The Ro factor
Could a political unknown topple the entrenched – but out-of-touch – Tom Lantos in the primary?

By Tim Redmond

Ro Khanna is seeking to do something considered almost impossible these days: oust a 12-term incumbent member of Congress in a Democratic primary. But his upstart campaign is touching a political nerve in the 12th District.

The 27-year-old, Yale-educated lawyer is challenging Rep. Tom Lantos with a direct and potentially powerful message: Lantos, a strong supporter of the invasion of Iraq and the USA PATRIOT Act, is way out of touch with his San Francisco and northern peninsula constituents.

"The clear majority of the voters don't support the positions Lantos has taken [on the war and homeland security]," Khanna told the Bay Guardian. "If we can get the message out, we're going to win."

Khanna isn't the only one taking on Lantos. Two Greens – Barry Hermanson and Pat Gray – are in a primary race to carry their party banner in November, and another Democrat, Maad Abu-Ghazala, is also running in the primary.

Yet Khanna has attracted considerable attention, not only because he has already raised more than $200,000 but also because he has the support of San Francisco supervisor (and Green Party member) Matt Gonzalez and is trying to pick up on the youthful energy that nearly brought Gonzalez into the Mayor's Office.

By any standard, this is the toughest race Lantos has faced in the past 20 years. People in the district are already noticing a change: Lantos has actually been appearing at local community events now and then, a big change from the previous few years when he was hardly ever around.

During a recent visit to Khanna headquarters – a cavernous old bank building in San Bruno – long tables filled with volunteer and paid phone-bankers were humming with activity.

The place had the feel of an activist campaign. Among the people working the phones: Khanna's parents, Jyotsha and Vijay, both immigrants from India, who had moved out from the Philadelphia area to help their son's effort.

Khanna, an intellectual property lawyer with Munger, Tolles and Olson in San Francisco, is soft-spoken and articulate and has well-thought-out positions on a wide range of national and international issues.

He calls the USA PATRIOT Act "an embarrassment for our country" and points to his own polling that found 60 percent of the district's residents oppose the law. He supports a single-payer health care system run by the federal government, not private insurance companies.

He wants to rescind George W. Bush's tax cuts for the rich and instead reduce payroll taxes – often the single largest tax hit for low-income working people.

In Iraq, Khanna suggests the United States should turn all remaining military action in the country over to NATO and all civilian work to the United Nations. He opposes the Bush administration's "guest worker" program and argues that the best way to limit illegal immigration is to invest in economic development in countries like Mexico.

Lantos, a former San Francisco State University economics professor, was born in Hungary and fought in the underground against the Nazis. Although he's been relatively liberal on environmental and some social issues, he's been far more hawkish on foreign policy than most of the Bay Area delegation.

In 2002 he came out in favor of the Iraq war, saying, "If the costs of war are great, the costs of inaction and appeasement are greater still." This year he and Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Walnut Creek) were the only Bay Area Democrats who voted to give Bush $87 billion more for Iraq and Afghanistan.

He's worked with Republicans on a number of foreign-policy issues; in 2001, for example, the Almanac of American Politics notes, he joined with Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Illinois) to withhold $244 million in U.N. dues after the United States lost its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

For years progressives have been frustrated with the entrenched incumbent. "When we moved to this district in 1977, he was very accessible," Len Traubman, a San Mateo County community activist, explained. "That has steadily diminished. He's rarely here, his capacity to listen is not good, and he's not in touch with his constituents."

Khanna was frustrated too: "I was waiting and waiting for someone to come along and challenge Lantos," he said. "When nobody else wanted to do it, I decided to get into the race."

It's never easy defeating someone like Lantos, and the fact that Khanna has never held public office – and thus isn't well known to the voters – makes it harder still.

And yet he's clearly making progress. The San Mateo Times has been covering the race fairly regularly and has been criticizing Lantos for refusing to debate (just one debate has been scheduled for four days before the election).

Among activists, Khanna is finding it easy to pick up support. The liberal California Democratic Council endorsed him by a 25-3 vote. Traubman and his wife, Libby, cofounders of the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue, both Khanna supporters, said they've seen significant support at the grassroots level.

"Everyone who meets him is impressed," Libby Traubman told us. "We've worked in local politics for 36 years, and we've never seen a candidate like him."

Even Hermanson – a Green candidate, small-business owner, and longtime San Francisco activist – had kind words for Khanna, saying they agree on many issues.

"Lantos is very much out of touch with the public on international issues," he said. With continuing problems in Iraq, "it becomes more difficult for Lantos to justify what he's been doing."

E-mail Tim Redmond

February 11, 2004