A conversation with freshman Congressman Ro Khanna on teaching at SCU, representing Silicon Valley, and the issues that shouldn’t be partisan.
Freshman Congressman Ro Khanna is not interested in quietly learning the ways of Capitol Hill.
Khanna, who has taught as adjunct faculty at the Santa Clara University School of Law, has been a loud voice in the opening days of the 115th Congress. He has raised eyebrows for an attack on President Donald Trump’s new FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, calling him on the House floor a “poster child for everything that’s wrong with Washington” over cuts to a subsidized internet service program.
And Khanna is quickly carving out a place for himself in the Democrats’ liberal wing, generating national press coverage from CNN and ABC News by calling for Democrats to embrace a vision of economic populism along the lines of Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
“It’s been pleasantly surprising that I have a pretty big voice even as a new member of Congress,” Khanna, who won his Silicon Valley congressional seat from fellow Democrat Mike Honda in November, said in an interview. “You won’t get your name on a bill necessarily, and you won’t get your name in a headline. But behind the scenes you can have a real influence on the thinking of legislation or your party’s platform, and that has been very gratifying.”
Khanna, 40, was born in Philadelphia as the son of immigrants from India. He credits his grandfather, who was jailed while part of Mahatma Gandhi’s independence movement, for his interest in public service. In addition to teaching at Santa Clara and elsewhere in the Bay Area, Khanna served as deputy assistant secretary at the Commerce Department in the Obama administration.
The Jesuits’ education philosophy is something that resonates with Khanna—his wife graduated from Georgetown—and he credits Santa Clara for playing a major role in his November election victory.
“I’m in Congress in large part because of the students of Santa Clara,” Khanna said. “We had a couple hundred who were our biggest army. And they were knocking on doors and posting things on Facebook and tweeting and really were the energy, the heart and soul behind the campaign.”
Khanna campaigned on getting special interest money out of politics, instituting term limits for lawmakers, and growing tech jobs. While he’s espousing a liberal view of Democratic populism, he also says he wants to work with Republicans in Congress. Of the three dozen–plus bills he has cosponsored so far, six of them were written by Republicans.
Being a congressman from Silicon Valley can come with stature that stretches beyond his time in office. In addition to his floor speech going after Pai, Khanna wrote a letter with more than 40 House Democrats to the FCC chairman urging him to reconsider the move to curb the subsidized broadband internet program.
Khanna also penned an op-ed in February criticizing House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. for a proposed import tax.
Khanna sat down with Santa Clara Magazine to talk about his first month in office, his biggest priorities, and why he’s still optimistic he can get things done in Trump’s Washington. Edited excerpts follow:
SCM: What’s stood out to you so far? What’s surprised you?
RK: One of the things I've been surprised and pleased by is how much engagement [there has been]. We’ve been overwhelmed with emails and calls and turnout at our town hall meeting. I think people in my district are really paying attention to politics, and they’re mobilized in a way I haven’t seen in years.
You served in the Commerce Department. How does it feel different now being part of the legislative branch when it comes to how Washington works?
There’s a lot more autonomy and ability to be bold. In the executive branch, you’re obviously working at the pleasure of the president and there’s a huge bureaucracy: Your job is to implement the administration’s ideas. As a legislator, you can really push the envelope and be bold and take on special interests and offer creative proposals.
What do you think it means to represent Silicon Valley in Congress?
I don't think there’s a more important place in the nation or world to represent. I mean, we have Apple, Google, Intel, Yahoo!, Cisco, LinkedIn, Tesla. It’s an engine for economic growth and innovation for the world. And my responsibility is to make sure that the innovation of Silicon Valley also collaborates with Middle America—and that we’re supporting innovation and jobs and entrepreneurship across America. I look forward to working with my colleagues to do that.
You obviously hoped for your party to be in the White House when you ran for Congress. How does your job change with Republicans in charge across the government?
Well, I think the message of jobs across America, tech jobs in particular, is not partisan. The message that we need term limits is not a partisan message. The message that we need to get rid of special interest money is not a partisan message. These are things that will move the country forward.
So you think you can work with Republicans and be a deal-maker, as opposed to focusing on blocking Trump’s agenda?
Absolutely. … How do we bring jobs to Kentucky and Arkansas and Middle America? How do we have no special interest money in politics and not take PAC money? How do we have term limits and not have folks there for 20, 30 years? I think these are ideas that appeal to the country. And as a result, there will be many Republicans elected who heard the same messages from their constituents and are going to support that legislation.
How did you start teaching at Santa Clara?
I gave a talk at Santa Clara after my book was published on bringing back manufacturing jobs and [focusing on] American competitiveness. And I think the academic dean really liked it and asked me if I would teach.
How has Jesuit education played a role in your career and life?
RK: James Joyce is one of my favorite authors, and he credits some of his brilliance to Jesuit education. There’s an intellectual rigor and an understanding of history and philosophy that a Jesuit education inculcates. I felt that in many of the students I worked with at Santa Clara, and it’s something that’s often missing in a world of Twitter and Facebook and social media. Jesuit education is actually a counter to superficial and shallow thought and is something that forces people to reflect and take the grand sweep of history, and it’s more needed now than ever.
You are serving on the Budget and Armed Services committees. Why were you interested in Armed Services?
Given all the cybersecurity work in Silicon Valley, it’s very important that we have that perspective on the Armed Services Committee. And I look forward to working with tech leaders and those in cybersecurity face-to-face to shape the right agenda for our military.
I understand you recently spoke to former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta ’60, J.D. ’63, who was a congressman and whose son is also a freshman this year. What advice did he offer?
To build relationships, to work across the aisle, to really get to know your colleagues—and he does that. He lived in an apartment with Chuck Schumer, who is now the [Senate] majority leader, and [former California Rep.] George Miller, and he talks about how building those relationships really helped him.
What do you do for fun?
I love swimming and I’m, of course, married, and my wife and I spend a lot of time with our families. I’m a big sports fan. I love the Warriors … And we love traveling. We like to go up to Napa when we can and we like to get away.
Where are you going to live in Washington?
Well, we still have our place in Fremont, which is the primary residence, and then we're probably going to live in the Georgetown area.
Jeremy Herb is a defense reporter at POLITICO. Follow him on Twitter @jeremyherb.