OPINION: Ro Khanna: Jefferson’s real congressman
By Douglas Burns
It’s possible Ro Khanna did more for Greene County, Iowa, in 16 hours this past weekend than Steve King has in 16 years.
Khanna, 42, a product of rural Pennsylvania who is in just his first term as a Democrat representing the Silicon Valley area of California in Congress, shepherded top tech figures to Jefferson Saturday for a jammed schedule of economic-development events — chiefly the scouting of Pillar Technology’s transformation of a 19th-century building on the northeast side of the Square into a modern software operation, one that will employ dozens of people with salaries approaching $75,000.
Khanna sees the Pillar branch here as a canary in a cornfield — the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the flush titans of tech on the coasts and the pioneering prairie.
Khanna knows this to be true: There’s a software revolution in America today, and rural Americans need to be armed. That’s why Khanna was here. And not by himself. He came with a delegation that’s already doing things, big things, for Jefferson and the surrounding area.
“Mark down this night because it is the start of a revolution,” Des Moines Area Community College President Rob Denson said.
Yes, partisan politics has left the connection between urban and rural America resembling the Bridge On The River Kwai (at the end of the movie when Alec Guiness’s eyes reveal inner madness as he hits the detonator).
The road back to civility won’t be built with press-release promises, poll-tested messaging — or more savage attacks and counterattacks from Red and Blue America.
The answer is jobs, jobs, jobs — and good ones, says Khanna.
“The Industrial Revolution went from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing economy,” Khanna said. “And now what we’re seeing is software is transforming every single industry.”
Near the end of a full afternoon and evening in Jefferson with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, I talked with Sid Jones, president of the Greene County Development Corp.
We are both veterans of rural economic development — and we were awestruck by what we’d been a part of in Jefferson. If an uncorked genie appeared with three wishes, and I used them all on economic development for Greene County, it’s likely I wouldn’t have been able to dream up something as game-changing as the reality of Pillar and its broader connection to other tech companies that could result in more good news for rural Iowa.
Allen Blue, the co-founder of LinkedIn, spoke here. He’s inspired by Pillar. So is Kevin Scott, the chief technology officer of Microsoft.
During an interview with this newspaper Saturday night, Khanna politely paused to give his best to a departing Allen Blue.
“He came at my request so I wanted to thank him properly,” Khanna told me.
Khanna, who has visited other parts of rural America in his effort to fill a desperately needed lane in our politics, one that is intent on expanding that software revolution beyond a handful of urban enclaves, works with Republican legislators, too. He’s about the business of partnerships — and helped Linc Kroeger of Pillar bring a matchless roster of rural Iowa allies to Jefferson.
Having interacted with a Republican congressman in Kentucky on rural revitalization, Khanna asked Kroeger who represented Jefferson in Congress.
That would be Steve King, Kroeger told Khanna.
“And I said, you know what, I’m not going to be able to convince the folks from Silicon Valley to be on the same platform as Steve King,” Khanna said of the Kiron Republican who has built a national brand with inflammatory remarks on race and other matters.
Why is that?
“Because of the way he has demonized people — demonized immigrants, demonized the LGBTQ community, demonized anyone who doesn’t share his particular faith or his background,” Khanna said.
Khanna said King is not the face of rural America.
“I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, very rural Pennsylvania,” Khanna said. “I’m an Indian American. When I was growing up, the community was 99 percent Caucasian. But you know what, I had teachers who believed in me, Little League coaches who believed in me. I had neighbors who believed in me. I grew up believing that anything is possible in America. I never thought I was different or other.”
Khanna said King clearly doesn’t represent that American point of view — one Khanna thinks most of the nation shares.
“He’s become, unfortunately, a caricature of the worst stereotypes that people have,” Khanna said. “It’s unnecessarily hurtful and it’s not moving the country forward with a single thing we should care about.”
So is the strategy to reach King voters to say: King’s a racist, so those voters are racist? Or do you appeal to the voters on other issues?
“No, it’s saying ‘I get some of your frustration with being left out, and I get a sense that you need to have basic respect, respect for your way of life,’” Khanna said. “There are a lot of great things about living in rural America. You get to live with your families. You don’t have my existence. My wife is one place with my kids and I am traveling back to California.
“My parents live in Pennsylvania, hers are in Ohio. It’s an odd way to live. People want to live with their families. They like the outdoors. They like hunting and fishing and the natural beauty of rural America. They’re in rural America because they want to be in rural America. We have to respect that and we have to respect their brilliance. So many people from rural America, as you saw today, came to Silicon Valley.”
And once that respect is established, Khanna said, the message needs to be about the true competition for all Americans, rural and urban and suburban.
It’s China, which is using state-owned enterprises and often corrupt practices in international business, the congressman said.
“If we want freedom to win, if we want a system of government to win that respects people from every part of the nation, then we have to partner as Americans, we have to come together to create these jobs,” Khanna said. “What Steve King is doing is not allowing us to come together as Americans.”
There’s one fact about China that sticks out for Khanna.
“China has not been in a war for the last 40 years,” he said. “Think how many wars we’ve been in. Two wars in Iraq, An extended war in Afghanistan. Libya. Syria. Yemen. This is trillions of dollars going into that that could have been going to build our schools, to build tech institutes, to build our infrastructure, to provide health care.”
Khanna insists he’s not running for president in 2020 — and he predicts we’ll see a field of 20 to 25 Democratic candidates.
He’s probably wise, with a promising career in front of him, to wait for a future White House cycle, although he has the intelligence and gravitas today to serve ably. In fact, he should be short-listed as a vice presidential candidate for the Democrats right now.
Ro Khanna has achieved an elusive intangible, the ability to connect as a Democrat in rural Iowa. He’s doing it with an intelligent humility, the empathy of a son of immigrants and a super-smart strategy that gets to the heart of the matter.
We may not know exactly why and how, but rural Iowa knows the digital revolution is leaving as so much shored driftwood in its substantial wake. Khanna is telling us two things we need to hear at once — it’s not our fault here in Iowa, what is happening to the economy at the hands of Amazon and Facebook, and we are smart and skilled enough to catch up with the right friends in the right places.
Khanna is such a friend for rural Iowa.
Yes, Khanna represents Silicon Valley, but if you were one of the Iowans sitting in RVP-1875’s History Boy Theatre Saturday night listening to him, you know this, and know it well: Ro Khanna is representing Greene County, Iowa, too.
The three words I’ll leave you with where Khanna is concerned: I trust him.