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Under Pressure From Progressives, Rep. Ro Khanna Endorses Both Democrats in Contentious New York Primary

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On Tuesday evening, New York Rep. Joe Crowley tweeted that he had won the support of progressive Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., in an increasingly heated primary in Queens and the Bronx. By Wednesday morning, following an outpouring of anger at Khanna, the endorsement had become a “dual endorsement” of both Crowley and his opponent, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Khanna’s painfully public shift from Crowley-backer to a neutral party undermines Crowley’s effort to demonstrate his strong support from the left. It will also leave a mark on Khanna as he navigates his future in Congress and within the progressive movement.

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The online firestorm came a day after Crowley announced he had the support of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a fellow New York Democrat, who has spent much of the past year backing women in races across the country. The endorsement was not cost-free for Gillibrand, either. Combined with her endorsement of Gov. Andrew Cuomo over challenger Cynthia Nixon, her backing of Crowley over Ocasio-Cortez is being used as evidence that her support for women candidates extends only as far as their complicity with the Democratic machine.

Crowley’s rollout of the twin endorsements suggests that he senses his primary challenger is becoming a true threat — both to his seat in Congress and to his ambitions for leadership. Crowley, who represents New York’s 14th Congressional District, is routinely floated as a potential replacement for Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., but if he becomes toxic among progressives, his path to the top becomes much more narrow.

Khanna’s reversal was remarkable in that it played out in real time in a series of Twitter conversations among rattled supporters who filed accusations of “hypocrisy,” being a “sellout,” and capitulating to corporatists.

Although Crowley’s establishment bonafides might make him an uncontroversial choice for a mainstream Democrat, Khanna has built his political career on a progressive agenda. He is a member of Justice Democrats — a political group dedicated to electing aggressively progressive candidates around the country — and campaigned on issues like “Medicare for All,” free college, and a $15 minimum wage. Perhaps more controversial than Khanna’s Crowley endorsement itself was that it initially came in lieu of an endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez — a young, charismatic, progressive candidate whose scrappy campaign and authentic presentation style has garnered her national attention.

In many ways, the ascendancy of Crowley’s primary opponent mirrors Khanna’s.

The irony is that, in many ways, the ascendancy of Crowley’s primary opponent mirrors Khanna’s own trajectory. Both are millennial candidates of color who have challenged establishment figures from the left. In 2016, Khanna beat incumbent Mike Honda, who was popular among progressives — particularly with organized labor.  Khanna went on to become one of the most outspoken members of Congress on the left, building a stable of progressive legislation rather than merely attacking President Donald Trump. He has also been among the few members of the House to make foreign policy a priority, speaking out on the war in Yemen and the May 14 slaughter in Gaza, for example. He was the first House member to become a Justice Democrat — an organization for which Ocasio-Cortez is a board member. For the most part, both candidates support the panoply of programs that have become a litmus test of sorts for progressivism.

It’s Khanna’s association with the left that made this endorsement of an establishment candidate so confusing to his backers. Despite the policy overlap between Khanna and Ocasio-Cortez, he threw his lot in with Crowley — a man whom Ocasio-Cortez has accused of being driven by Wall Street and luxury real estate money, and out of touch with a district he no longer lives in. (Crowley lives in Virginia). Arguably revealing his disconnect with Khanna and Ocasio-Cortez’s generation, Crowley recently chafed at what he said was Ocasio-Cortez’s effort to make the campaign “about race,” saying, “I can’t help that I was born white.”  

When his followers objected that Khanna’s endorsement of Crowley over Ocasio-Cortez was inconsistent with his policy positions, Khanna was conciliatory, but he had trouble providing an explanation sufficient to satisfy his detractors.

In an email to The Intercept, Khanna acknowledged the complicated political bind he’s in, referencing his effort to balance his desire to back primary challengers with the need to stay on the good side of incumbents who can help pass important legislation. 

