Congressional candidate Ro Khanna canvassing a Fremont neighborhood in early May.
CONGRESS | 17TH DISTRICT | The walk started on Bruce Drive in a quiet, suburban tangle of nondescript homes, often dolled up with colorful, blooming yards and well-kept lawns in Fremont’s Irvington District. “It’s a very civil district,” says Ro Khanna, a tall, thin, sometimes gangly former member of President Obama’s Department of Commerce, but now better known as the next Democrat who might slay a fellow, but entrenched congressman in the East Bay. First it was 40-year incumbent Pete Stark and now it could be Rep. Mike Honda. “We’ve met Honda supporters while knocking on doors, but they never disagree. They’re very nice,” Khanna says.
On this late afternoon on a sweltering Friday in early May, Khanna and his press secretary, Tyler Law, are canvassing the neighborhood heavily populated with Indian American voters. They assure me this is a coincidence and I smile. Yet, the confluence of Fremont and members of its large South Asian community is important to Khanna, who is a first-generation Indian American from a city that is fairly new to Honda since redistricting four years ago. Knowing who embodies your civic voice in Congress is sometimes hard to keep track. Often voters in the Alameda County portion of the 17th Congressional District still tell the campaign they believe Stark is their representative even though, he hasn’t been since before 2010, says Khanna “Voters are definitely in the mood to shop. With half this district, you have all these people who have pulled the lever over and over again for Mike.” Educating voters about his campaign and the issues facing the district as grows into one of the richest and most powerful in the entire nation, is the main thrust for Khanna’s campaign. He’s urging voters to do due diligence about his campaign, do the reading and seek online what other people are saying about it, he says, versus blindly casting their vote on the fly. If the latter occurs, voters will likely connect the line on their ballot next to the incumbent and not Khanna or the other two Republican upstarts in the race.
As we wind up a slight incline on Middlefield Avenue, Law, an Oakland native who has previously worked for campaigns in other states, is constantly searching for voter data on his iPhone. Among the top tier of Khanna’s vaunted campaign team, Law is one of the few who is not from the group that famously won re-election for President Obama two years ago on the back of a game-changing reliance on Big Data. Khanna, however, slightly discounts the almost instantaneous input of voter data into the system. “As much as we have this new technology, you have to knock on doors,” says Khanna. “It’s the same basic campaign.” After just a handful of interactions, it’s clear Indian Americans have a quiet, but starstruck reaction upon seeing the dark-skinned candidate with close-cropped dark hair and kind eyes suddenly standing on their stoop. The same person they have either read about in local Hindi-language newspapers or seen in 30-second spots on television. A senior citizen who looks to be Vietnamese walks pass us and Khanna chats with him for a moment, hands him some campaign literature and reminds the man to vote. The man responds affectionately and utters a phrase in another language. Khanna smiles and lets out a small hint of laughter. As we walk away, Khanna is shocked the man speaks Hindi. What did he say?” I ask. “Good, good, good,” says Khanna.
Not all interactions are entirely positive. Later, a voter seems confused about who Khanna is and what office he is seeking. The voter seems ambivalent about the encounter or maybe more interested in eating his dinner. Khanna wraps up his spiel and hands the man a brochure as he closes the door. Khanna laughs and says he has a sinking suspicious the voter has him confused with Republican California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari. “That’s sad that he thinks I’m the guy with 3.5 percent in the polls,” jokes Khanna.
In fact, one of the first things you notice about Khanna is how self-effacing he can be. At another house, Khanna wonders out loud whether a voter has read his book about bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. “Nobody has read your book,” says Law, like a sharp elbow to the ribs. “That’s not true!” Khanna shoots back. “Tavares has read my book.” Although I have read Khanna’s book and found it be informative and an easy read, especially on a subject most writers normally drown readers in spreadsheets, I admit my main takeaway is not about economics, but food. “Every chapter starts with you eating in some small diner” I tell Khanna. “I kept thinking, if this guy eats some much, where is he putting all the pounds?” Khanna and Law burst into laughter. Khanna suggests placing the book in the diet section of the bookstore might boost sales.
It also becomes clear retail politics can breed moments that force you to question your internal biases about voters. A large, barrel-chested Caucasian male with a messy mop of white hair and a bushy goatee fills the doorway. He gives off an air of being bothered by the person standing on his porch. Everything about the gentlemen screams raging Republican as he listens to Khanna’s pitch, while saying nothing. But the man interjects, “Good for you. We need honest, progressive-thinking people out there.” Didn’t see that one coming is the prevailing wisdom as we walk away. “If we win that vote,” Khanna dictates like a professor, “we win this election. They’re sick of Congress, but if we don’t reach out to them, they will default to the name they know. We can do it, but it’s a race against time.” If Khanna can place in the top two on June 3, he will have just bought himself another five months for the chance to knock on a few more doors.