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This Silicon Valley congressman wants to sell his vision to Trump country. Here's why Democrats' future could hinge on it

This Silicon Valley congressman wants to sell his vision to Trump country. Here's why Democrats' future could hinge on it
Students and faculty at West Virginia University Tech showed off their artificial intelligence and other technology-oriented work to Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont), right. (Michael Meador / WVU Tech)

Congress was off, and in these days of mounting uneasiness over calls for more technology regulation, the representative from Silicon Valley might have had good reason to stick around his district, soothing nerves.

But Ro Khanna had other plans.

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He was not on the West Coast, but deep in the mountains of West Virginia, holed up in a remote college laboratory where an unlikely experiment in social change and economic transition was underway. The Stanford scholar-turned-lawmaker looked surprisingly at home in the far-off burg on the doorstep of coal country.

Joking to a roomful of mostly white faces, Khanna (D-Fremont), the son of immigrants, noted that the area's scarcity of decent Indian takeout might be its biggest obstacle to attracting technology firms.

Khanna that day was confronting a much bigger challenge for Silicon Valley than his irritated fellow lawmakers clustered in Washington. A wide swath of Americans have been left out of the innovation economy and are growing increasingly resentful of it. So Khanna is trying to spread the opportunity by urgently searching out ways to get tech invested in the so-called flyover states and vice versa.

The future of the Democratic Party could hinge on whether he and a handful of other Silicon Valley and Washington types, with limited exposure to distressed Rust Belt and coal communities, can persuade those places that they are well positioned to compete in the new economy, and help seed investment crucial to their success.

Rep. Ro Khanna takes in a student's engineering project at West Virginia University Tech.
Rep. Ro Khanna takes in a student's engineering project at West Virginia University Tech. (Michael Meador / WVU Tech)

The visit to West Virginia University Tech, where a campus churning out coders and engineers was eager for Khanna's help luring potential tech employers to the state, was not billed as a political event. But politics hung heavy in the air.

"If the political dynamic were different, perhaps this visit would not be happening," local entrepreneur Patrick Farrell told the congressman, talking of the drubbing Democrats took in the presidential election in regions like this one. "But we need you to tell our story. If you are going to carry a message back, it should be that when [tech] companies have opportunities to bring prosperity back, they should consider us. We can do it. We have shown we can do it. It would go a long way in lessening the resentment."

Khanna, a quiet maverick among Democrats, is an unconventional ambassador for his party. He rejects both the platforms of the party establishment and the politics of the Berniecrats. His trillion-dollar blueprint for reviving distressed regions defies ideology, melding ideas that resemble Clintonomics with others that excite tech-funded think tanks, with still others that might be defined as a 21st-century New Deal.

He has no reservations about prodding the tech CEOs who propelled his unlikely rise in politics, calling for an "internet bill of rights" packed with transparency and consumer protection provisions that make the firms bristle. He crossed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) by publicly announcing he would like to see her knocked out of office by any more forward-thinking Democrat. The "Antitrust Caucus" that Khanna helped launch seeks to refocus regulators on the damage threatened to wages, local economies and even small mom-and-pop businesses in big corporate mergers.

"When I got to Washington, people said, 'Don't talk about tech and innovation outside the district,'" Khanna said during his visit to Beckley, W.Va. "I said, 'You are not getting America. People in this country love innovation.' ... But they want to know how they can have the opportunities, how it can liberate their economic possibilities and give them hope." He launched into a story about John F. Kennedy's visit to West Virginia, when coal miners excitedly chanted, "Go to the moon!"

Khanna's visits to Trump country have invited some predictable eye-rolling. Silicon Valley's promises to connect with Middle America — made most urgently amid the Valley's shock following Trump's election — have not always been followed through on. Executives returned from their post-election bus tours and barbecues in flyover land and went back in their bubbles. There have been spurts of investment, but not game-changing investment: certainly not the kind of investment that has voters in Trump country reconsidering their enthusiasm for the president's far-fetched plans to reopen enough coal mines and steel mills to bring economies roaring back.

West Virginia University President Gordon Gee chats with Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna.
West Virginia University President Gordon Gee chats with Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna. (Michael Meador / WVU Tech)

"There is plenty tech companies can do, but I don't think they are doing much of it," said Larry Downes, a Berkeley-based innovation scholar with the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy. "After the election, they got in private planes and flew to places like Oklahoma for a day for a listening tour. It was a lot of hyperbole."