The truth is it is always very difficult for an incumbent to endorse a challenger to one of his colleagues. I ran three times against an incumbent of my own party — the first time in 2003 opposing the war in Iraq. Twice I lost. Once I won. In all those races, I never received a single endorsement of a federal elected official, even though I had worked for President Obama. I vowed that I would always support the concept that primary challenges make our party better. I have tried to balance that with being effective in the House and building coalitions.

Crowley is a key member of House leadership, with significant control over committee assignments and the fate of legislation — presuming Democrats eventually take back the lower chamber. Leadership can make life miserable for rank-and-file Democrats and block them from accomplishing anything nationally or for their constituents back home. Staying in the good graces of the likes of Crowley is one way members ensure their efforts are not blocked by party leadership. By Wednesday morning, it was unclear how firmly Khanna remained in those good graces.

In response to the online criticism, Khanna first noted that Crowley had backed progressive legislation alongside Khanna, tweeting: “I have worked on progressive legislation with Mr. Crowley. But if you look at the totality of my endorsements and record, I think you might find it decent.” Khanna later explained what legislation he was referring to, tweeting that Crowley “was helpful on building support for Medicare for All and legalizing marijuana” and adding, “I didn’t know much about his opponent. She has run an inspiring race.”

In his email to The Intercept, he elaborated on the extent of Crowley’s cooperation.

I have worked with Crowley as has Marc Pocan (chair of progressive caucus) on a number of progressive issues. He supported Barbara Lee and my legalizing marijuana bill and helped build support for it. I visited his district on how to bring tech to low income and minority communities in Queens…Crowley also has moved left on many issues. He is a cosponsor of Medicare for All. He’s a cosponsor of the Workplace Democracy Act. He has helped the CPC on our legislative priorities and is someone I have interact[ion]s with. I have been candid about that being the reason for my endorsement.

Khanna was also hit with inaccurate charges that he had taken $2,000 from Crowley on March 23: “Just factually I did not. Please see open secrets,” he responded, referring to the website that tracks money in politics. “Never cashed this check per n[o] pac pledge.” He noted that Crowley sends money to all freshman Democrats in Congress, which is part of his campaign for leadership.

When followers accused Khanna of capitulating to the whims of the Democratic establishment, rather than using the power of his “megaphone” to do “what is best,” he responded: “I have called out [Chuck] Schumer, endorsed against [Dianne] Feinstein, and taken positions contrary to the establishment. On this race, we have a different opinion. Respect your desire to bring change.”

This didn’t satisfy all of his followers, some of whom pointed out that progressive outsider candidates, like Ocasio-Cortez and Khanna himself, have a tougher path to victory than corporate candidates, and that Khanna could have at least withheld an endorsement from Crowley so as not to hurt Ocasio-Cortez’s chances. Khanna, unflinchingly respectful and patient throughout, affirmed that he supports primary challenges because they “make the party stronger.”

Khanna claimed to be surprised that anyone cared about his endorsement, tweeting, “I didn’t think it would matter as much and when I did it months ago didn’t even know about the race. It was prior to the viral video,” he wrote, referring to an Ocasio-Cortez campaign ad that became an internet sensation late last month. “I have said Crowley has been helpful to me on legislation but Ms. Ocasio has run a remarkable race.”

“A year ago no one would have cared who I endorsed! I get there is a responsibility.”

This frustrated many Twitter users, who couldn’t understand how Khanna could make an endorsement without meeting all the candidates in the race. Khanna seemed to accept that critique without defensiveness, tweeting: “Fair enough. In the future I will be more diligent on researching all the candidates and soliciting input. A year ago no one would have cared who I endorsed! I get there is a responsibility.”

Several hours into the Twitter storm, Khanna seemed worn down by the number of progressives who expressed frustration with his endorsement. Acknowledging that he has “great respect” for many of his critics, he apologized. “I will learn from this for future endorsements,” he said. “Hope over the years to earn people’s trust based on my FP & economic positions.”

