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'My governing philosophy is closer to where Obama's is'

December 19, 2013 14:01 IST

'My governing philosophy is closer to where Obama's is'


Aziz Haniffa

'The story is for the first time, Silicon Valley is mobilising locally to have a voice in American politics. The national Asian American-South Asian Diaspora with the Swadesh Chatterjees and Deepak Chopras and Vinod Khoslas, and Romesh Wadhwanis, and Arshad Zakarias and Mahinder Taks are mobilising in a way that has never happened before.'

Ro Khanna, who hopes to represents Silicon Valley in the United States Congress, speaks to's Aziz Haniffa.

Ro Khanna gave up an interesting job in the Obama administration to challenge United States Congressman Mike Honda, one of the most respected Asian American lawmakers, in next year's election to Congress.

Even though many Indian-American political leaders are angry that Khanna has challenged an icon like Honda, Ro has found support from some of the biggest names in Silcon Valley.

Part I of the interview: The Indian American who may represent Silicon Valley in the US Congress

As he runs one of the most scrutinsed election campaigns in the US, Ro Khanna took time to speak to's Aziz Haniffa about why he is humbled by the challenges ahead.

How many debates do you think Mike Honda should engage in with you?

Debates are the ideas of conversation of the future of the country, and I would love to have those conversations with Honda.

I will have those conversations after we win the elections with whoever I run against. I would encourage such conversations.

One thing I believe is that we should have contested elections, we should have debates. I would always debate folks and I would love to have substantive conversations with the Congressman about the direction of the country because I believe that is good and healthy for democracy -- not as some gimmick.

You have raised over five times the money Honda has in his campaign coffers. With such a war chest, is your strategy to overwhelm him just before the primary with a media blitz in television, radio, print, etc?

It is a case of our message resonating. We have both had our messages out there. He is a seven-term incumbent and he should be out-raising us.

He has all the advantages and perks of the institution. He has relationships and yet we've been getting far more support.

Why? Because of our message of taking PAC (Political Action Committee) money out of politics, taking federal lobbyists's money out of politics, having transparency and using technology to improve government and making it more user-friendly.

What would you say to cynics who may say, 'He has just got the Romesh Wadhwanis and the Vinod Khoslas and the techie crowd among the mainstream community, who've got plenty of bucks and who can keep contributing by bundling this constituency, and it's not necessarily the message that has been the catalyst but just that he has got Silicon Valley money behind him that has helped him out-raise Honda?'

If you look at the federal election commission filings, it is much more broad-based. We have educators, we have artists, we have working families and we have large numbers of people from the Asian-American community from different backgrounds.

These are small business owners, entrepreneurs, folks who are doing start-ups, working professionals. It is a very, very diverse base.

The second thing I will say, is every person is limited to giving $50 to $100 and I have personally pledged not to take the corporate PAC money, not to take federal lobbyists's money, so all the corporate PAC money is actually going to my opponent and we are raising it one coffee at a time, one small meeting at a time, on the strength of our message.

You have retained some of the most powerful hired guns to run your campaign. In fact, virtually all of President Obama's re-election campaign team, the A team. Was this a strategic move to psyche Honda?

Jeremy Bird (Obama's 2012 re-election campaign team field director) has become a good friend and calling him a hired gun is doing him a huge disservice.

These people are visionaries. They supported Obama because of the belief -- not simply in Obama, but a belief in community organising and grass-roots campaigns.

In saying that establishment endorsements don’t matter and what matters is engaging the local community.

We had a philosophical meeting of minds on what type of campaign is necessary to restore people's confidence in American democracy.

There is a disconnect between people in Congress and their communities and I was committed to running a grass-roots campaign -- to knocking on doors, to doing the community organising, to engaging people digitally.

Jeremy Bird had the same vision to run that same type of campaign.

We all thought that this is the laboratory to do it in Silicon Valley -- that there could be no more an exciting place and that really was the genesis of the collaboration.

How did it come about? Did you seek them out? Did they put out feelers that they were interested in running your campaign?

My campaign chair Steve Spinner, who was the California chair and founder for TechforObama and one of the top supporters of the President in the country, and I, we had relationships with people in the Obama world and as we started to meet and think about the exciting nature of this new district, there was a sense of excitement among all of us and we started to pull the team together.

Steve and Jeremy took the lead in pulling this team together.

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Image: Ro Khanna at a protest in California.
Photographs: Ro Khanna's Web site


'I am humbled and awed by the responsibility'

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Aziz Haniffa

When I interviewed Mike Honda, he admitted he had sought out high-profile endorsements, particularly from the White House, because he alleged that you had been misrepresenting yourself and misquoting him, etc.

While it is unlikely that Obama would come out to California to stump for him, in the event that Honda, being an established and iconic Democratic lawmaker, implores Obama to do so, how would you deal with it?

How would the President campaigning for Honda affect your campaign?

Obama has never gone out to the stump as far as I know for a member of Congress, other than for (Democratic incumbent) Tim Periello, which was in Virginia in a Blue and Red district. So, it would be highly unprecedented.

Honda has attacked Obama on a number of issues and he has criticised the administration on a number of other issues. I respect the President and the President can do whatever he wants, but it would be quite unprecedented.

But what if it happens? Won't that be a major boost for Honda, which could make the difference in a tough primary?

In terms of our governing philosophy, I believe mine is much closer to where the President is than Honda is... I know Obama was going to endorse Honda; he has endorsed every sitting Democratic incumbent.

But in terms of our worldview, objectively, my views are much closer to Obama's than Honda's. He is much more critical on a number of issues of the administration.

The story here is also the emergence of Silicon Valley and the South Asian Diaspora nationally in a way that I don't believe has ever happened before.

I respect Honda's many years of service, but that is not the real issue.

The story is for the first time, Silicon Valley is mobilising locally to have a voice in American politics.

The national Asian American-South Asian Diaspora with the Swadesh Chatterjees and Deepak Chopras and Vinod Khoslas, and Romesh Wadhwanis, and Arshad Zakarias and Mahinder Taks are mobilising in a way that has never happened before.

This is a moment of extraordinary pride for the South Asian Diaspora and for me an extraordinary moment of humbling.

I am humbled and awed by the responsibility of having to do a good job to represent Silicon Valley and the South Asian Diaspora.

The faith they have put in me is something that weighs on me everyday, and the extraordinary privilege for me to represent these communities and what I can say is I will work so hard to be a good voice -- someone they can be proud of, someone who will never be ashamed of their heritage, never be ashamed of their faith, never be ashamed of their roots, and yet will talk about not what the community needs from Washington, but what Silicon Valley and the Indian-American community can give to make this country better.

That is the aspiration of what I hope will be a productive career in Congress.

Image: Ro Khanna at the Villa Serena Retirement community in Santa Clara, California.
Photographs: Ro Khanna's Web site

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