Reality of winning a seat in Congress hitting Khanna fast
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.”
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.