challenge party — and Washington — orthodoxy, opposing a bipartisan tech antitrust bill along with several other California Democrats and planning a visit to China after touring Taiwan when no other lawmakers are publicly entertaining such a sensitive venture.

But on Capitol Hill, Khanna doesn’t yet have Democratic allies on board with his moon-shot initiative, let alone Republicans. A key GOP counterpart on the Chips Act, Senator Todd Young of Indiana, is wary of moving too quickly to duplicate a framework that’s only just being rolled out. A main industrialist of Khanna’s own party, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, hadn’t heard of Khanna’s plan, dubbed a national economic development council, when asked about it last month. That’s because Khanna was focused on courting a Republican co-sponsor in Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who’s open only to a spending target a hundred times smaller.

Khanna’s friends praise his pursuit of bipartisanship. But it doesn’t help garner the overwhelming margins that he acknowledged in an interview Democrats would need to pass his legislative agenda.

Still, he will continue to fight for it, Khanna said, because the nation faces a challenge similar to World War II in the rise of China and therefore demands a response similar to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s. “We need to have the same urgency, the same scale, to build this production base.”

And so a decade since his first serious run for Congress, Khanna finds himself a dutiful Biden surrogate with a healthy resume of factory town visits; a regular Fox News presence whose colleagues see in him a reasonable, if idealistic, partner; and the darling of Sanders 2020 veterans who want to mold him into the next progressive torchbearer.

Policy Inclinations

California’s 17th District is best explained via superlatives. It’s the richest in the country — the median household income was $157,049 in 2021 — and straddles tech-heavy Santa Clara and Alameda counties. Nearly half of its population was born outside the US; more than three-fifths of households primarily speak a language other than English. It’s the only Asian-majority district outside of Hawaii.

As a son of Indian immigrants, and a former Stanford economics lecturer and technology lawyer, Khanna’s a fitting representative. He grew up on a mixed-income street in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with a chemical engineer for a father and substitute teacher for a mother. His political idealism, he said, comes from his late grandfather, an Indian freedom fighter; his economic ideas, from his childhood, Gandhian philosophy, and a conversation with former Intel CEO Andy Grove that also inspired his first book. At a recent town hall in his district, Khanna took a question from a boy who couldn’t have been much older than he was when he wrote an editorial questioning US motives in the first Gulf War: “I thought you were gonna announce your candidacy,” Khanna joked. “Reminds me of what I was like at your age.”

If Bucks County gave Khanna his policy inclinations, the University of Chicago gave him his political edge. Khanna’s first campaign experience was a certain civil rights attorney’s 1996 contest for the Illinois State Senate. Years later, after graduating from Yale Law and flailing through a protest bid for the House in 2004, Khanna served in Barack Obama’s Commerce Department and on his White House Business Council.

Khanna modeled his second campaign on Obama-style coalition politics and staffed it with Obama veterans. But publishing Entrepreneurial Nation: Why Manufacturing is Still Key to America’s Future and getting endorsements from bigwigs like Sheryl Sandberg and John Doerr failed to win over the people for whom Silicon Valley was not a tech utopia, and instead just where they happened to live. “He talked about his vision,” said Linda Sell, a longtime campaign volunteer and recently elected Sunnyvale City Council member. “But people are back at: ‘I’m worried about my jobs, I’m worried about the kids’ education.’”

After his 2014 defeat, Khanna adapted. The first issue on his campaign website, “Growing our Economy and Promoting Entrepreneurship,” became “Building a Strong 21st Century Economy.” A grassroots political strategist, according to Sell, advised Khanna to become a “Target” political candidate who could relate to the challenges facing everyday big-box shoppers. His national pitch, said friend and Fremont, California, community advocate Yogi Chugh, began to include local issues.

Now, four landslide victories later, Khanna is the tech and Indian-American communities’ informal ambassador to Trump Country. His home district “likes the idea that we could be a model,” said Deepa Sharma, who chairs the California Democratic Party’s Asian Pacific Islander Caucus. And in places like Youngstown, Ohio, someone like Khanna is “very, very well received,” said Tim Ryan, the former congressman who took Khanna on one of his first Midwest tours. As for whether Silicon Valley is a liability, Ryan said, people don’t pay it any mind: “They want to know if you care about them.”

Proof of Concept

Americans used to produce almost two-fifths of the tiny semiconductors that power smartphones and refrigerators and cars, Biden said at his State of the Union address last month; now, that number is only 10%. Then, to applause, the president touted the Chips Act, which allocates a total of $280 billion to bring production home.

Sitting in his Capitol Hill office a few days later, Khanna was pleased. He just wants to go further. A national economic development council would come up with the specifics, he said, but $2 trillion would provide bandwidth to clone the Chips Act across the US economy. To get there, though, he needs to rally members of his party and to negotiate with Republicans such as his co-sponsor, Rubio, who wants only $20 billion.

Meanwhile, Khanna is honing his pitch, stressing that the proof of concept already exists — in the many countries with sweeping subsidies of their own, and in the US itself: “This is how Hamilton built America,” one of four times he referenced the Founding Father over the course of an hour. “This is how FDR built America.” (One of six.)

Still, many members of Congress, and voters in their districts, are wary of government intervention. Everything from federal subsidies to state-matched seed funding could come with so many bureaucratic hurdles, few people may be able to take advantage, said Scott Shane, an economics professor and managing director of Midwest venture fund Comeback Capital, who met Khanna years ago in Youngstown. “I really admire the spirit of the concept,” he said, “but I don’t think that at a practical level it’s possible.”

National Appeal

But some 2,500 miles west, the “move fast and break things” crowd can’t get enough. Over the course of five campaigns since 2014, Khanna’s received more than $100,000 in individual donations from top executives at Meta, Apple and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, according to federal filings. Google workers contributed more to his 2022 war chest than employees of any other company by multiple orders of magnitude, according to OpenSecrets, and he received more internet industry and VC funding than any other House candidate. Khanna signed a no-PAC pledge and still raised nearly twice as much as the average House member in 2022, when he was running for a seat where he faced no serious competition.

“I say tax the billionaires,” Khanna said. “And billionaires in my district, they keep sending me back to Congress.”

He’s used that money to lay what appears to be the groundwork for a future presidential bid, shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to consultants with ties to New Hampshire and Iowa, at the time the first two states of the Democratic primary calendar. He’s toured the Midwest and South, visiting cities with little political appeal and others clearly chosen to raise his profile. Over the past several years, he’s cultivated relationships with organizers from Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign, of which he was co-chair.

“If you, representing Silicon Valley, can come to Iowa and be successful, there’s something there,” said Stacey Walker of Iowa-based Sage Strategies, a Sanders veteran who Khanna’s campaign paid $8,000 last year to connect him with labor leaders across the state. They didn’t explicitly talk national races, Walker said — but “the information we were providing would be very, very helpful to anyone that, at that time, was thinking about running for president.”

Khanna said he will back Biden if he runs in 2024. Asked to describe what a Khanna administration would look like, he responded by explaining what a progressive successor to Biden would do. Then he described what he’s done.

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