“A lot of people believe if you don’t come from a certain background or privilege, you’re not able to run for office. We’re here to disprove that,” Ryan Khojasteh says of his campaign for California’s 12th Congressional District, currently held by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “We’re here to build a blueprint for future leaders.”
The 24-year-old UC Hastings law student and his campaign team have already laid out a grassroots-focused plan of action since announcing his candidacy last September. Khojasteh is serious about the progressive values his platform is built on: His campaign will not accept donations from PACs or Super PACs.
A Tenderloin resident, Khojasteh has witnessed firsthand the issues that continue to hinder the city, including homelessness, affordable housing, and high taxes forcing longtime small-business owners to close shop. But Khojasteh speaks on these issues with a youthful optimism.
“I think San Francisco, with its high-income inequality, represents many of the problems we see throughout the country,” he says. “If we could focus on these issues, and we could fix the reality of San Francisco so it’s more equitable and allows everybody an opportunity to succeed, it could be an example for the rest of this country.”
The first-generation son of Iranian immigrants, Khojasteh believes his background gives him a credible voice when speaking on issues like immigration. “San Francisco is one of the most beautifully cultured and diverse cities in America,” he says. “It’s an immigrant hub of the world. There was nobody to represent that immigrant voice, that diverse voice, or even a millennial voice, because the median age here in the city is only 38.”
Currently serving as a commissioner on San Francisco’s Immigrant Rights Commission, Khojasteh claims there needs to be a comprehensive immigration reform that allows a path for citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here.
The precise moment Khojasteh decided to run came last June after Democrat Jon Ossoff lost a very expensive special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Although Conor Lamb’s win in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District in a special election broke the losing streak for Democrats with House elections in the Trump era, Khojasteh explains the Democratic Party needs to solidify a progressive platform for success in the future. “We are repeating history, because we are trying the same tactics, but expecting different outcomes.That’s not the approach we should be taking.”
While Democrats from all perspectives agree that winning at least 25 seats in the House to gain a majority is the absolute priority, Khojasteh notes that the Democrats must come together with a progressive platform, saying “Of course, we need to flip the red districts into blue districts, but first we need to figure out what that blue means.”
Also, the fact that media outlets linked Ossoff’s defeat to Pelosi did not sit well with Khojasteh. “We are in a phase of our party that is allowing Establishment politicians to stay in power,” he says. “So if our party is in desperate need of a change, we need to run a viable candidate to run against the leader of our party to hold her accountable.”
Rep. Pelosi, the highest-ranking Democrat in the House, has caught the ire of progressives and immigrant-rights activists for what they see as a less-than-forceful push for permanent DACA legislation. Khojasteh claims she’s “not standing up for the people in the district. There are too many voices that are going unheard. When you look at the things she’s done in the past year, it has upset the people of San Francisco.”
While Khojasteh appreciated Pelosi’s marathon speech on the House floor in regarding DACA recipients, he goes on to explain the larger problem of how immigration issues are handled within the Democratic Party. “This is something we as Democrats need to come together on. DREAMers should not be used as bargaining chips.”
However, Khojasteh’s campaign is not merely a vehicle to criticize Pelosi and the Democratic Party. Rather, he wants to energize and mobilize citizens in the district to become proactive with politics both nationally and locally, and inspire others to run for public office too.
Khojasteh’s campaign is part of a larger nationwide movement of progressive challengers to moderate incumbents, as seen in Rhode Island, where 28-year-old state representative Aaron Regunburg has launched a campaign for lieutenant governor. While Khojasteh is firmly progressive with his platform, he does acknowledge the need for compromise, but argues that compromise will come when new blood comes into Congress. “We need new generational leadership on both sides of the aisle. We can change the system from within if we run for office.”
Having been inspired by the Women’s March and by students walking out for gun control, Khojasteh sees parallels between himself and those who are speaking out, as Khojasteh lost a family member in Los Angeles in the 1990s from gun violence. “We can’t wait any longer for these thoughts and prayers, we need policy and change.”
Referring to a 2008 Supreme Court ruling that expanded the reach of the Second Amendment, he adds, “While working at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, I learned of ways to work around the Heller decision and the system to help enact beneficial policies.”
“When you have personally been affected by these issues, that’s where the fire comes into politics,” he says. “That’s what the Parkland students are doing right now. Our Congress members have become so out-of-touch with the issues that they have lost that passion.”
It is no secret Khojasteh’s campaign is a long shot, as Pelosi is the leader of the party and 15-term incumbent. But in the weeks leading up to June’s primary, Khojasteh is focused on spreading his message to everyone in the district that fair immigration reform, universal healthcare, affordable public education, and a decent standard of living is within arms reach if elected.
Other than Pelosi, Khojasteh has an opponent in Stephen Jaffe, a civil rights lawyer who also advocates a Bernie Sanders-inspired platform. The goal for Khojasteh now is to gain enough votes in the impending June 5 primary. that he’s the candidate who can later to take on Pelosi again in November. “If we get to the general election, I want to use that platform to tell everybody else that we need you to run for office too. Right now is that moment in history to do that.”