Over a breakfast of coffee and omelets at the Waveland Cafe in Booneville, Iowa, Ro Khanna, the California congressman representing Silicon Valley, graduated from something of a one-hour master class on small-town economics and farm policy delivered by the peerless rural advocate Tom Vilsack, Iowa's former governor who was recently confirmed for a second stint as U.S. secretary of agriculture.
The meeting last winter affirmed what Khanna increasingly sees as his calling in representing the most-robust economic region in perhaps the history of the United States.
"Rural Americans have been hearing plans for 30 years," Khanna said in a recent interview with me. "It's the trust. We need trust."
With Google and Facebook and other tech companies rivering into all aspects of life in all 50 states, Khanna is in many respects America's first national congressman. His district's influence is pervasive, defining, with his constituency of tech companies holding unprecedented sway over the American economy and culture.
Here's the big question of the political hour — and it frames the way this congressman sees the lane for his service in Washington, D.C., and growing interaction with rural America.
Khanna knows many rural Americans, sweeps of folks in the countryside of Iowa and Minnesota, are angry over real and perceived losses to their ways of life.
Recent elections, as Khanna is well aware, have seen that discontent manifest in anti-immigrant language or votes and vitriol hurled against political figures tied to the urban elite.
Should rural Iowans feel this angry, is it earned and real, and if so, where should it be directed?
Rural Americans served in wars and farmed and mined coal and built the manufacturing base, and increasingly there is little, if any, role for them in the new economy — one in which wealth is scooped and segregated to coastal tech clusters.
Khanna's mission: Bring the software revolution to rural Iowa and Minnesota and West Virginia.
It's a matchless remedy to the over-brewed rural-urban divide, one that is diminishing the nation.
"We have to connect the technological innovation taking place in the Valley or in Austin or Boston to tap the talent in places in the Midwest and the South," Khanna said. "See, when we had a manufacturing economy, we had a web of connectivity. When manufacturing succeeded, the railroad towns would succeed, the coal towns would succeed, the transportation towns would succeed."
That's broken down largely at the hands of Big Tech.
"Now when you have Google or Facebook out there making money, it doesn't necessarily benefit someone in Iowa," Khanna said. "It doesn't necessarily benefit someone in Michigan other than them being consumers, so what I am saying is we've got to think about how, in a modern economy, can we create wealth generation in the new technologies across America?"
So what specifically is Khanna doing? A lot. Iowa State University, a land-grant institution and leading agricultural research center, received a Khanna-facilitated $1.1 million grant from the Bia-Echo Foundation of Palo Alto, Calif., an organization built by Nicole Shanahan, wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin. The money will support faster-paced adoption of prairie strips — a farmland conservation practice, said Lisa Schulte Moore, associate director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State.
She says the grant-funded work could affect tens of thousands of acres of land, be a boost to the environment and land stewardship and farmers' bottom lines.
Over the last three years, Khanna has traveled to Jefferson, Iowa (population 4,200) several times to help develop a modern software operation in its downtown square. Accenture's branch is expected to employ up to three dozen people at salaries that could hit $70,000 or more. That's real class mobility, serious economic-ladder material.
With a new seat on the House Agriculture Committee — and strong interest in working with Vilsack — Khanna wants to put the full force of Silicon Valley behind rural revitalization.
President Joe Biden is well aware of Khanna's efforts. I talked with then-candidate Biden about Khanna's rural strategy in the days leading up to the 2020 Iowa Caucuses.
"I think he's absolutely right," Biden said in an interview in Sioux City. "Look, one of the things that we've found, when you take a look, of all the venture capital that's gone into investments in the United States, somewhere between 75 and 80% have gone to five cities — five, five. It makes no sense."
I spy similarities between Khanna and another American politician: President Barack Obama. They make issues of race not into finger-pointing opportunities, the politics of "gotcha." They are aspirational.
Near the end of a forum in Mason City, Khanna, an Indian American, talked about his response to some recent questions from journalists on race. Had anyone ever told Khanna to go back where he came from (which would be outside of Philadelphia, actually, as the congressman was born there in 1976)?
"So, yeah, there were kids who would say, 'Why don't you go back where you came from?' " Khanna said. "But that's not the story of America I remember. I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It was 99% white in the 1970s and 1980s. I had Little League coaches who believed in me, and I had public school teachers who believed in me, and I had neighbors who believed in me. And today, at the age of 40, I was elected to represent arguably the most powerful economic district in the world."
Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa journalist and the co-owner of the Carroll (Iowa) Times Herald. He is a member of several rural Iowa economic development boards.