End of the Ro? Disruption meets old dirty politics in the heart of Silicon Valley

By Yasha Levine , written on May 21, 2014

From The News Desk

When I first covered the Congressional race between Mike Honda vs Ro Khanna last February, the drama was fairly straightforward: A popular old school Democratic incumbent being challenged from within his own party by a young upstart with the backing of the richest and most powerful plutocrats in Silicon Valley.

The two candidates were battling for some of the most fertile soil in Silicon Valley: A congressional district that's home to tech megacorps like Apple, eBay, Intel, Yahoo, and AMD. And the press was heralding it as a clash of political cultures: the first time that Silicon Valley was fronting its own candidate to take on the Bay Area's powerful liberal Democratic Party machine.

At a $2,600-a-head fundraiser in May 2013, Napster/Facebook billionaire Sean Parker introduced Ro Khanna to a room full of other tech millionaires and billionaires as a man who could take their vision to D.C.

Silicon Valley hasn’t been properly represented at the federal level. We haven’t had the kind of young, hard-driving candidate that really understands the unique issues facing Silicon Valley at a moment in time when, you know, they actually are at a series of, uhm, important political milestones and political turning points. And to a certain extent, I think we’re starting to come to a realization of our own power and of our own capability, not just as innovators and technology pioneers, but also, uhm, but also in a political sense.
Khanna took the mic and promised the room full of donors that he’d use Silicon Valley culture to disrupt national politics and make the world a better place — it would be Washington D.C. 2.0.
 And it’s time that we actually change politics, that Silicon Valley has the potential to do this. … It’s not just about having a tech agenda. This is about something much deeper — our values, and our ability to use those values to change Washington and the world.
It was a rousing speech but, as it turned out, an empty promise.

As the June 3 primary approached, and the fight for the heart of Silicon Valley devolved into a messy five-way free-for-all, it became clear that Ro Khanna couldn’t so easily disentangle himself from real world politics.

His vision of a technocratic political utopia met reality, and reality won.

Since I first covered Khanna, his campaign has been marred by uninspiring politics, questionable candidates and accusations of a dirty tricks campaign run by Khanna supporters to manipulate the vote in his favor. The race has also pulled in something else as well: a bloody and violent political and religious conflict imported from more than 8,000 miles away. I'll get to that last part soon: It's pretty nuts.

Certainly, the fight for California’s 17th Congressional District has become the weirdest and most entertaining race in the Golden State.


Ro Khanna threatened with defeat

When I first met Ro Khanna at a small medical tool manufacturer in Santa Clara back in February, his campaign was directing all its energies at wounding the incumbent Congressman Mike Honda.

He wasn’t very successful at it.

At the campaign event, Ro Khanna offered an uninspiring and cautious mix of progressive, New Democrat, and Centrist Republican policies — most of them long supported by Rep. Honda.

He called for bringing advanced manufacturing jobs back to America, boosting the number of math and science teachers, increasing the participation of women in tech, supporting paid maternity leave, teaching public school kids how to code, and offering tax breaks to companies that hire the longterm unemployed.

Even his plan to increase the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour — “we need to make work pay” — had a limp quality to it. California is already on track to increase minimum wage to $10 by 2016. And plenty of cities up and down the state have similarly high minimum wage laws, including those in the Congressional district Khanna wants to represent. Hell, even Peter Thiel, a Khanna supporter and a hardline libertarian who bankrolled Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign, is in favor of raising the federal minimum wage to $12 a hour — 20% more radical than what’s proposed by Khanna. Go Ro!

Ro Khanna told the New York Times that he supports changing America’s tax code to allow tech companies to repatriate their profits without being taxed. It’s a position that would go over well with lots of tech companies in his district that have hundreds of billions of dollars stashed away offshore, because they don’t want to pay taxes.

But the funny thing is that even Khanna’s radical tax plan is probably not so different than Honda’s.

