Ro Khanna first ran for Congress in 2004. It was the apex of post-9/11 politics, and Khanna, then a 27-year-old idealistic intellectual property lawyer, was furious that Tom Lantos, the long-serving Democrat from California, had supported not just the Iraq War but the Patriot Act. “For the South Asian diaspora, that was a symbol,” he says. “It was about standing up for the ‘other.’”
Khanna got crushed. But Lantos saw potential in his young challenger, and he called Nancy Pelosi, then the minority leader of the House Democrats, to tell her about the kid who’d tried, and failed, to defeat him. “Pelosi saw that the only Indian face in politics at the time was Bobby Jindal,” Khanna says. “She saw there was a huge South Asian community. And so she told me, get involved, and after redistricting, there’ll be an opening.”
So Khanna got involved. He went to work for the Obama administration. He wrote a book on bringing manufacturing innovation back to America. And then, with Pelosi’s blessing, he opened an exploratory committee to run in 2012 for the House seat Rep. Pete Stark was expected to retire from.
But redistricting didn’t bring Khanna the district he’d hoped for. Fremont, California, where he intended to run, was merged into Rep. Mike Honda’s territory, and Honda had no intention of stepping down. Still, the new district was heavily South Asian, and it included tech giants like Apple and Yahoo and Intel; Khanna thought he had a chance. So he decided to challenge another incumbent Democrat, and asked Pelosi to stay neutral in the race.
“Pelosi invited me to her house,” Khanna recalls. “And when I asked her not to make an endorsement, she said, ‘Absolutely not. I stand for my incumbents.’ So I get very discouraged, and Pelosi could see that. As I’m leaving the room, she said, ‘Ro, let me tell you something. If I had waited around, I’d have never been speaker of the House. Power is never given. It’s always taken.’”