After the Twitter debate took some strange turns, including a misunderstanding over whether a photo of Khanna’s face photoshopped on an 18th century American portrait of a member of the Whig Party was a reference to British colonialism and a dig at Khanna’s South Asian ancestry (it was not), Khanna attempted to resolve the controversy by endorsing both candidates.

At 2:42 a.m., after nearly 10 hours of responding to critics, Khanna tweeted: “have listened today to hundreds of progressives from around the nation who have been inspired by @ocasio2018 campaign. I am equally inspired & dual endorsing her. I explained why I support Joe. But I want to affirm Ocasio-Cortez’s bold progressive positions. As a son of immigrants, I feel strongly we need more millennials, women of color, and disenfranchised communities entering the political process. She is a trailblazer. Competition is good, and the voters of NY-14 will only benefit from the spirited election.”

Reaction to this “dual” endorsement was mixed. Some appreciated that Khanna listened to his critics and responded substantively and without defensiveness, while at the same time questioning the point of a double endorsement, noting, “A dual endorsement in a race they are running against each other doesn’t help her much.”

Another user captured the tone of much of the disapproval: “Dude. Bad form. I sincerely think your best course of action is to rescind your endorsement of Crowley. I trust you to be a continuing progressive. To continue an endorsement of Crowley (and pelosi for that matter) is sincerely going to work against you in the future.

Still others praised Khanna for his responsiveness: “Thank you, Ro! I was not happy with your endorsement of Crowley, but you listened to us and took action. Most politicians don’t do that. Alex will win and make you proud!”

In some ways, the controversy exposed a vulnerability for Khanna as he rises in prominence among progressive activists. Recently, The Intercept reported on his jobs guarantee plan, which critics said was too conservative to be described as such.  One expert who reviewed Khanna’s plan, Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics and urban policy at the New School, warned that enthusiasm over jobs guarantees meant that such plans were at risk of “being coopted, watered down, and deviated from its intended goal.” Economist Dean Baker, however, had a different reading.“[Khanna’s proposal is] obviously much more modest than a full-scale job guarantee,” Baker said in an interview with The Intercept, “because I don’t think we’re in place for a full-scale job guarantee.”

Khanna’s background as a Silicon Valley corporate lawyer and Ivy league economics lecturer, as well as his political origin as a centrist (before moving to the left of liberal incumbent Mike Honda), makes some progressives distrustful. Even Khanna describes himself as somewhere to the right of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.: “Obviously, everybody is a reflection of their district,” he told Mother Jones, “but I think the combination of Bernie Sanders’ moral clarity with Silicon Valley’s interest in and understanding of job creation can be a compelling platform for the Democratic Party.” Of course, to some voters, a more moderate approach is a plus.

Khanna finished the night by saying that he hoped his decision to pair his endorsement of Crowley with one of Ocasio-Cortez wouldn’t “tip the scales” of the race.

His mistake, Khanna said, was endorsing Crowley without knowing more about Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. “When I endorsed him, I did not look into Ocasio’s campaign. That was my mistake. I should have been more aware of how inspiring a candidate she is and how she is a true trailblazer,” he told The Intercept. “The feedback from hundreds of progressives around the country made me take a closer look at her candidacy. I watched the video that went viral and also her interview with Glenn Greenwald. Her life story has defied the odds. She is running as a civil rights pioneer and on bolds policies like not taking pac money and a jobs guarantee. I support strongly young progressives and particularly people of color getting into the political process. So I was proud to dual endorse her.”

Ocasio-Cortez, at least, seems to bear no resentment toward Khanna, tweeting: “To some it may not seem like much,  but @RoKhanna endorsing our campaign challenging the House Dem leader is enormously consequential. He listened to the PEOPLE, adapted, and courageously endorsed Ocasio2018. He could have ignored our pushback. He didn’t. Let’s have his back.”

Top photo: Congressional candidate Ro Khanna smiles during a Bloomberg West Television interview in San Francisco, Calif., on July 2, 2014.

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