CA17: More on the GOP candidate controversy

My article in today’s editions about whether Democratic House candidate Ro Khanna and/or his supporters had anything to do with getting Republican Joel Vanlandingham into the 17th Congressional District race had far more complexity than room in the paper allowed.

For one thing, there’s a personal element of bad blood between Vanila Singh – the first Republican to enter the race – and Romesh Japra, the Fremont Hindu Temple chairman who is a staunch Khanna supporter.

Vanila SinghWhen Singh entered the race to unseat Rep. Mike Honda in January, analysts said it could help Honda by stripping Khanna of GOP votes in June’s top-two primary election; in fact, a poll in February found Singh, largely by dint of her party, had leapfrogged slightly ahead of Khanna. But then two more Republicans – Vanlandingham, and another who was kicked off the ballot last week for petition signature irregularities – jumped into the race, potentially splitting the district’s small GOP base and helping Khanna surpass all Republicans in June and go one-on-one with Honda in November.

I hear Japra is a somewhat polarizing figure in the Indo-American community, wielding a lot of influence as chairman of the temple and of the Federation of Indian Associations. It’s the kind of influence some might resent in an old-country, political power-broker sort of way, but still significant enough that it would be hard for a candidate to snub him.

Singh said Wednesday that she and her parents were longtime friends with Japra, who even attended her children’s birthday parties as recently as last summer. But that ended abruptly when he learned she was considering entering this race, she said; since then, he has both spoken ill of her in the community and demoted her mother from a temple leadership position.

Romesh Japra“We’ve lost a friend, or someone we thought was a friend, because of dirty politics,” she said. “The revelation that his closest associates, have actively recruited and signed for a fake Republican candidate to enter the race is shocking.”

That’s not proved, of course, though the evidence presented in my story isn’t easily explained away. It’s also possible as well that if Japra and temple officials were involved in Vanlandingham’s candidacy, they acted without Khanna’s knowledge; American politics is littered with tales of candidates and elected officials being tarred with their supporters’ independent actions. Singh, however, doesn’t buy that.

“What I’ve seen with my own eyes is Khanna following Japra and them working in concert together,” she said. “I would have a hard time to believe this was a rogue element that happened once by chance.”

Lots more, after the jump…

There’s an India politics angle here, too, though that’s been circulating ever since Singh got into the race.

Khanna’s grandfather, Amarnath Vidhyalankar, was jailed for four years during Mahatma Gandhi’s independence movement and later was a prominent figure in the Indian National Congress Party. Singh is a supporter of the rival Bharatiya Janata Party, from which Narendra Modi is the candidate to be India’s next prime minister.

Modi since 2001 has been chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, where terrible Muslim-Hindu sectarian violence broke out in early 2002. Modi’s responsibility for some of that violence remains a hot topic in the Indo-American community, especially since the United States in 2005 denied him a diplomatic visa and revoked a business/tourism visa he already had, citing a federal law denying visas to any foreign government official deemed responsible for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

Singh wants Modi to have his visa; Khanna doesn’t. “I have been attacked for being insufficiently Hindu because I have spoken out for the rights of Muslim Americans and Sikh Americans and condemned the violence in Gujarat in 2001 and against Sikhs in India in 1984,” Khanna wrote in an op-ed posted yesterday by India-West.

Some say Singh was recruited into the race to pressure Khanna on the Modi issue; some say Khanna’s supporters knew most local Indo-Americans are Modi supporters, and so recruited Vanlandingham to dilute Singh’s vote.

And then there’s the Harmeet Dhillon angle.

Last week, an Alameda County Republican committeeman represented by the law firm of California Republican Party Vice Chairwoman Harmeet Dhillon asked a Sacramento County judge to kick Vanlandingham and the other last-minute GOP candidate – Vinesh Singh Rathore – off the ballot due to petition irregularities. Rathore got the boot, but Vanlandingham stayed.

Dhillon has provided reporters (including me) with an email thread that seems to show Japra used his tax-exempt, nonprofit temple’s email address and mailing list to invite contributors to a Khanna fundraiser he hosted at his home. She also forwarded emails in which the temple’s vice-chair used his City of San Jose email to invite Indian American Democratic Forum members and others to a voter-registration drive at the temple, but refused a GOP county chairwoman’s request to send volunteers as well.

