How a Young, Son of Immigrants, is Turning SF Politics on its Head
He’s not a very tall or imposing man. His warm smile and approachable demeanor don’t scream hardened politician in the least bit. He uses his words as inspiration instead of weaponry. He may seem like a young idealist, but that’s exactly what should worry his opponents.
Ryan Khojasteh brings his own sort of fire to the race for Nancy Pelosi’s spot as San Francisco’s 12th District representative – it’s his passion that makes him feel larger than he is, that walks in the door five minutes before he does and fills the room. Whether you believe in his politics or not, it’s difficult not to get swept up by his sense of purpose.
The 24-year-old candidate acknowledges that he can’t hold a candle to Pelosi’s many years of establishment experience, but his life as the son of Iranian immigrants in a post-9/11 world gives him perspective that the 77-year-old incumbent can’t possibly understand.
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In an unscripted speech, he tells the story of where passion for change began.
“I remember running around my house like a crazy little 3-year-old kid, looking for pillows. And I asked my mom, ‘How many pillows do we have in our house?’ And she said, ‘We have seven or eight pillows.’ And I asked her, ‘Can we go buy some more?’ She looks at me and she says, ‘Why?’ I looked up at her with my big brown eyes and I said, ‘I want to make sure that when our family comes that they have a place to sleep.’”
“And imagine being that mom trying to explain to a 3-year-old what failed foreign policy was, or failed immigration policy, or borders – or that unlike your neighbors and your classmates, you couldn’t grow up with your aunts or your uncles, or be part of your cousins’ lives. Now they’re all getting married and having kids and I’m here and I can’t see them. It’s been 13 years since I’ve seen my family and it hurts. Now with this travel ban, I’ve had family waiting 10 years for a visa and now they’re back at square one.”
While his parents worked in low-paying jobs while putting themselves through college – his father became an architect and his mother an engineer – they raised him and his sister with extended family that arose from bonds they maintained with other immigrant families facing similar circumstances. In that, he found aunts and uncles, cousins and friends that would give him a sense of belonging.
His path was dictated by events outside his or his family’s control, but at a young age, he heard a speech that forever altered his idea about what was possible.
“I saw President Obama, then State Senator, give that speech at the DNC in 2004,” Khojasteh said. “’I’m a tall, skinny kid with a funny name and this country has a place for me too.’ That changed my life.”
I met with him on two separate occasions – first at his campaign kickoff event and again at a coffee shop about a week later. In between those two days, he’d been to the Democratic State Convention in San Diego and media had started beating down his door. His life had suddenly hit warp speed and he couldn’t look happier about it.
“It’s become this crazy day, but it’s exciting because the momentum is starting to build now,” Khojasteh said. It was the Monday after the convention and he’d just gotten home in the wee hours before he sat down across from me at a window table looking out on the Federal Building in the Tenderloin. His t-shirt and flip-flops were a far cry from the tailored suit he wore the week before when he had thanked his team and supporters with donuts and coffee, and began the long haul of grassroots door knocking. His message was no less on point in his casual clothes and if he was tired, it didn’t show.
It’s no wonder why he’s still energized, considering the convention turned out to be more successful than anyone could have imagined. He and his dedicated team of fellow “campaign managers” won unanimous support from every San Francisco Young Democrats group, and nearly securing the statewide Young Democrats endorsement. A last-minute objection raised by the Wine Country delegation who feel loyal to Pelosi for her assistance with the fire recovery pushed the state to take a formal “no position” on that race, against the Democratic Party leader. That upheaval alone is a victory for a political newbie like Khojasteh, but he was most touched to see the “young, diverse voices of San Francisco come together.”
A major focus for the Khojasteh for Congress campaign is exactly that unity of different voices that showed up to support him, and is reflected in the diversity of the campaign team that works by his side. Each on equal footing and considered a “campaign manager” of sorts, the group runs the spectrum of cultural backgrounds and genders. He is driven by a desire to ensure equal ground for each person in his district, much in the same way he’s structured his team.
When he was a kid and went to visit his mother at work in Silicon Valley, he asked why she was in cubicle while other men she outranked were in offices with windows. “That’s just the way things are,” his mother replied – it was hard lesson in the reality that “women are seen as expendable.” If there’s anything that can sum up the mission of his political endeavor, it’s that he refuses to accept those things as just “the way things are” and he’s willing to fight to change them – for the women, immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ community…for the child that deserves the best possible future in a tolerant city full of opportunity.
He sees the issue of gun control to be an important piece of ensuring that future. A significant moment in his life was in the 90s when his cousin was killed in Los Angeles. He was working as a Denny’s manager when the assailant who “should not have been able to get a gun” approached the cashier. His cousin stepped in to protect her, telling her to hide, but he was shot and killed as a result. “I remember being there and part of those conversations about gun violence in this country,” Khojasteh said. “I never wanted that to happen to another family member, another person, again.”
“Because of living those experiences, I spent my last summer interning at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, where I had the opportunity to learn a lot.”
His college senior-year thesis was about the Heller v District of Columbia decision and how it was flawed, but his time at the Law Center gave him hope in terms of what can be considered sensible gun law that don’t infringe on the Second Amendment. “I have a lot of Republican friends and a lot of them are card carrying NRA members, but unlike what goes on in Washington, we can sit over coffee and we can agree on so many things and see eye-to-eye,” Khojasteh said. “At the end of the day, they don’t want to see people killed and they want to have a dialogue, open and transparent about the best steps forward.”
“Those include closing the loopholes on the guns shows and private transfers – we have make sure everyone has a background check.”
He worked on something called the Lautenberg Amendment in his time at the Law Center, which permanently bans gun ownership for anyone convicted of domestic violence against a certain classification of people. “The only difference between a battered woman and a dead woman is the presence of a gun,” Khojasteh said.
During our two meetings, we covered a myriad of issues facing people in San Francisco and across the country. As I poked on topics of homelessness, drug abuse, mass incarceration and so much more – he was quick and articulate with well-informed suggestions pulling from his law school studies, and from direct experience and work with several activist organizations. How his ideas may flush out under the hot lights of Washington D.C. remain to be seen, but it’s apparent that his positions and solutions are substantive and considerate of all the people he hopes to represent.
He’s definitely worth listening to and if he doesn’t make it this time around, he’ll be worth watching in the future – because I can almost guarantee that Ryan Khojasteh will be on the fighting lines somewhere, making sure nobody has to live with “just the way things are.”
There’s a Margaret Mead quote written in green dry erase pen across a whiteboard in the back of Khojasteh’s small campaign office – the words may best summarize this entire story:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”