Ro Khanna -- a little-known Silicon Valley lawyer and former Obama administration official -- has quickly and quietly reached rarefied heights in one of politics' most crucial qualifiers for success: campaign fundraising.
And he insists he's not even really running for office -- yet.
The 35-year-old Fremont Democrat raked in a remarkable $1.2 million in the last three months of 2011 for a run in the 15th Congressional District, almost four times the total raised by 20-time incumbent Rep. Pete Stark and two other potential rival Democrats. In fact, his fourth-quarter sum appears to have topped all but two other House candidates across the entire nation -- with House Speaker John Boehner being one of those.
Yet Khanna promises he won't challenge Stark, the 80-year-old Fremont Democrat who says he's running again, and will probably have to wait to spend all that money in 2014. This is the kind of patience Khanna has shown in gradually cultivating Democratic contacts and capital, dating way back to when he was an intern fetching Diet Cokes for then-Vice President Al Gore's chief of staff.
So why is he so busy raising cash now?
To Khanna, it's a matter of striking while the fundraising iron is hot: The presidential election has loosened political purse strings; he just finished a two-year stint as a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Commerce Department; and his new job at Silicon Valley law powerhouse Wilson Sonsini extends his network even further beyond a burgeoning Indo-American community that's eager to make him its political scion. He's even on schedule to publish a book this fall profiling successful manufacturers he met during his stint with Obama.
"I wanted to capture the moment and prepare for the future," Khanna said. "I had an opportunity, given my experience in the administration, to get a message out on something -- American competitiveness -- that I thought would resonate in a presidential election year, and I could mobilize folks to support the president, to help take back the House."
His contributors include renowned deep pockets such as venture capitalists John Doerr and Bill Draper; hotel mogul and Obama 2008 chief fundraiser Penny Pritzker; Esprit co-founder and Hillary Clinton confidante Susie Tompkins Buell; and salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff.
Longtime Silicon Valley Democrat wrangler Wade Randlett, who has "bundled" more than $500,000 for the president's re-election bid, said he gave to Khanna's campaign not only because the young lawyer has toiled for other Democrats for years, but also because he served the Obama administration -- overseeing 108 U.S. Export Assistance Centers in 47 states. While it wasn't a sexy post, it still meant a lot to business policy goals, Randlett said
Replacing "a 1970s lion of Medicare" like Stark "with someone who's got a true 21st-century global understanding and profile is very attractive," Randlett said, and giving him money two years in advance is a long-term investment in someone who could be in the House for decades to come.
If anyone aimed to pressure Stark into abandoning his bid for a 21st term, it's not working. "I'm running. I've hired campaign consultants; we're going full-bore," Stark said.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was at one of Khanna's fundraisers but "supports Pete Stark," said Jennifer Crider, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's deputy executive director. "Don't read anything into her stopping by Ro's event -- she's known him and the hosts for a long time."
Still, raising $1.2 million and hobnobbing with the likes of Pelosi sends a political message.
"He is scaring the devil out of some people who have always thought they're going to run for my seat someday," Stark said.
Alameda County prosecutor and Dublin Councilman Eric Swalwell, a Democrat, is challenging Stark now; state Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, is raising funds but has not yet decided whether to run now or in 2014.
"Khanna is most likely making sure he's at the head of the class if Stark decides not to run and sending a message to other possible candidates that he's serious and has bucks," agreed Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a University of Southern California political analyst. "I've not heard of any other candidate who has raised so much so early."
Swalwell said it doesn't matter until Khanna puts skin in the game.
"I am not concerned about armchair candidates who are preparing for an imaginary race," he said. "I am suited up and on the field now when our economy and working families need it most."
Yet Khanna may have learned a lesson about biding one's time from his 2004 Democratic primary loss to Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, whom he criticized for supporting the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. It was a stinging defeat -- he got only 20 percent of the vote -- but it put him on the political radar.
"This is a powerful guy," Stark said. "All the other interests in the East Bay -- the Democratic clubs, all the procedural Democratic hierarchy, be it labor or whomever -- are concerned because suddenly this guy is not kissing the ring."
Education: Bachelor of Arts in economics, University of Chicago, 1998; juris doctor, Yale Law School, 2001
Work history: Counsel for Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati; former deputy assistant secretary for U.S. Department of Commerce; former attorney for O'Melveny & Myers
Prior political experience: Lost 2004 Democratic primary to Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo.
Oct. 18 soiree at the Portola Valley home of venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, netting about $440,000; a Nov. 19 event in Hayward with former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, netting about $220,000; and a Nov. 30 event at the Woodside home of former Symantec CEO John Thompson -- where President Barack Obama feted contributors in September -- netting about $200,000.