Silicon Valley’s Khanna gains new profile after Feinstein clash

Silicon Valley’s Khanna gains new profile after Feinstein clash
© Greg Nash

Two lawmakers key to representing Silicon Valley are at odds after Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) slammed Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinProgressives fume as Dems meet with Brett Kavanaugh GOP lawmaker calls on FBI to provide more info on former Feinstein staffer It’s possible to protect national security without jeopardizing the economy MORE’s (D-Calif.) decision to run for reelection.

Khanna, who says Feinstein is out of touch with the Democratic grass roots, is the lawmaker Silicon Valley wanted. Major tech leaders like former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, venture capitalist and Y Combinator head Sam Altman and top officials at Google and Facebook showered Khanna with endorsements during his 2016 campaign.

Feinstein, conversely, has frustrated tech with her tendency to back law enforcement and other groups on surveillance issues. 

Khanna’s criticism of Feinstein coincides with a growing, wide-ranging crisis for tech giants that has seen them pressed on everything from perceived political bias to antitrust issues.

Feinstein has pushed to make encryption and security more accessible to law enforcement, which tech companies have aggressively fought against.

During her time as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Feinstein co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrFlorida questions Senate chairman over claim that Russians have ‘penetrated’ election systems WikiLeaks says Senate panel requested Assange testimony for Russia probe Tougher Russia sanctions face skepticism from Senate Republicans MORE (R-N.C.) that would have forced companies to build “backdoors” into their encryption systems. Technology companies mobilized against the legislation, arguing that it would harm security and hurt their bottom lines by damaging trust with consumers. 

Feinstein has also pushed Facebook to publicly release ads purchased on its platform by Russian actors in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Khanna has taken the opposite tack, defending the likes of Twitter and Facebook in June after British Prime Minister Theresa May attacked the companies and threatened to increase internet regulations.

But the freshman has criticized technology companies in other ways. In an interview with The Hill, Khanna called out Amazon over its recently-finalized acquisition of Whole Foods, warning that the company is approaching monopoly-like size.

But the California Democrat has also been hesitant to criticize technology companies, including Facebook and Google, who are closer to his district than Seattle-based Amazon.

Khanna shied away from criticizing Google for allegedly influencing the work of Open Markets, a think tank that fired a critic of Google’s power, purportedly after a complaint from a top executive. 

Khanna’s primary criticism of Feinstein focuses on her politics, which don’t match up with his vision for the party. 

“Feinstein is out of touch with the grass roots of our party on economic policy and foreign policy,” Khanna told Vox after her reelection announcement. “She continues to cling to office as a voice for the status quo.”

In an interview with The Hill prior to Feinstein’s reelection announcement, Khanna laid out a platform that he believes is in touch with the grass roots of the party. 

“My interest is in articulating an economic vision that will help us deal with the transition into the digital age and the software revolution and make sure that people have economic opportunity and still have access to a middle-class life,” Khanna said.

“Instead of doubling down and rewarding the shareholder or executive class with tax cuts geared toward them, why don’t we have tax credits geared toward people doing the work? Medicare for all is a key component [of the party’s new economic vision].”

Feinstein has supported calls for wage increases but has expressed skepticism of a single-payer health-care plan.

Khanna believes that politicians and government officials like Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisDemocrats embracing socialism is dangerous for America Senate Judiciary announces Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing Fearing ‘blue wave,’ drug, insurance companies build single-payer defense MORE (D-Calif.), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich could help fulfill those progressive policies. 

“I certainly think that Kamala Harris has an inspiring life story and I admire her work on criminal justice reform. I think that she would add a lot to the debate and would be a very compelling [presidential] candidate,” Khanna said, qualifying that he believes other potential candidates could offer this as well. 

Khanna has also encouraged Lee and Reich to challenge Feinstein in her Senate primary race.

Feinstein is expected to face a Senate challenge from the left, including a potential entry from state Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León (D).

But Yusef Robb, a Democratic political strategist in California, says big money Silicon Valley donors could be hesitant to get involved in a Senate race if it means distracting from a push for Democrats to flip Republican-held seats in the state.

“Seven California seats are essential to the mission,” Robb said. “What is contrary to that mission is a heated Democratic Senate primary.”

“The last thing on the priority list would be a contested primary,” he added.