At the state Republican convention a few weeks ago, Dhillon called Singh “a refreshing voice in our party … who shares the same concerns as the people in her community, and she has a lot to say.” She also noted Khanna stood to suffer from her candidacy: “He has certainly had his people reach out to Republican donors, Republican players.”

Some whisperers around town now note Dhillon is active in the Sikh-American community, which has been a big fan of Mike Honda’s ever since he was among few in Congress to vociferously defend Sikhs’ safety and interests after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – a time when people with turbans were being mistaken for Muslims and targeted for hate crimes. For my own part, it’s hard to believe that a proud partisan like Dhillon would do anything to help any Democratic incumbent; it’s much easier to believe she targeted Vanlandingham and Khanna to benefit Singh.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Marga

    I don’t think Dhillon is attacking Khanna to help Honda. I think she sees it as a good opportunity to draw Indians into the Republican party.

    Singh is using this to attack Khanna, because that’s the whole point of her campaign. Have you discovered any other reason for her running, Josh?

    There seems to be no evidence that Khanna’s campaign was involved in any of this, and I don’t believe it both because this is both an amateurish move and it was poorly executed. His campaign is run by professionals who got Obama elected, they wouldn’t have made these mistakes. Plus, really, I’ve gotten to know Khanna enough to know that he wants a clean win. He wants to go to DC with a mandate, chosen because his ideas won in the marketplace of ideas. He doesn’t want to get there by default. In other words, he doesn’t want to be Eric Swalwell.

    I stand behind Khanna because what he is doing – standing up against members of his own community who would have him support Modi – is not easy. And this is the political price he is paying for doing so. It’s too bad that the American media is contributing to it.

  • Elwood

    Do you believe in fairies too, Marga?

  • Guest

    Voters got rid of the closed primary – and they took away the politicians power to draw up their own districts – for the express purpose of getting back competitive state and federal elections. So I am distressed anybody – including this Harmeet Dhillon – would go to court to get candidates – like VanLandingham – kicked of the ballot. The more candidates the merrier in my view, voters want real elections – debates, campaigning, and so forth. The old days of ultra partisan party hacks – like Stark and Honda – staying in office year after year had to come to end. Democracy has returned, that’s why you seen 14 new members of the House the last few years. Real Democratic elections is a wonderful thing – it inspires people to get involved, to run for office, or back other candidates or whatever. This competitive race in the 17th district is just great, but some – like Honda, or Dhillon, prefer the old “fixed” system where House elections were a joke. No more, voters want real elections, lots of candidates – when you have that type of situation cream rises to the top, I think.

  • RealTalkExpress

    It’s tragic how some of Ro Khanna’s supporters portray him as this angelic, holier-than-thou figure who just wants to bless us rubes with the charity of his representation. Ro is but a politician. The second his principles run into the wall of his ambitions, they die an instant death. And that is particularly true of Ro than most others. Are we to applaud the courage of his bravery for the simple condemnation of violence? The counter-position is untenable for an American politician, regardless of what diaspora politics dictate.

    And yes, supporters may sometimes do things that come back to hurt the very candidates that they back, but it is very hard to believe that the Indo community led by Japra would do anything without Ro Khanna’s blessing. His supporters can cite “no evidence” until they are blue in the face, but their association is well documented.

    That his campaign staff worked on the president’s campaign is an irrelevant talking point: they never had to work on ensuring Obama paid his filing fees to make sure his name went on the ballot, and etcetera, so it is conceivable that these recent transplants to CA politics did not know the rules all that well, explaining the poorly executed plan.

    The bottom line is that Ro Khanna would risk the reputation of the INdian community if he is served well by it. And that is clearly happening here. It is unfortunate that Vanilla Singh may be motivated by diaspora politics, but that is her prerogative. Ro Khanna in response turned the community into his human shield thinking he wouldn’t get caught.

    We would all be better off if Mike Honda kindly retired and Ro Khanna retreated back to his career as an author. This race has attracted the worst kinds of opportunists.

