Re­al­ity of win­ning a seat in Congress hit­ting Khanna fast

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By John Wil­der­muth

Ro Khanna’s first week or so in Congress passed in a blur of ac­tiv­ity. Since be­ing sworn in Jan. 3, the Fre­mont at­tor­ney has hired staff, cast more than 30 votes, given his first speech on the House floor and at­tended a week­end re­treat for new mem­bers at Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg in Vir­ginia.

But he still has had some mo­ments to marvel at just how far he, the 40-year-old son of im­mi­grants from In­dia, has come.

“It hit me most when I made that first House floor speech,” Khanna said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “This is just an in­cred­i­ble honor and story. I’m rep­re­sent­ing 700,000-plus peo­ple.”

The third time was a charm for Khanna, who lost a long­shot pri­mary chal­lenge to San

Ma­teo County Demo­cratic Rep. Tom Lan­tos in 2004 and a 2014 race to fel­low-Demo­crat Rep. Mike Honda of San Jose be­fore de­feat­ing Honda, an eight-term con­gress­man, in Novem­ber.

But while a seat in Congress has long been Khanna’s dream, the re­al­ity has been some­thing of a shock.

“Even though you talk about is­sues and plans, there’s noth­ing in a cam­paign that can pre­pare you for this,” Khanna said.

The na­tional vis­i­bil­ity of any con­gress­man — es­pe­cially one from Sil­i­con Val­ley in the deep-blue Bay Area — also was a sur­prise.

Ear­lier this week, for ex­am­ple, Khanna told po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor Randy Shan­do­bil on the “This Golden State” pod­cast that he would be will­ing to go to jail to op­pose any ef­fort by in­com­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to take away the rights of im­mi­grant fam­i­lies.

The com­ments quickly went vi­ral, where they were fea­tured on con­ser­va­tive blogs and web­sites. The right-wing Bre­it­bart News web­site, whose for­mer boss, Stephen Ban­non, is now one of Trump’s top aides, picked up the story, and read­ers there quickly called for the Philadel­phia-born Khanna to be de­ported.

“Ev­ery­one picked up on that one re­mark,” said Khanna, whose grand­fa­ther spent four years in jail as a sup­porter of Mo­han­das Gandhi’s bat­tle for In­dian in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain in the 1940s. “But the point was that I’ll be there if there is a con­flict (with Trump), and it won’t just be me but a lot of us in the Cal­i­for­nia del­e­ga­tion.”

The re­al­ity, though, is that Khanna is a fresh­man Demo­crat at a time when Repub­li­cans in Washington hold all the po­lit­i­cal clout. All con­gres­sional Democrats, not just Khanna, are search­ing des­per­ately for a way to make their voices heard.

“We have to talk to pub­lic opin­ion be­cause we don’t have the votes,” Khanna said. “We have to show peo­ple that the (Repub­li­can) mea­sures are ex­treme and then go di­rectly to the Amer­i­can peo­ple and say, ‘This isn’t go­ing to help.’ ”

An ex­am­ple of what’s pos­si­ble, he said, came this month when GOP lead­ers quickly backed away from a plan to gut a House ethics watch­dog af­ter loud com­plaints from Democrats in Congress.

“A hun­dred Democrats jump­ing on the is­sue made a dif­fer­ence,” Khanna said.

While Khanna will be a mem­ber of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, he’s hop­ing a se­cond, as-yet-un­known, com­mit­tee as­sign­ment will give him a chance to deal with jobs and eco­nomic pol­icy.

“Maybe sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy or ed­u­ca­tion and the work­force,” mused Khanna, who has an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in eco­nom­ics from the Univer­sity of Chicago. The need for na­tional eco­nomic change “is what I ran on, and that’s been my pas­sion.”

While he de­scribes him­self as a team player and some­one will­ing to do “the block­ing and the tack­ling” needed by the Demo­cratic lead­er­ship, Khanna doesn’t plan to be an echo cham­ber for his party.

His first speech in the House, for ex­am­ple, called for tak­ing on pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tees and lob­by­ists, which are im­por­tant sources of cam­paign cash for Democrats as well as Repub­li­cans.

Khanna, who is a newly minted mem­ber of the House Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus, also sug­gested in­sti­tut­ing a 12-year term limit for mem­bers of Congress, call­ing the changes “nec­es­sary steps to re­store our democ­racy.”

Term lim­its have helped make Cal­i­for­nia’s Leg­is­la­ture one of the most di­verse and most pro­gres­sive in the coun­try, he said, and could give that same boost to Congress.

That’s likely to be a hard sell to vet­eran Demo­cratic politi­cians like Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Fran­cisco, who has been in Congress for 30 years, or his South Bay men­tors, Rep. Anna Eshoo (24 years) and Rep. Zoe Lof­gren (22 years).

Khanna’s no stranger to Washington, D.C., where from 2009 to 2011 he served as a deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of com­merce in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, spe­cial­iz­ing in clean tech­nol­ogy and in­ter­na­tional trade.

Of 25 new Demo­cratic rep­re­sen­ta­tives, Khanna is one of eight who has never served in elec­tive of­fice. His time in the Com­merce Depart­ment, how­ever, will make a dif­fer­ence, he said.

“I did a lot of com­mit­tee work with the ad­min­is­tra­tion ... and spent time in Com­merce see­ing the bud­get process work,” Khanna said.

Not all of what Khanna has to do in­volves pol­i­tics.

High on Khanna’s to-do list, for ex­am­ple, is get­ting out of the ex­tended-stay ho­tel where he and Ritu, his wife of less than 18 months, have been en­camped dur­ing his fran­tic first days in of­fice.

“We just bought a condo in Fre­mont, and we’re look­ing for a place in Washington,” he said. “My wife went to Ge­orge­town as an un­der­grad­u­ate, so we’ll start there.”

Given the over­whelm­ing Demo­cratic tilt of the South Bay’s 17th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict — and not­with­stand­ing his call for term lim­its — Khanna could be call­ing Washington his home away from home for many years.

“I like the city,” Khanna said. But un­like Fre­mont, “you don’t get great In­dian food within a mile of your door.”

Noah Berger / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle 2016

Ro Khanna and his wife, Ritu, cel­e­brate his vic­tory in Fre­mont on elec­tion night Nov. 8. Khanna has hit the ground run­ning in his first days in of­fice.

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