The Congressman has long supported — and taken flak for — some sort of squishy Dem compromise to allow tech companies to repatriate their profits at a special reduced tax rate. How special? I asked him, but he wouldn’t commit to a hard number, only saying that he considered the 5% tax rate fielded by Silicon Valley during negotiations to be too low.

Honda's support for a tax "compromise" is not surprising given that his district is home to the some of the biggest profit hoarders in Silicon Valley: Apple has over $40 billion stashed overseas, eBay’s got $12 billion, and Intel nearly $18 billion.

So… Khanna promised to disrupt Democratic Party politics in DC, but he was having a hard time even naming one thing that Mike Honda had done wrong.

It didn't really matter, though. Soon after, it became apparent that Honda is no longer the main threat to Khanna's campaign.

That honor fell to a 43-year-old Stanford anesthesiologist named Vanila Singh. She entered into the Congressional race late in the game as a Republican, and pretty much sunk Khanna’s chances of advancing past the primary.

Singh is a virtual unknown. She has voted only a handful of times in her entire career, has never been involved in electoral politics and lacks a public political profile. But none of this matters.

As the sole Republican in the race, Singh was all but guaranteed 25 to 30 percent of the vote — which would score her second place and send her to the general election to face off against Honda, while leaving Ro holding his bag of Silicon Valley cash.

On top of grabbing all the GOP votes, she threatened to cut into his support from the district's large Indian-American community. By some counts, South Asians represent one-fifth of the population in the district — and a large chunk of this community had been expected to rally behind Ro Khanna's candidacy. The fact that Singh had lived in Fremont since she was a child and her family had deep roots in the district put Khanna's community support even more in jeopardy.

Indeed, at the end of February, a poll came out confirming the numbers: Ro was stuck in third place, trailing Vanila Singh by a couple of percentage points.

That might have gotten him a Bronze in the Olympics, but it would be a dead loss in California's new primary system — where only the top two candidates advance to the general election.

Khanna had more cash than anybody, fawning national and local media coverage and support of industry big wigs like Peter Thiel, Sean Parker, Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, Marc Andreessen, Ron Conway,  Mark Pincus, John Doerr, and hundreds of other lesser-known tech minigarchs. Many of these donors — as well as their husbands and wives — were so sure that he’d succeed in his primary challenge that they maxed out their $2,600 federal individual contribution limit.

He had been campaigning hard for nearly a year. And Singh just showed up and threatened to effortlessly steal the show.

If the balance of forces did not change quickly, Khanna was looking at a humiliating defeat.

And then Ro Khanna's luck suddenly changed.


Dirty Tricks and Spoiler Candidates

At the last possible moment, two mysterious Republican candidates entered the field against Singh. One of the candidates was a Sony recruiter named Joel Vanlandingham; the other, a Google attorney named Vinesh Singh Rathore. Both were political amateurs, and no one really knew who they were or what they stood for.

That didn't matter. Their presence on the ballot would split the Republican vote three ways and probably dilute Vanila Singh's numbers enough to put Khanna back in second place.

Khanna's good fortune seemed a bit too good to be true, and indeed some people thought that this good fortune was no accident.

On March 24, a local Republican Party official by the name of Jeffrey Wald lobbed the first grenade. He filed a lawsuit with the Sacramento County Superior Court seeking to kick Singh Rathore and Vanlandingham off the ballot. The suit explicitly described them as dummy candidates and accused Ro Khanna's campaign of fronting them in order to split to take Vanila Singh out of the running.

Once [Vanila Singh] entered into the Race, Khanna’s chances of advancing from the June 3 Primary Election diminished significantly. CA-17 has a heavy Indian-American presence. Upon Singh’s nomination, it was expected that Singh would obtain support from Republicans, women, and the Indian-American community. Such support would likely allow Singh to advance past the June 3 Primary Election, replacing Khanna’s expected advancement.

