This California congressman is all over TV and TikTok, touting Biden ... and himself

WASHINGTON DC- May 23, 2024-Congressman Ro Khanna, (D) of California, confers with Communications Director Marie Baldassarre as he returns to his office after a portrait session on the East Front grounds of the U.S. Capitol on May 23, 2024. (Jonathan Ernst / For the Times)
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont), pictured near the U.S. Capitol with communications director Marie Baldassarre, has had dual roles: a presidential surrogate and one of many Democrats building his own base for a post-Biden era. (Jonathan Ernst / For The Times)

Rep. Ro Khanna, one of President Biden's most visible supporters, came to Michigan recently to accept a “courage in public service” award from an Arab American group that opposes American support for Israel in Gaza — and detests Biden.

The tension of the California congressman's dual roles — as a presidential surrogate and one of many Democrats building his own base for a post-Biden era — was evident before dinner was served. James P. Allen, chairman of the Arab American Civil Rights League, was blunt as he introduced Khanna to local Democratic power brokers over cocktails.

“We are going to work night and day to defeat Biden,” Allen said.

Democrats need a dose of "Trump chemotherapy,” Allen added, likening Trump to a toxin that would purge Biden, the cancer, from the Democratic Party.

U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Ca., speaks to a group, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024,
Rep. Ro Khanna speaks to a group of Arab Americans in Dearborn, Mich., in February. (Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

Khanna pushed back awkwardly but not convincingly. "I disagree because we've got a journalist [here]," he said, pointing to the reporter he allowed to shadow him for the night.

Undeterred, Allen repeated the metaphor before Khanna shifted the conversation to himself: “You think people like me can pick up the pieces in the future?”

“I do,” Allen told him. “The future of the Democratic Party is with people of color.”

“And on the right side of this issue,” Khanna said, highlighting his difference with Biden over Israel.

Through four terms representing the Bay Area's 17th District in Congress, Khanna has sought to build a reputation as a unique crossover artist.

A Silicon Valley progressive who can build his sizable political war chest with fundraising help from the likes of David Sacks — a venture capitalist who hosted a Trump fundraiser Thursday — but who endorsed Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialist bid for president.

An ally to angry Palestinian-rights activists who can still attend bill-signing ceremonies with the president.

A politician who decried the “anachronism of two 80-year-olds running for president” to a group of college Democrats while insisting he was there to help one of those old men get reelected.

Does he plan a White House run? He gets asked often, and seems to relish it.

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“Who knows?” Khanna replied as he waited to board the flight from Washington to Detroit. “What is the zeitgeist of 2028 or 2032 going to be?”

It’s a tough decision, he said. He and his wife, Ritu, whose immigrant parents became wealthy selling auto transmissions, have two children, ages 5 and 6. They live in Washington but he travels extensively, both to his district and to political events, while trying to spend the mornings and alternating weekends with them.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and his wife Ritu Khanna arrive for the State Dinner at the White House
Rep. Ro Khanna and his wife, Ritu, arrive for a State Dinner with President Biden and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House in June 2023. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

He hit the "lottery" with Ritu, he said, but worries about the impact of social media on his family. Still, he's keeping his options open, giving speeches in Michigan and New Hampshire to get his message out. “I certainly want to be part of the national conversation.”

It’s not unusual for members of the House to imagine themselves as president, but only two have made the leap directly, and one was Abraham Lincoln.

Khanna would have to leapfrog better-known home-state rivals like Vice President Kamala Harris and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Still, there's plenty of precedent in using a presidential campaign to build a profile as the party's unofficial progressive leader. Sanders, who achieved that role through two insurgent runs for president in 2016 and 2020, is 82, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who fought for the 2020 nomination, is 74.

“He pays attention to his politics,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said of Khanna. “He's very close to our revolution.”

Khanna doesn’t yell or crack many jokes, but admirers and opponents note how the congressman, who is always in a suit, sees value in engaging his critics and anyone else who wants to hear from him. It’s hard to find a reporter in Washington who doesn’t have his cellphone number.

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His office estimated that he appeared on television 142 times in 2023, nearly three times a week, including local, cable and Sunday network news hits. He laughed as he recounted how former Vice President Al Gore recently ribbed him for going on air so often.

