Ro Khanna is running for California’s U.S. House of Representatives’ 17th District seat, challenging incumbent Mike Honda. I spoke briefly with Ro Khanna over the phone about his thoughts on entering politics, the challenges facing the United States and the Indian-American community, and how he intends to make improvements to our society.
Khanna is an Indian-American economics lecturer at Stanford University and the former deputy assistant secretary of commerce under President Obama. His father was a chemical engineer and his mother was a substitute teacher. His grandfather, Amarnath Vidyalankar, was a freedom fighter during the Indian independence movement.
Why do you want to become a congressman? Why did you choose to enter politics?
I think public service is a very important calling. And in this time in our country’s history, we have major challenges. How are we going to give the next generation an equal shot at the American dream? How are we going to prepare people for the skills they are going to need to succeed in an economy where you have more machines and robots and which is very global in nature? And I have a lot of ideas about the type of education we need, such as universal preschool, the type of curriculum we need, the type of…how to make college more affordable, how to have collaborative learning, giving people the skills to have the jobs of the future. And these are areas where I believe I can have an impact on the country. Also make Silicon Valley, the district I represent, with Apple, Google, Intel, Yahoo, Cisco, Linkedin…it has been a leader for incredible innovation for the world. And I want that valley to have a bigger role in market politics, thinking about how we can prepare people for leading.
You have an opponent in the general election who is the incumbent, Representative Honda. Why should others choose to vote for you over your opponent?
Yeah, well, you know, we won the primary over him, and one of the reasons is that there’s a major ethics scandal where he’s…there’s been a 6-0 finding by the Office of Congressional Ethics that he broke federal law and was giving special favors to donors. So people don’t like that type of quid pro quo politics and corruption. President Obama has refused to endorse him. Hillary Clinton has refused to endorse him. And there’s a sense that people want integrity. They want a person who is going to be representing the district, not special interests. And I’m one of ten federal candidates who dono’t take a dime from lobbyists, corporations, or political action committees.
Transitioning into public policy issues, I noticed there are a couple of policy areas that weren’t mentioned on your website, particularly regarding foreign policy and national security. I was wondering if you could summarize your general beliefs about foreign policy. What do you look at when you’re looking at a foreign policy issue, what foreign policy issues do you think are the most significant, and how do you think we should deal with those issues?
I tend to be very much a human rights-building, diplomacy, peace…I support President Obama’s vision of engagement and dialogue. I was supportive of his engagement with Iran and trying to find a peaceful solution. I’ve been supportive of his efforts to try to find peace in the Middle East. So in general, I take the view that America should stand up for human rights and help engage the dialogue around the world and I’m very skeptical of committing our ground troops and I don’t think…we’ve been in a perpetual war for over a decade and I’m really concerned about that.
Something that is a concern to South Asians, especially Pakistani-Americans, is that rather than committing ground troops, the U.S. tends to rely significantly on airstrikes, which often kill innocent civilians.
Yeah, I’ve been critical of that. I think…some of the drone program has been excessive and the civilian casualties…it’s created a generation of people who are going to hate the United States. And, you know…I think we have to be much more circumspect about the innocent lives that are lost with those drone strikes. And I do think I will speak out very strongly for human rights concerns when in Congress.
Another question I wanted to ask you had to do with gun violence. I wanted to know what should be done about gun violence in the United States?
Well, we definitely need to address it, and I’ve come out for universal background checks for making sure that…we deal with these magazine clips…and these magazine clips that are leading to mass automatic shootings. And we need a congress that’s going to work on these issues and move the ball forward. Unfortunately, it’s been a gridlock. We haven’t got these basic things that will make us safer. And I will strongly support and be a leader on these issues when in Congress.
As we know, there is a lot of inability for Congress to work across the aisle right now. As a congressman, how will you work to foster bipartisanship and find common ground with people you may have ideological disagreements with in order to get things done?
Well, it’s one of the differences between myself and Mike Honda. He’s only passed one bill in sixteen years. He never gets Republican co-sponsors. I’ve gotten support in my district from Democrats, Independents, and a lot of local Republicans. They’re leaders. When I get to Congress, I’m going to have a coalition of support across the political aisle, and I think that’s going to make me effective. Whenever I introduce legislation, I’m going to look for a Republican co-sponsor to do that. And there’s a group of younger members of congress, freshmen and sophomores who are really setting the standard by working together, and I plan to join their caucuses and try to find common ground.
What is the experience like traveling and campaigning across your district? How do you typically spend your day and your time?
It’s great. I knock on doors a lot, going door-to- door, meeting voters. I meet community leaders and hear their concerns. I spend time going to community events in the district and hosting town halls and listening to voters. I spend time talking to media and trying to get my message out. I’m very active on social media. I engage with almost everyone in my district if they tweet at me or send me a facebook comment. I respond to their questions.
Do you think the experience is different campaigning as a South Asian candidate at all or that there’s anything unique to that?
Well, I think…you know, I’ve been very fortunate in being able to be very proud of my story. Talking about my grandfather, proud of my parents. Proud of my roots. Proud of my wife’s story, who’s also South Asian, and has been a huge asset on the campaign trail with Khanna.
And we both have talked about our story, our heritage. And I think that’s really resonated in this district. People respect it. They like the fact that I have deep roots in the local community but also proud of my heritage.
Do you think there are any particular interests of the South Asian community that need to be addressed in Congress?
Well, I think we need to give more…some Asians the opportunity to get into public service, to have that opportunity, to serve, to run for office. I think we need to make sure…there are a lot of low-income South Asians in our communities still who need a basic minimum wage, who need access to health care, who need to make college more affordable, and we need to look out for that community and help. We have to stand up for civil liberties against racial profiling. You know, I was just reading that Shah Rukh Khan was detained in one of the airports, and we can’t have this profiling of people just because they are of Muslim origin. We need much greater awareness about standing up for civil liberties and against racial profiling.
Sravya Tadepalli is a student at the University of Oregon studying political science and journalism. She is a proud Indian-American-Oregonian and grew up in a small town in the southern Willamette Valley. Sravya is passionate about theater, racial issues, and politics. She is also particularly interested in figuring out policy solutions to problems of social justice and political partisanship.