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Student Government Reform Sparks Political Career for Khanna '09

You may have recently heard the name Derek Khanna in the news. He has been making headlines for publishing a policy memo outlining “three myths about copyright law” and detailed solutions on reforming copyright law on behalf of the House Republican Study Committee (RSC) – a memo which, despite receiving numerous positive reviews as being “brilliant,” received so much push-back from Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) lobbyists that the RSC eventually retracted it.

The New York Times called him a “rising star;” the Huffington Post celebrated his “breath of fresh air;” Bloomberg BusinessWeek called for “Derek Khanna in 2016.”

However, in the midst of all the commotion created both by the memo and its subsequent retraction, you may have missed the UMass connection: Khanna got his start in politics through the Student Government Association (SGA) at UMass.

“I got involved in the SGA because the system was broken,” he says. “It may seem a bit silly, but it was a perfect situation to really learn politics.”

For him, the SGA was an opportunity to understand how policy was made and learn the individual pieces that made up the larger political arena. “If you intern somewhere you will probably be doing grunt work, and if you start at the ground floor in politics you will likely see a small slice of the action, but the SGA was an opportunity to take in the entire situation and learn it all,” he recalls.

Reforming the SGA was not an easy task, however. Khanna fought tirelessly to bring elections online, to diversify the SGA’s party representation, to identify and root out corruption, and to reform an appointment system based upon race that he successfully argued was unconstitutional. He crafted a plan of over 50 action items, developed an elaborate political agenda, and ultimately tried to make the SGA a more effective organization.

“Every week I would show up with 5 or 6 different bills to fix the system,” he says. “I didn't win every battle, and things got quite divisive, but we did change a lot.”

In one case, Khanna reflects, the SGA shut down a conservative newspaper on campus. Although he vehemently disagreed with what the paper was publishing, he drafted legislation to make sure their freedom of press and speech were restored. He tried repeatedly--but unsuccessfully--to get this legislation recognized, and eventually ended up filibustering to the point where police had to be called in. “I used my time on the podium to give the entire SGA an off-the-cuff lecture on prior restraint and the First Amendment” he remembers.

Although that SGA session did not end in his favor, the Vice Chancellor ultimately vetoed the SGA’s original legislation on grounds that it was unconstitutional. The whole experience reinforced Khanna’s desire to speak out when he saw constitutional rights being disregarded.

He also remembers an in-depth investigation to uncover corruption (a former SGA President was illegally using public funds to pay for an ex-student’s legal campaign) and a long battle to stop a SGA appointment process which guaranteed a percentage of Senate’s seats to unelected African American, Latino, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) students instead of leaving the seats open to any student by election.

The appointment issue again tested Khanna’s ability to navigate the political system. He filed a formal complaint to the Office of Civil Rights under the U.S. Department of Education writing that “the student government of UMass Amherst, as a subsidiary of the Commonwealth, has an affirmative action program...that does not prescribe to the parameters outlined by the Supreme Court of the United States. Similar systems throughout the country have been previously struck down.”

He continued: “The system allots quota seats on the basis of race with no regard for how many students of that race populate the student government…. In other words, it is a quota system on top of the election results. In the election, minority students do exceptionally well, achieving over a majority of the Senate body itself. This in itself is not my grievance; the grievance is that the ‘affirmative action program’ exacerbates this lack of diversity.”

The Department of Education Office of Legal Counsel agreed with Khanna’s position and threatened to withhold federal funding unless the race-based appointment seats were removed, which they were. “I wasn’t arguing about good and bad,” Khanna says, “I was arguing about things being blatantly illegal or a violation of our own policy.”

His work to improve the election process eventually led to the creation of a bi-partisan political coalition called Democratic Voice, which ultimately won more than half the seats in the Senate. “Because we were so determined to create a broad coalition, we didn't necessarily agree on very much,” Khanna says, “But from my perspective, honest disagreement, debate, and discussion, was a good thing.”

In general, Khanna’s experience as an “underdog” in the SGA served as a motivator throughout his UMass career. It taught him how to advocate and speak for causes, build coalitions, speak to the media, and conduct political research.

Hard work, of course, played an important role, too. “During college I was always working on 3 or 4 other side-projects,” he recalls. He also took more than 26 credits for several semesters and enrolled in graduate courses because he wanted to take full advantage of what UMass had to offer. As a self-proclaimed workaholic, this trend continues: Khanna is currently launching a 501c4 and several websites that he coded himself while working full time and attending law school at night.

His SGA experiences, these “side projects,” and his passion for politics set him down a path of “political entrepreneurism” after UMass. He worked for the 2008 Romney Campaign, then for MASSGOP, then Senator Scott Brown. He eventually moved to Washington DC to serve as Special Assistant to Senator Brown’s Chief of Staff, and about a year ago he joined the RSC where he now manages all policy relating to homeland security, intelligence, defense, and cybersecurity.

These activities all taught him the importance of taking risks, being a self-starter, questioning conventional wisdom, and, most importantly, being open to new opportunities as they arise:  “In business, timing is critical. In politics, timing can be even more important,” he says. “When I worked on Gov. Romney's 2008 Campaign I was ready to leave UMass and graduate in abstentia, and while he didn't win, when Sen. Scott Brown won, that's exactly what I did.” He remembers receiving a lot of advice discouraging this move, but believes it was absolutely the right decision. “Don't wait for the timing to be better,” he encourages others “just do it.”

Khanna is also quick to urge others to get involved and stand up for issues they believe in, even in spite of strong opposition: “These battles are not a distraction from politics—they are politics,” he says. “Politics is messy, it is sometimes sophomoric, but it is in these types of battles that you will learn the ropes.”

He also encourages students to take classes with John Brigham, Michael Hannahan (Khanna served as a civic fellow under Hannahan), and Ray La Raja when possible. What you learn in their classes, helps you learn the ropes, as well, he says! 

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  • Alumni News