Freshman Rep. Ro Khanna, 40, a California Democrat, talks about campaigning for President Barack Obama, getting mentored by former Rep. Tom Lantos, and his grandfather’s role in the independence movement in India.
Q: What has surprised you about Congress so far?
A: I didn’t quite know how the votes work. It reminds me of a school where recess is called or something, the bells go off and then everyone is packed in elevators with 20, 25 people and you scramble to get to the floor. I didn’t have any idea about how the bells would go off — that’s something that was completely new to me. On a more substantive level, I’ve been pleasantly surprised as to how many people will meet with you; interesting thinkers, community leaders. The fact that you’re a member of Congress, a lot of people will meet and share their ideas and that’s been really exciting.
Q: Tell me about your grandfather Amarnath Vidyalankar and the lessons you learned from him.
A: I have such admiration for him. He spent his entire life in the Indian independence movement and then became a part of India’s very first parliament. As a young person, he decided [to] work for someone … who was a freedom fighter, as his aide. Later on, he spent years in jail in the 1940s as part of India’s independence movement with [Mahatma] Gandhi. It showed to me the value of someone who dedicated their life to a political cause, it showed that politics could shape human rights and, in fact, the world. He was a real figure in our family. A lot of people would tell stories about him, stories about his life and I’m sure that had a sense of inspiring my public service.
Q: Tell me about campaigning for former President Barack Obama’s 1996 state Senate campaign in Illinois.
A: I really knocked on doors. I volunteered. It gave me an exposure to politics, it was my first exposure to elected politics and I’m sure it put the seed in my mind that politics is something interesting. I always had a passion for human rights and policy issues because of my grandfather’s story. That was my first experience in sort of elected politics and what that’s like.
Q: In 2004, as a 27-year-old, you challenged former Rep. Tom Lantos in a Democratic primary and lost. He later became your mentor. How did they work out?
A: I ran a protest campaign. It was a two-month effort and it was probably a little bit naive in terms of I certainly wasn’t prepared to be in Congress back then. It was more sort of an expression of my views. Lantos, to his incredible credit, invited me to come to the Capitol afterwards and said, ‘Look, you ran a spirited race but let me tell you, politics is an organic process and you’ve got to really build roots in a community and build roots in a party.’ He introduced me to Nancy Pelosi and I ended up getting involved with helping her in the efforts in 2006 to take back the House and Lantos facilitated, in certain ways, my involvement in the community. He was just a very decent person and I think he was struck by sort of the bravado of someone at 27 challenging him.
Q: As a foodie, do you cook yourself?
A: I’ve got to admit, I try more restaurants than I cook. I used to be able to cook and I still do, sometimes, a quiche, which is my one specialty. I enjoy, as does my wife, different restaurants whether it’s Italian, Indian, Asian fusion, and we’re getting to know now some of the restaurants here.