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Who Is Ro Khanna?

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, April 3 2013

Some of President Obama's key 2012 re-election campaign staff and a top Silicon Valley fundraiser have jumped into a 2014 cycle Congressional race to oust longtime Silicon Valley Democrat Mike Honda, and to replace him with the former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce Ro Khanna -- even though Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have already endorsed the incumbent.

Khanna, 36-year-old Yale-trained lawyer and part time economics and law professor, plans to hold a formal campaign launch rally in Cupertino on April 14. As many had expected, he just announced his candidacy to challenge Rep. Mike Honda, who represents California's District 17. That district encompasses an area that is the heart of Silicon Valley.

But between now and then, Khanna is holding a series of house meetings, and phone banking events in the Valley. If all this sounds familiar, it's because Khanna's campaign consultant is 270 Strategies' Jeremy Bird, who served as Obama for America 2012's National Field Director.

"The campaign will employ cutting edge tactics honed during both Obama presidential campaigns and will use people-focused, data-driven strategies and a digitally-savvy approach to connect with voters and build grassroots support," Khanna's campaign said in a press statement issued Tuesday when Khanna made his announcement in a YouTube video.

Honda's campaign, for its part, issued a statement with some polling data on Monday that showed that barely anybody in Silicon Valley knows who Khanna is. A recent poll conducted by Lake Research Partners found that Honda enjoys a 52-point lead over Khanna, with 57 percent of those surveyed saying that they support Honda while just 5 percent said that they support Khanna. The poll also found that 86 percent of those surveyed did not know who Khanna is.

But that's kind of a similar situation in which President Obama found himself in his run against the Democratic establishment's favorite Hillary Clinton during the 2008 election cycle.

And just like Obama, Khanna says he wants to "change" Washington.

"Here at Santa Clara Law School, I give my students complex issues to tackle, difficult problems to solve. That sort of spirit is missing in Washington, where too often it seems, scoring political points is valued more than making a difference, so we get insults, instead of ideas," Khanna says in his launch video.

So he's going to run a "campaign of ideas," on how to drive economic growth, "fight special interests," and "jump on" a good idea whichever party it comes from.

It's a message that seems to appeal to several deep-pocketed supporters in Silicon Valley. Steve Spinner, an angel investor and the Obama campaign's 2012 California finance chair, has joined as Khanna's campaign chair. It's been widely reported that Khanna has already raised more than $1.3 million for his campaign.

And Khanna has been savvy enough to publicize to other potential Silicon Valley donors that he's assembled a team that helped Obama win both in 2008 and 2012.

Khanna's team also includes other Obama veterans. Leah Cowan is Khanna's campaign manager. She was the Obama campaign's regional field director in 2012 in North Carolina. Larry Grisolano, who was the Obama campaign's director of paid media in 2012, is a consultant, as is Mark Beatty. He was Obama's deputy battleground states director.

Nevertheless, it's going to be difficult to distinguish between the two candidates on their policy positions alone -- at least for now. Khanna served as the Obama administration's deputy assistant secretary for commerce between 2009 and 2011. He's also written a book on entrepreneurship and the importance of high-tech manufacturing to the U.S. economy as it competes with China and other countries. These are subjects that are dear to the hearts of most Silicon Valley business people as they struggle to decide where to locate their businesses given the often-times more attractive options abroad.

But Honda has also been stressing his work with President Obama on keeping manufacturing in the United States, and his wider work to promote Silicon Valley's agenda of promoting science and fighting for funding for research and development.

The two candidates even sometimes appear to have the same answers to the same questions. In a March 16 interview when asked about the 2014 race, Honda told political reporter Carla Marinucci that instead of fighting each other, Democrats should focus on regaining control of the House, a sentiment that Khanna echoed when he told the press that he had decided against running against then California Representative Pete Stark for the 15th District in the 2012 cycle.

While Honda works for his constituents in Washington D.C. Khanna speaks frequently about economic issues locally at venues such as the Commonwealth Club and local radio station KQED in San Francisco.