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Tech Giants Press Their Power in California Race

Thursday, 06 Feb 2014 11:15 AM

By Drew MacKenzie

The technology industry in California has jumped into the political minefield for the first time by supporting candidates who will promote their interests in Washington.

The first person that tech leaders such as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo are really getting behind is patent lawyer Ro Khanna, who is attempting to upend seven-term Democratic Rep. Michael Honda in the primary for the 17th congressional district, according to The New York Times.

And with the help of tech support, Khanna has quickly outpaced his rival in fundraising with almost $2 million in reserve compared to just $623,000 for Honda, who has been endorsed by President Barack Obama.

But win or lose, Khanna's race in the heart of Silicon Valley is just the beginning.

Tech companies have traditionally steered clear of politics in the past. But with their power and wealth increasing on a daily basis, the techies are now dipping their toes into the political fray, even if it means ousting an established player like Honda for a rookie like Khanna.

"The tech community is looking for advocates who will be really, really outspoken for tech, and Ro Khanna fits that mold," said Ron Conway, an influential tech investor who is backing Khanna. "I'm hoping it's a wave of the future that continues, because it's crucial for the tech community to have a really active voice in Washington."

The tech industry has also recently ramped up its lobbying and fundraising efforts on behalf of candidates that they think will press their interests on Capitol Hill, with Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco being just two of the beneficiaries.

Declaring that he will be a "disruptive" force in Washington, Khanna has been endorsed by Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer, as well as a string of other tech leaders.

"Everyone who is seen as a person of the future has endorsed our campaign," said 37-year-old Khanna, author of "Entrepreneurial Nation," a book on American manufacturing capabilities. Khanna currently represents tech companies in intellectual property cases while he's also served as the state's deputy assistant commerce secretary.

In a fundraiser for Khanna last year, Napster founder Sean Parker said, "I think we're starting to come into a realization of our own power and of our own capability, not just as innovators and technology pioneers, but also in a political sense."

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Khanna's 72-year-old rival is described as a pro-labor liberal Democrat who has often been an advocate for the tech giants, although the Times says Honda is not "as aggressive a champion" as other congressmen in the area.

Honda, who was elected in 2000, pushes the premise that the election should not be focused solely on the tech giants, but people all over his district. "It's about experience, the time you spent in the community, your record and people's expectations," he said recently.

Honda' supporters dismiss Khanna as a "Silicon Valley groupie" and point out that the political action committees of Intel, Google, Oracle, Yahoo, and other tech firms are helping in his re-election campaign.

Asad Jamal, chairman of ePlanet Capital, a venture capital firm, said, "Silicon Valley has a culture of backing new people in start-ups, and Ro is very persuasive and a good candidate. But Mike Honda is exceptional and has a proven track record."

Republican candidate Vanila Singh, an anesthesiologist who is Indian American like Khanna, is also running in the Democratic stronghold. But the Times says that due to California's top-two voting system, Khanna and Honda will likely face each other in November after first meeting at the Democratic primary in June.

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