February 08, 2021
What is a congressman from Silicon Valley doing trying to sprout jobs and native prairie grass in Iowa?
Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.), a Democrat representing one of the richest districts in the nation, says he is trying to spread that wealth in hopes of weaving the national fabric back together.
Khanna helped arrange for a “digital forge” in Jefferson, Iowa — in concert with the Republican governor, the tech industry and the local community college — that will create 30 coding jobs that pay upward of $60,000 per year to someone with a two-year degree. In a county-seat town of 4,200 people, that’s a big deal. The first four students are enrolled for tech certification, with an additional 11 enrolling next year. Before this effort, Jefferson’s best bet to reverse years of decline and population loss in western Iowa was to land a casino.
Meanwhile, Iowa State University just announced that it received $1 million by virtue of Khanna linking the land-grant school with the foundation of Nicole Shanahan, wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin. The money will be used to demonstrate the effectiveness of planting permanent strips of native prairie grass in the rows between crops. The strips can reduce nitrogen loss by 90 percent and act as a carbon sink. The three-year program is just a start on millions of unprotected cropland acres that are feeding the slow death of the Gulf of Mexico with toxic fertilizer runoff. The research is there. Money to change farm hearts and minds hasn’t been.
What’s he up to? Khanna insists he is not running for president.
“I want to work with Tom Vilsack for the next eight years,” Khanna says of the incoming agriculture secretary and former Iowa governor, who pledges to take a lead in climate change and rural development. More broadly, Khanna says he is on a mission to connect the growth corridors with the areas flown over the past half-century, from Iowa to Ohio to West Virginia. During the 2020 Democratic primary, the congressman spent a lot of time campaigning off the beaten path for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), especially in ultraconservative western Iowa. (Khanna spent more than $30,000 of his congressional campaign funds buying ads in rural newspapers during the caucus cycle urging voters to explore tech transfer and energy innovation.) He senses the disaffection when capital flows to the coasts and jobs slip into the ether. Generations of rural families grow tired of shooing their brightest off to Boston or San Jose in search of those jobs. It feeds resentment.
“There’s a total deficit of trust — look at the elections,” Khanna told me, moments after voting to bar conspiracy theorist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) from serving on House committees. “There’s this belief that we politicians are all venal. We have to show them that we can deliver. And then people will say, okay, I can see that I have a stake here.”
He notes that technology provides about as many jobs — 12 million — as manufacturing does. But that number will more than double to 25 million in five years, Khanna says, and they can’t all roost in California, where the cost of living is sky-high. You can rent a nice house around Jefferson for $700 a month, one-fifth the cost of a Silicon Valley apartment. The pandemic proved that remote tech work is perfectly feasible. “Nobody should have to leave their hometown and families for a job,” says Khanna, the son of immigrants from India.
From his new perch on the House Agriculture Committee, Khanna is pushing to pay farmers for environmental services — diverting row crops such as corn to grass, encouraging rotations of diverse crops integrated with grazing, reducing tillage to save soil, planting cover crops in winter — for which he finds common cause with the Biden administration and Republican red-state senators.
“We can create a whole new suite of revenue streams to protect from the vagaries of trade,” Vilsack told me in a recent interview, in which he promised massively increased soil and water stewardship efforts.
Khanna is working with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on boosting an electric vehicle manufacturing facility in Lordstown, Ohio, from the shadows of the shuttered General Motors plant. He is trying to create tech industry partnerships with colleges in West Virginia and Kentucky. Iowa and Ohio are especially well suited to tech transfer, energy innovation and sustainable food production, he says, because of their historic commitments to education.
All these states supported Donald Trump in spades, because he offered them greatness. But Trump did not deliver. Lordstown has not recovered. Khanna believes that a progressive vision has a chance in that vacuum — if a jaded people is shown that government actually can work for them.
“Their communities are slipping away. People all over America are asking, ‘Where’s my place?’ ” Khanna says. “Before they fear losing something, let’s give them something. We have the wealth. Bring them the future, and I think we earn their trust.”
He is planting the seeds.