  • Marga

    An association does not create responsibility. Singh has a closer association to Japra than Khanna does – and if your our standard is what’s “conceivable”, well, it’s “conceivable” that this is all a big Hindu-supremacist conspiracy to smear Khanna.

    I rather look at the facts and what is actually likely, and what is likely is that when Vanlandingham mentioned to an Indian-American friend he wanted to run for Congress, his friend saw an opportunity to help Khanna in the process. Josh is a good journalist, so if there was some actual “association” between Vanlandingham and Khanna, or even between Vanlandingham and Japra, he would have found it by now.

    But it’s interesting that while calling for Honda and Khanna to disappear, you dismiss Singh’s motivation by “diaspora politics” as “her prerogative”. Surely, if there is anyone to blame for turning this election into a circus and casting a shadow on the Indian-American community, it’s Singh and her Hindu-supremacist cohorts.

    On the plus side, this does bring more attention to the atrocities committed by the Modi regime and in India in general. Here are reports mentioning the situation of human rights in Gujarat by the Asian Centre for Human Rights:


  • RealTalkExpress

    I am glad you think you know me so well! I personally am a liberal democrat. Vanilla Singh is clearly a foil candidate and I do not subscribe to her egregious beliefs. But thanks for highlighting reasons why Modi should not be India’s PM nonetheless.

    My sense is that you have not dealt with the indo community, so your knowledge of the facts are circumscribed by this limitation. That is why you continue to give Ro the benefit of the doubt when all signs point to his wrong doing. You are allowing him to let his poor supporter hang out to dry.

  • Marga

    I don’t know that I expressed any opinions about you, rather analyzed what you said.

    But I am very uncomfortable with you suggesting that if I knew the Indian-American community better, my opinion of Khanna would be lower. That sounds pretty racist to me.

  • RRSenileColumnist

    There’s a rumour going around that Ro said recently “Nehru was way cooler than Gandhi but don’t quote me.” Is there any truth to this gossip?

  • RealTalkExpress

    Yes, I am a self-hating Indo racist. You got me. I am suggesting if you knew more, you wouldn’t be so quick to shout “no evidence.”

  • Marga

    If you have evidence, then present it.

    But if your evidence is based on ascribing to Khanna your perceptions of how Indian-Americans are (including yourself), that’s pretty much the definition of prejudice.

  • RealTalkExpress

    It’s not based on simple perceptions, but thank you for playing the race card. Being that I have small children, I am not in the mood to have the Indo equivalent of Shrimp Boy knock down my door, so I’ll pass on having to answer how it would be that Ro and Japra are 2 peas in a pod and that he would never do anything with Ro telling him to. But your fan girl stick is clouding your judgment. Big time.

  • Marga

    What you make are serious, if amorphous, accusations. You do so anonymously and offering no evidence. Thus it’s very hard to take them seriously.

    And yet, I’m not one to dismiss any suggestions of wrongdoing offhandedly. I thus urge you to reach out to Josh Richman privately and offer him whatever information you have. He should be able to offer you the benefits of reporter confidentiality.

  • JohnW

    Too bad Vanila is a Republican. I’d vote for her. Not just easy on the eyes but super-smart too. Double major in economics and molecular biology plus medical school.

  • RRSenileColumnist

    Stop usen them big words an fancy talk! Even them dot-heads talk plainer then y’all

  • RG

    This is obviously a complicated issue encompassing everything from history to ethnicity to personal resentments…if anything comes out of this, however, it’s the fact that boiling the story down to one of Khanna having interfered with the process by motivating more republican candidates just seems ridiculous in light of all the complexity.

  • Elwood

    Occam’s Razor:

    “It admonishes us to choose from a set of otherwise equivalent models of a given phenomenon the simplest one”


  • Marga

    “Equivalent” being the key word. Here, we have religious/ethnic/cast/political differences going back millenia, tales of friendship and loyalty betrayed, a democidal but charismatic would-be-prime-minister, and a sitting Congressman who likes to travel, but not debate. All that’s missing is a love angle, but I’m sure that’s coming too. I think this will become a Bollywood hit whoever wins.

    Forget Occam, you just need popcorn.

  • RRSenileColumnist

    Are we talking about the race for the US Congress or the Lok Sabha?