Salon's Andrew Leonard has a very thoughtful profile of Ro Khanna, a Democratic Congressional candidate in California and "Silicon Valley’s chosen one." Tech execs like Ron Conway and Marissa Mayer hope Khanna will keep taxes low and government as minimalist as Jony Ive design. It's just the beginning of Silicon Valley's march to Washington and Khanna is its beta test.
The opening scene of Leonard's piece—a $2,600-a-plate fundraiser with Sean Parker at the mic—echoed an event I attended in April for Reshma Saujani, then a Democratic candidate for New York City Public Advocate. Only that night, it was Jack Dorsey at the mic.
At the Poisson Rouge in the West Village, with "We Are Young" by Fun blasting on the house speakers, the Twitter cofounder and San Francisco resident riled up the crowd for Saujani's speech:
"We need more leaders who know about technologies and know how to use technologies, and know how to use technologies to change governments. Not just disrupt governments, but actually we need more revolutionaries. We need more people who will look at what we’re doing with very very fresh eyes."
“We feel for a long time that Silicon Valley hasn’t been represented at the federal level,” says Parker. “We haven’t had the young, dynamic, hard-driving candidate who understands the unique issues facing Silicon Valley right now.
“To a certain extent, I think we’re starting to come to a realization of our own power,” he continues. “And of our own capability, not just as innovators and technology pioneers, but also in a political sense.”
But even before Sheryl Sandberg finally announces her run for ____, there are a number of candidates with tech sector ties—some stronger than others. There's New York City mayoral candidate Jack Hidary, a dot com entrepreneur who Instagrams himself campaigning around town and admires a "Shark Tank" approach to helping companies grow. Chris Hughes' husband Sean Eldridge may be supported by Facebook riches, but his Congressional bid sticks to small business over startups. Saujani lost the primary, only capturing 15 percent of the vote, despite tech-hosted events in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
That makes Khanna—a 36-year-old intellectual property lawyer who has served as a deputy assistant secretary in Obama's Commerce Department and written a book about boosting domestic manufacturing—the first serious contender to represent Silicon Valley and the only federal one.
But what exactly does it mean to be Silicon Valley’s favorite son? His supporters talk glowingly about how he understands technology at a gut level — “he speaks it fluently,” says one backer — and how necessary it is for a region as critical to the economic performance of the United States to be represented by someone that “gets” the global economy.
But to his critics, there’s nothing at all new or special about Khanna. It’s just the same old story: The business community wants someone who represents their interests. In a region where registered Republicans stand no chance of winning a general election, they argue, Khanna is the next best thing, a “fiscal-conservative Manchurian candidate” pushing a“Republican-lite” business-friendly policy platform. He’s just another techno-libertarian, they claim, a tool for the Valley’s wealthiest to keep taxes low, labor cheap, and the hand of government as light as possible.
A politician in the pocket of big business is nothing new. Before launching Girls Who Code and rebranding herself, Saujani ran for a Congressional seat as a representative for Wall Street. But Salon says Khanna has his own agenda. He explicitly told Mashable, "It's important to make a distinction between technology companies and the values of Silicon Valley."
The truth lies somewhere interestingly in between. Khanna is hardly the libertarian his critics aver, nor is he someone who emerged from the womb spitting out code and microprocessor design. On crucial issues he does advocate policy very much in line with what Silicon Valley’s executive class cherishes most, but he also makes a compelling case for a strong government role in the economy, especially on the topic of boosting manufacturing jobs.
But what might be most intriguing about Khanna is how he reflects Silicon Valley’s image of itself. With ample evidence that government is broken, the Valley wants someone in Congress who believes that politics is as amenable to fixing as a start-up’s busted business plan. If you think of Ro Khanna as the representative of an impatient group of investors who demand better performance for their tax dollar, you won’t be far off. The venture capitalists want to bring in a new CEO.
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