Some of the overtures reflect ideas that may be more fashionable with the urban elite than the communities they are trying to help. The start-up accelerator Y Combinator, for example, has launched a large experiment with "guaranteed income," in which it is providing 1,000 people with $1,000 a month for three to five years and then assessing how it affects their life.

Some economists boring into the stagnation in places like West Virginia worry the think tank and political class is paying too little attention to pursuing ideas that actually create new local industries and opportunities.

"We are not giving workable solutions to these communities, and the folks in them know it," said Steve Glickman, co-founder of the Economic Innovation Group, an advocacy group bankrolled by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker. The group recently successfully lobbied Congress to create "Opportunity Zones" that create incentives for companies to locate in distressed areas ripe for growth.

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But the concentration of the nation's prosperity into a handful of regions, Glickman said, is accelerating at a more alarming pace than most politicians comprehend. As America pulled out of recession in the early 1990s, half the new businesses created were spread across 125 counties. When the most recent recession ended, that same share of new businesses were clustered within just 20 counties, the group found.

"It is rare to see a first-term congressman from Silicon Valley criticizing the tech industry for not doing enough to help Middle America, where he has no skin in the game," Glickman said. "But this is the issue of our generation to fix."

Khanna was drawn to Beckley by West Virginia University President Gordon Gee, whose resume includes stints as president of Brown, Vanderbilt, Ohio State and the University of Colorado. He returned to West Virginia, the system he was first named to lead 37 years ago, for an encore act, dead set on making the university a springboard to modernize the state's economy and lure innovation-oriented investment its way. From his vision sprouted the new tech-oriented campus at Beckley, where enrollment has so far exceeded his expectations.

Gee does not align with any political party. He said he supported Republican John Kasich in the 2016 election. But he said the local backlash against prosperous coastal states reflected in Trump's election motivated him to step up his work at the university.

"If you look at the political landscape, the arrogance of the blue has caused an incredible backlash," he said. "When I talked with Congressman Khanna, my feeling was rather than thinking about this as a rural-urban divide, let's think about it as folks who have achieved great things taking responsibility for the overall health of the American public. It means moving away from the safety zones of the coast, and thinking of investing in these smaller communities. Politically it is smart. In terms of learning and service and creativity, it makes sense."

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Gee didn't have to make a very hard sell. Khanna is known to sermonize about the silliness of industries concentrating so many jobs that can be done anywhere, by anyone trained with basic skill sets, in outrageously expensive and congested places like the Silicon Valley district he represents.

"People here have an extraordinary work ethic, extraordinary ideas, they have hunger and a desire to make it," Khanna said. "But they need a path. ... It's in Silicon Valley's self-interest to partner with you. Some of these tech companies need more places where they can recruit, more places to go get talent, more places where they don't have to pay six-figure salaries to college graduates just starting out."

Rep. Ro Khanna talks with West Virginia University President Gordon Gee.
Rep. Ro Khanna talks with West Virginia University President Gordon Gee. (Michael Meador / WVU Tech)

Whether he will be able to help persuade Silicon Valley executives to spread their operations into Beckley remains to be seen, but he did head back to California with much to sell.

In one corner of the lab Khanna toured, a student pitched him on her new technique for trapping and storing industrial greenhouse gases. Across the room, another student showed off his prototype for a sort of human-sized Fitbit, engineered to spit out your health data as you stand before it. Yet another offered up an artificial intelligence-driven instrument that could jam in harmony with musicians.

"Not everyone here wants to go work in a coal mine," said Jeremy Ruth, the senior who invented the health device, which he calls the Fitness Mirror. "Young people would like some other options."

Amen to that, said his classmate Mardigon Toler, inventor of the artificial intelligence bandmate. His dad, a coal miner, was so impressed by the career opportunities opening to Toler that he has stopped trying to push his son into a job in mining.

"Because of where we are, he hadn't been exposed to this stuff very much," Toler said. "A big part of him coming around was seeing these skills get me a job. A lot of the value of things in this state are determined by whether they can get you a job."

Follow me: @evanhalper

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