. . .Khanna recruited candidates to enter the race as Republicans to split the Republican vote three ways, effectively diluting votes that would otherwise be cast in favor of Singh. At the last minute, Singh Rathore and Vanlandingham became candidates for the June 3 Primary Election. The addition of Singh Rathore and Vanlandingham, both of whom are running as Republicans, will split the GOP vote, effectively Rathore, another Indian-American, will split the Indian-American vote. The lawsuit claimed that the two candidates were put on the ballot by Ro Khanna campaign — and called attention to several details about the two meant that were definitely of interest.

The suit pointed out out that Rathore had previously worked at the DC office of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, the powerful Silicon Valley law firm where Ro Khanna also worked. The suit claimed that was evidence of a personal connection between Khanna and Rathore. It also noted that Rathore was a perfect spoiler candidate: he registered on the ballot using his middle name — "Singh" — which guaranteed to sow confusion between himself and Vanila Singh.

The stuff in the lawsuit on Vanlandingham was potentially much more damning.

There was real hard evidence that some of the people who signed Vanlandingham's candidate nomination petition were proven Ro Khanna supporters. The person who had circulated the candidacy petition also raised serious questions about Vanlandingham’s legitimacy.

She was a Ro Khanna supporter named Manorama Kumar Joshi. A few months before she took it upon herself to go around the district and collect signatures to get Vanlandingham on the ballot, she had signed Ro Khanna's nomination papers. Although not illegal, this move was highly unusual and suspicious. To make matters worse, the lawsuit pointed out that she had filled her name out as "Manorama J Kumor" on Vanlandingham's papers and as "Manorama K. Joshi" on Khanna's — this suggested she knew that what she was doing was of dubious legality and attempted to obscure her identity.

In a hasty court session arranged two days after the suit was filed, Judge Allen Sumner threw out Rathore's candidacy — not because he agreed with the lawsuit’s claims of a dirty tricks campaign, but on purely technical grounds. The court found irregularities with several signatures on his candidacy petition, which plunged him below the necessary signature threshold for a nomination and automatically kicked him off the ballot.

The judge refused to hear the lawsuit's conspiracy allegations, saying that he'd rather let the voters decide the election. But in the court of public opinion, the evidence was not so easily dismissed or refuted.

As beat reporters dug into the story, questions and suspicions about the involvement of Khanna's campaign only grew.

Joshi & KhannaIt turned out that Manorama Kumar Joshi — who had gathered signatures for Vanlandingham — had much closer ties to Ro Khanna's campaign than previously known. She not only signed Khanna’s candidacy nomination papers, but donated to his campaign and regularly attended his campaign events. Joshi was also the treasurer at Fremont's Vedic Dharma Samaj Hindu Temple - which is hotbed of Ro Khanna support in the community.

Mercury News reporter Josh Richman even found pictures of Joshi posing next to Khanna on several different occasions. The most recent snapshot of Joshi and Khanna came from a campaign event in late February 2014.

Just several weeks later, Joshi was out collecting signatures to get Vanlandingham on the ballot. Joshi wasn't a bit player in the effort. She collected nearly a third of his nominating signatures. Without her effort, Vanlandingham would have never got his name on on the ballot.

So why would a Ro Khanna supporter collect signatures for an opponent candidate?

Good question.

Richman tracked Joshi down to her condo complex in the City of Newark, but she had holed up inside and wouldn't talk to the press. He never even got past the intercom: "No, I don't want to talk to anybody, thank you," was all Joshi would say before cutting the connection.

Ro Khanna's campaign denied allegations that it was behind or connected to the two candidates or to Manorama Kumar Joshi. Although his campaign manager did admit that Khanna had met Joshi several times.

Vanlandingham dismissed the allegations that he was a dummy candidate put up to this by Khanna's campaign. He told India-West that he had "no love for Ro."

He refused to discuss the issue with me. "This is a ridiculous claim and has already been settled in court. If you would like to discuss real issues, I'll be available for interviews tomorrow," he responded by email.

But Vanlandingham's refusal to accept campaign donations or to attempt to set up some sort of basic campaign infrastructure did little to dispel suspicions.

