“People in Silicon Valley tend to feel that anything’s possible,” he says. “There are so many more places like Detroit that could benefit from the kind of idealistic thinking we have here.”
Last year, Parker found someone he thinks is up to the task of articulating Silicon Valley’s message: a 37-year-old San Francisco lawyer named Ro Khanna. Khanna is running for Congress in California’s Seventeenth District, which includes the home cities of companies like Apple, Yahoo, Intel, and Tesla. A first-generation Indian-American who worked as deputy assistant secretary of Commerce under President Obama and now lectures in Stanford’s economics department, Khanna is gunning for the seat of the 72-year-old seven-termer Mike Honda.
In a little less than a year, Khanna has become the tech industry’s political golden child. (His website lists nearly 200 tech-industry endorsements from bigwigs like Sheryl Sandberg, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, Zynga’s Mark Pincus, Salesforce.com’s Benioff, and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.) In the past few months, I’ve heard maybe a dozen members of Silicon Valley’s investor class tell me, in rapturous tones, how Khanna just gets it. He gets that tech’s political influence can be much bigger than changing a few immigration laws, and he gets how much the Valley could do for the country if given strong leadership and a common platform to rally behind.
Last fall, at a $2,600-per-plate fund-raising dinner for Khanna in San Francisco’s North Beach area, Parker took the microphone to introduce the candidate to yet another set of well-heeled donors, touting Khanna’s qualifications and deep knowledge of both the tech industry and the ways of Washington. If Khanna manages to win the election, he told them, they will get a vital foothold on Capitol Hill.
“We feel for a long time that Silicon Valley hasn’t been properly represented at a federal level,” Parker said. “We’re starting to come into a realization of our own power.”
He then handed the microphone to Khanna, who, with a politician’s caution, reminded the crowd that the power and capability Parker was speaking of weren’t simply self-serving.
“It’s not just about having a tech agenda,” he said. “This is about something much deeper: our values, and our ability to use those values to change Washington and the world.”
I meet Ro Khanna for the first time on a chilly Friday in early November. He’d invited me to come canvassing door-to-door with him in Fremont, a middle-class suburb just across the bridge from Palo Alto. It’s the kind of city where tech’s rank and file have been moving as they’ve been priced out of homes closer to their workplaces, and where the locals aren’t entirely pumped about the new influx of money into the region, or the fact that rents in even the unsexy parts of the Bay Area are now among the highest in the country.
Khanna is wary of being lumped in with Silicon Valley’s techno-isolationists and free-market fanatics, and he is going door-to-door in Fremont partly to convince voters in his district that he’s not in league with those Silicon Valley guys, that he’s a Democrat who cares about the middle class and isn’t running for office in order to give tax breaks to Twitter executives.
Khanna, who volunteered on Obama’s state-senate campaign while attending the University of Chicago, is an obvious student of the president’s campaign shtick. He’s got the same lanky frame, same deliberate manner of speaking, same closed-fist, thumb-up thrust when he’s making a serious point. And he’s got Obama’s code-switching abilities. Across the bridge, in Cupertino or Mountain View, Khanna’s doorstep pitch would be about bringing Silicon Valley’s innovation to the rest of the country. But here, in Fremont, on streets with basketball hoops and Chevy trucks with Jesus-fish decals parked in driveways, he sounds like he’s doing an Elizabeth Warren impression.
“If you want to win,” he tells me on our way up a constituent’s driveway, “you can’t have a vision of what is good for a sector. You have to be willing to go to the Rotary Club, you have to be knocking on doors and talking about middle-class opportunity.”
The tech elite’s enthusiasm for Khanna’s candidacy has yet to tip the balance against the well-liked Honda. But he has raised more than $3 million for the race so far and has about three times as much cash as his opponent, proving that you can charm Silicon Valley—or at least a deep-pocketed chunk of it—even if what you’re giving them in return is tough love.
“The aspiration of this campaign is to infuse Silicon Valley with moral and national purpose,” he tells me as we round the corner onto another block. Khanna’s press secretary, who has taken over his iPhone and is using an app called the Voter Activation Network to single out houses of likely voters, steers us to one with a vintage pickup truck in the driveway.*
“Our founders were brilliant people,” Khanna says to me before knocking. “People have given up their lives to fight tyranny. We won the Cold War! Silicon Valley is part of something greater, which is the United States.”
As it gets dark, Khanna approaches a yellow house, the last listed on his voter-I.D. app. Through the front window, he sees a man at the stove, cooking dinner. Khanna calls to him, and the man, a broad-shouldered fortysomething in cargo shorts, a San Francisco Giants T-shirt, and tube socks, opens the door to shake Khanna’s hand. When Khanna asks what he does for a living, the man says he’s between jobs, having just been laid off by Cisco’s finance department a few days earlier. Khanna looks visibly pained and gives the guy his personal e-mail address, along with an offer to help him find other work. The man smiles. Khanna wishes him the best of luck, and we head back down the driveway.
“See, that’s the question I have for these tech guys,” Khanna says as we continue down the street. “Are they meeting with folks like him, displaced and laid off? I wish everyone from the Valley would knock on doors with me for one night, and they’d understand how we frame this.”
Khanna doesn’t exactly look angry, but the encounter has clearly gotten to him. I ask if he really believes that Silicon Valley can be taught to care about the concerns of other people. “I do,” he says. “And that will be the political maturation of Silicon Valley. When people start thinking not about what’s in it for their companies, but what their obligation is to the nation that gave them that opportunity.”
*This article has been corrected to show that the app Khanna’s press secretary used is called the Voter Activation Network, not the Voter Awareness Network.