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Political Mercury

Ro Khanna is rural Iowa’s real congressman

1/2/2019

There’s a software revolution in America today, and rural Americans need to be armed.

U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., speaks Saturday, Dec. 8 at History Boy Theatre at the national kickoff of R3 (Revive. Rebuild. Restore.) in Jefferson. Khanna was part of a delegation of Silicon Valley leaders who pledged to include rural America in their vision of the future. Photo by Matt Wetrich

It’s possible Ro Khanna did more for Greene County, Iowa, in 16 hours on a past weekend than Steve King has in 16 years.

Khanna, 42, a product of rural Pennsylvania who is in his first term as a Democrat representing the Silicon Valley area of California in Congress, shepherded top tech figures to Jefferson on Dec. 8 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 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.

“Mark down this night because it is the start of a revolution,” Des Moines Area Community College President Rob Denson said.

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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 Guinness’ 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 transforming every single industry.”

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, 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.”

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.

Yes, Khanna represents Silicon Valley, but if you were one of the Iowans sitting in RVP-1875’s History Boy Theatre that Saturday night listening to him, you know this, and know it well: Ro Khanna is representing rural Iowa, too.
The three words I’ll leave you with where Khanna is concerned: I trust him. ♦

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

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