His campaign pays a social media consultant who cultivates relationships with influencers and helps generate videos that draw 100,000 and sometimes a million views on TikTok and other platforms.

Last year, Khanna was a loud and lonely Democratic voice calling for the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein to resign amid an extended absence from work.

“I think he’s accurately assessing the careerism and corresponding mediocrity of the political class,” said former Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican who worked closely with Khanna on China and other issues.

Rep. Ro Khanna shakes a man's hand at an outside rally
Rep. Ro Khanna shakes hands at an End Fossil Fuel rally, where he spoke, near the U.S. Capitol in June 2021. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Khanna won legitimacy on the left by backing Sanders in 2020 and has addressed his own potential vulnerabilities, including a personal fortune worth tens of millions of dollars through his wife’s family, by backing the Green New Deal and other anti-corporate positions, Jayapal said. He has made contacts with activist organizations and used his $10-million campaign account to boost up-and-coming candidates and state parties.

“So obviously, he's got a path lined up for himself,” she said with a chuckle.

But even allies question that goal.

“We make a mistake by saying, ‘Who's going to be the leader of the progressives?’ because we have many, many leaders,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, the Oakland Democrat whom Khanna endorsed for the Senate this year and counts as a mentor. “In a democracy, we work collectively."

Khanna seems undaunted. His brand of “progressive capitalism” differs from the focus placed on social issues by culturally progressive lawmakers, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

Khanna also differs from Sanders’ democratic socialist philosophy, in part because his agenda includes a dollop of “wealth generation” — often in the form of subsidies that help the corporate giants Sanders rails against — to bring jobs to working-class Americans. At the same time, he supports high taxes on the wealthy and free universal healthcare.

The same tech boom that has made his district wealthy, he’s reasoned, could bring jobs to areas of the country that suffered as manufacturing shifted overseas.

The zeal for spreading tech wealth to West Virginia, Michigan and other neglected regions has not hurt his ability to win over voters and financial backers in Silicon Valley's tech sector, his primary backers since he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2014 against Mike Honda, a fellow progressive Democrat who served eight terms. Khanna won in 2016.

Congressman Ro Khanna, (D) of California, confers with Communications Director
Rep. Ro Khanna talks with communications director Marie Baldassarre near the U.S. Capitol in May. (Jonathan Ernst / For The Times)

In 2022, when Intel Corp. broke ground on a semiconductor factory in Ohio, Khanna was there, as were Biden and other lawmakers. Bruce Andrews, the company's chief government affairs officer, told The Times that he’d never seen an elected official so excited about investment outside their district.

The facility is funded in part through the CHIPS and Science Act, and Khanna had been a bridge in the negotiations over the legislation with Democrats who were more skeptical of corporations, which won billions of dollars in subsidies in the law.

“He spent a lot of time explaining to them how the economics worked and how Taiwan and Korea and China have spent 30 years incentivizing this industry,” Andrews said. “If we want to get those jobs back and build, rebuild and rebuild manufacturing in the United States, we have to close the cost gap between the U.S. and Asia.”

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China has been a particular target of Khanna's, reflecting the national mood that helped Trump get elected and pushed many Democrats, including Biden, toward a more confrontational industrial policy with Beijing.

“He comes at it more from an economic warfare perspective, and I come at it more from an actual warfare perspective,” said Gallagher, the former Wisconsin congressman.

The two also collaborated on congressional term limits legislation, traveling to Trump’s White House to seek an audience with the president. They got a tweet from Trump, but the bill died.

“He has a very legit resume and background and has interacted with every major leader in the tech world and probably sees the energy, the natural churn of talent, and the ability of people at a relatively young age to have a massive impact,” Gallagher said.

During their time working together on China issues, Gallagher was impressed with Khanna’s ability to get tech barons and venture capitalists on the phone.

In this photo released by the Taiwan Presidential Office, Taiwan's President Tsai
Rep. Ro Khanna shakes hands with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen during a meeting in Taipei in February 2023. Khanna led a U.S. delegation to discuss deepening military cooperation between the two sides. (Taiwan Presidential Office via AP)

But the coziness with tech has drawn skepticism from fellow progressives and industry critics, who see Silicon Valley as the prime example of concentrated wealth and power and the aversion to regulation that comes with it.