The mystery only deepened when Vanlandingham denied knowing Joshi. He explained that the signatures were organized by Indian-American advisor who was involved in local Democratic Party politics. But Vanlandingham refused to reveal his identity, saying that he wanted to protect his reputation in a mostly Democratic Indian-American community.

And Manorama Kumar Joshi wasn’t the only Ro Khanna supporter gathering signatures for Vanlandingham.

Sunita Sohrabji, staff reporter at India West, found out that a Khanna backer named Mahesh Pakala talked at least two people into signing Vanlandingham’s petition while they were attending Fremont's Hindu Temple. Pakala is a Verizon engineer who had maxed out his campaign contribution to Khanna and even appears listed on Khanna’s campaign endorsement page.

Pakala denied that he had ever collected signatures and said it was all a big misunderstanding…

But there was still more.

Margaret Okuzumi, a Democratic Party activist and Mike Honda supporter from Sunnyvale, combed through the signatures on Vanlandingham’s petition and matched them up to a list of Ro Khanna donors. She found a huge area of overlap. Folks who signed Vanlandingham’s petition lived in households that funneled more than $10,000 to Ro Khanna’s campaign.

Okuzumi Khanna Vanlandigham research

“Many Vanlandingham petition signers either themselves gave large sums of money to Ro Khanna in this election cycle (Rajesh K. Gupta) or had immediate family members who did, giving a combined total of $10,350 to the Khanna campaign in this election cycle as reported thus far,” wrote Okuzumi in a detailed email describing the findings she sent out to the media.

Okuzumi also noticed that many of the key players in the Khanna/Vanlandingham saga were connected to the the Hindu Temple in Fremont.

The temple is run by Romesh Japra, one of the biggest boosters in the local Hindu community. He and his wife maxed out their contributions to Ro's campaign at $7,400. Japra used temple resources to promote the Khanna campaign — and using a tax exempt religious organization to back a political candidate is clearly against the law.

What did Ro Khanna have to say about all of this?

Well, Khanna's campaign wouldn't respond to my request for comment. After my earlier reporting, his press secretary had decided I was a reporter non grata. “I’m not sure we’ll get a fair shake on things," he said.

In other venues, the candidate reacted forcefully and with anger to the allegations that he was involved in fronting dummy candidates in the race.

In an op-ed published in India West, he invoked the spirit of Gandhi and said that these smears against him were being perpetuated by racists and bigots:

Most disappointingly, some party operatives have engaged in the worst form of racial stereotyping, assuming that every Indian American living in the Bay Area must be a part of my campaign. Could it not be that Indian Americans have enough judgment and independence to support candidates based on their own values?
You gotta give Khanna some credit for his honest attempt to redirect the blame. But there's one giant gaping hole in his claim that racism was a motivating factor: Vanila Singh is also Indian American, and she's been very loud and very forward about who she thinks is behind these cardboard candidates: Ro Khanna and his supporters.

“The revelation that his closest associates, have actively recruited and signed for a fake Republican candidate to enter the race is shocking,” she told Mercury News.

Singh went further. She singled out Fremont Hindu Temple chairman Romesh Japra as the linchpin of this dirty tricks operation, and accused Khanna of knowingly taking part.

“What I’ve seen with my own eyes is Khanna following Japra and them working in concert together. I would have a hard time to believe this was a rogue element that happened once by chance.”

She continues to refuse to accept the legitimacy of Vanlandingham’s candidacy, going as far as to boycott a recent panel that featured both of her principle opponents, Mike Honda and Ro Khanna.

Singh has a right to be outraged at Khanna's campaign tactics. But it's hard to take her outrage seriously. After all, Pando has learned that Singh herself was likely recruited as a spoiler candidate in order to take Ro Khanna out of the race.

Yep. That's the twist.

I'll tell you more about it next week, in part two.

[Update: An earlier version of this story stated that Joel Vanlandingham had admitted that he knew Manorama Kumar Joshi. We have since learned this is not accurate and regret the error.]

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]