Some critics point to extensive trading of stocks — some of it tech companies — in his wife's portfolio. He insisted that his wife’s extensive roster of quarterly stock trades does not violate his belief that members of Congress should not buy and sell stocks because, in her case, the stocks are traded by a third party as part of a diversified trust.

“It’s very hard to see how you can express affection for Silicon Valley giants and be a full-throated advocate for social democracy,” said Jeff Hauser, who heads the Revolving Door Project, a corporate influence watchdog.

Khanna disputes that view, pointing to his vocal support for a sweeping bipartisan Senate bill (which ultimately failed) to regulate tech. But he did not support a similar effort in the House when he had the chance in 2021, drawing more skepticism from critics who see a gap between his rhetoric and actions.

Garrett Ventry, a former Republican congressional aide who worked on antitrust issues, said Khanna dodged many of the bipartisan efforts to curb the power of Apple, Google and Amazon, despite his “Elizabeth Warren rhetoric.”

“That really speaks more volumes than just saying tough things on Twitter,” Ventry said.

In advance of his Dearborn visit, Khanna and his staff billed it “a major speech” to lay out his vision for the Middle East, a bit lofty for a rank-and-file member of the House minority. But he was nervous on the way there. His campaign’s videographer was stuck in a long security line in New York, jeopardizing his plan to clip the speech for social media.

Khanna was not sure how a call for civility and a two-state solution would go over. He said he would deliver the same speech he'd give if he were speaking to a pro-Israel group.

U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Ca., speaks to a group of college Democrats, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024,
Rep. Ro Khanna speaks to a group of Democratic college students in February in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

But the speech in Michigan omitted a line from an op-ed he published that morning, adapted from the speech, which condemned the phrase “from the river to the sea,” which many Israelis and American Jews see as a call to eliminate Jews from Israel. Khanna said the Washington Post added that line and he never intended it as part of the speech.

His op-ed and speech never mentioned Biden or noted how Trump banned visitors from primarily Muslim countries and took a more hawkishly anti-Palestinian position than Biden. It would be inappropriate, Khanna said to a reporter, to upstage the award with this talk, and he wasn't there in his role as a Biden surrogate.

After about an hour of selfies and political networking, Khanna sat down for a dinner of lamb, chicken and rice. Other speakers described the community’s profound pain and anger, none more so than Allen.

“Our own president, who many of us voted for,” is “a willing accomplice to murder,” Allen told the audience.

“This betrayal is compounded by the pernicious influence of dual loyalties, where our elected officials nakedly serve, not the American people, but foreign interests,” Allen continued, echoing the language of antisemetic tropes.

Khanna smiled awkwardly but congratulated Allen and the other speakers as they left the dais.

“I hope my speech goes over well,” Khanna said to a reporter during another set of fiery remarks. “That’s a pretty radical speech.”

As his turn arrived, Khanna appeared composed.

“I'm not going to tell you maybe all that you want to hear,” Khanna told the crowd, offering “a new approach to political dialogue in America.”

Over 15 minutes, he tried to find common ground, a two-state solution, a mutual recognition, coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis. Iranians too. He invoked the inspiration of his grandfather Amarnath Vidyalankar, a member of Gandhi's independence movement in India who spent four years in jail and eventually served in the country's first parliament.

Khanna didn't use the words genocide or ethnic cleansing as the other speakers did. He called for a permanent cease-fire and a release of hostages.

There were maybe two boos when Khanna reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist, and the concluding applause was polite.

Khanna thought it went well, and the group’s founder muttered later that the speech sounded presidential.

Congressman Ro Khanna, (D) of California, during a portrait session on the East Front
Rep. Ro Khanna on the East Front grounds of the U.S. Capitol. (Jonathan Ernst / For The Times)

Mingling afterward, attendees offered similar praise, and if they said nothing, Khanna asked what they thought. His political director, Elizabeth Cavalieri, then recorded testimonials from a few of them to post on TikTok.

It had been a long night, and almost everyone was cleared out. But Allen, the one who had sworn to defeat Biden, was filming a TikTok video with Cavalieri praising Khanna’s speech, repeatedly mispronouncing his name as “Ka-hanna.”

When Allen finished, he told Cavalieri they needed to stay in touch. He’s raised a lot of money over the years and wants to help Khanna with what’s next.

Bierman reported from Dearborn, Oreskes from Los Angeles.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.