Ex-Stanford baseball player a legislative aid on Capitol Hill for Rep. Ro Khanna (D-San Jose)
By Vytas Mazeika, Bay Area News Group
Geo Saba struck out in his only at-bat during three seasons at Stanford.
Suffice to say, a future in the MLB didn’t await the first baseman/designated hitter out of Saint Francis High in Mountain View. That doesn’t mean his endeavors with a bat and a glove proved fruitless.
Lessons learned from playing America’s pastime still apply at his current job on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide to Rep. Ro Khanna (D-San Jose) in Washington, D.C.
“I’m still benefiting from my baseball days,” Saba said. “Because baseball is a game of failure and I think it builds a good mindset for life. And given that Hall of Famers fail 7 times out of 10, it’s really helped me throughout my life beyond baseball to not get too high or too low.
“So that mentality of being stoic and focusing on the process is really important.”
Khanna, 40, discovered this approach to life while teaching an economics class at Stanford in the fall of 2014, when the two crossed paths for the first time.
It was a credit/no credit class.
“Everyone gets an A at Stanford, don’t they? I’m just kidding around,” Khanna said. “Geo is terrific. That’s one of the reasons I took an interest in him. He was really thoughtful in his comments, always interested in the intersection of the economic theory we were discussing and the practical policy implications. He really showed initiative in class.”
At the time, Khanna was running against Rep. Mike Honda in 2014.
“Not only did we get to learn about the economic issues and policies facing our country in the changing world, but also see first hand what it’s like to take a class from somebody who is currently running for Congress and follow the campaign closely,” Saba said. “So that was an amazing experience.”
Khanna lost the election for a seat in Congress, but gained a supporter in Saba, who after the class offered to volunteer in between campaigns with social media and fundraising.
That stopped after the 24-year-old out of San Mateo, a Gates Cambridge Scholar in 2015, left for England to earn a masters of philosophy in international relations and politics at the University of Cambridge.
“I had to focus on my studies, so I didn’t work on the campaign while I was there,” said Saba, whose honor thesis at Stanford was titled, The Power of the National Security Advisor in Presidential Decision-Making. “But then when I came back, he had won and remembered the work I had done and decided that it would be a good fit for me to come out to D.C. — and now, here I am.”
“I still remember driving with my wife at one point,” Khanna said. “And my wife was so impressed, she said, ‘Well, if you ever win, you gotta hire this young guy.’ He made a great impression in whatever task he did.”
That includes making one key contribution in terms of baseball.
“I’ve had to once throw out a first pitch,” Khanna said. “It was at a Santa Clara baseball game, and I remember calling up Geo and we went out at the Oval at Stanford and proceeded to have a catch with him without critiquing my form too much.”
In charge of Khanna’s scheduling upon his return from Cambridge, it was Saba who accompanied the congressman-elect as the designated aide for a two-week orientation in D.C.
“Most people have their chief of staff there,” said Khanna, who had yet to select one. “So Geo was interacting with all the chiefs of staff and members of Congress, and he was a part of that unique experience, which now I look back with quite a bit of nostalgia.”
“It felt like a freshman orientation in college,” Saba said. “And then after that, which lasted November and December in assisting him with the transition, I became focused more on policy.”
The transition included building the congressman’s team, with offices in Santa Clara and D.C., prior to Khanna’s inauguration as the U.S. Representative for California’s 17th congressional district on Jan. 3.
“It was almost like doing a start-up,” Saba said.
The legislative portfolio includes foreign policy and tech issues, while Saba also assists the congressman on the House Armed Services Committee.
A typical day will include meetings with constituents, companies or advocates speaking on a particular issue, or he will meet with different offices on the Hill, in the House and in the Senate to work on pieces of legislation or with committee hearings.
“I’ve really enjoyed working on the Hill,” Saba said. “The people here have been incredibly gracious and helpful in terms of making the transition go smoothly, especially in our office. We have some senior staff who’ve been on the Hill for decades and they’ve been really gracious with their time in helping me learn the ropes.
“But I found it to be amongst the staff level somewhat bipartisan. Working with different offices, it doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat. It doesn’t impede the work that we’re doing up here. And I do think that people come to D.C. with a passion and an inspiration to make the communities back home a better place, even though we might disagree on how to do that.”
Last Wednesday, June 28, was not a typical day.
Beginning at 8 a.m. for a breakfast with the congressman, work didn’t end until past midnight as the House Armed Services Committee cleared a $696.5 billion fiscal defense authorization bill — the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.
“I wouldn’t say there is a normal day and it really depends on what bills are being voted on that week, whether or not we’re going to recess,” said Saba, who was involved in crafting three amendments in the bill. “So sometimes you have to put in long hours, but it’s an exhilarating experience.”
“Probably his biggest achievement is he worked with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s staff to get language in the defense bill which is going to require the Department of Defense to study monopoly contractors,” Khanna said. “And whether there is sufficient competition in the procurement process.”
Saba meets with the congressman at least three times a week while working out of the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill.
“Geo is a joy to have in our office,” said fellow legislative aide Heather Purcell, who also acts as Khanna’s press secretary. “He shares Rep. Khanna’s strong eye for policy reform and passion for progressive values. I believe Geo absolutely has a future in public service, if that’s the path he chooses to pursue. Even at just 24 years old I see potential in him now to one day hold public office.”
In England, he debated ideas for the sake of debating — a way of learning theoretical framework from his professors.
In D.C., he’s discovering how those concepts turn into legislation.
“In Cambridge, it really refined how I think and what I think, which has allowed me now when I’m doing more hands-on implementation to understand where these ideas are coming from,” said Saba, who in the summer of 2014 worked as a research assistant to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, a professor of political science and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. “Working in D.C. under the Trump administration, it’s very different. But it hasn’t stopped the congressman or myself from being inspired to propose bold, progressive policies that we think one day will help the country.”
A voice for Khanna’s vision, Saba often briefs the congressman on questions to ask witnesses at a committee hearing or how to vote on a specific bill.
“He knows a lot about policy issues,” Saba said. “I always had this impression that the politicians didn’t really know what was going on and the staff fed them lines of what to say and they read off a script, but with the congressman we’re engaging on these issues, we’re debating these issues. He’s really trying to get to the truth of what his position should be.”
Saba added: “The congressman has really spoken about the need for creating opportunities to people all across the country, not just in Silicon Valley, to participate in the digital economy in the 21st century and to be able to have these jobs that will be sustainable over the next decades. And my job is to help him implement that vision into legislative ideas.”
Just like in that economics class, no grades are awarded on Capitol Hill.
That hasn’t kept Saba from earning himself some credit.
“I think the issue we have to focus on is the economic divide in this country,” Khanna said. “Between those who are benefiting from the new economy and those whose wages have stagnated and don’t feel like they have an access to the middle class. And Geo has been very, very involved with that in crafting our tech jobs in other parts of the country with platforms and policies, figuring out how we expand universities to be the engine of economic growth the way coal mines and steel factories were in our past.”
This is a return to the nation’s capital for Saba, who in the fall of 2013 served as an intern in President Barack Obama’s White House with the Office of Management and Administration.
“He really galvanized my interest in going into public service, in addition to my family,” Saba said.
Turns out the affinity for public service is something that runs in his genetic pool.
“My mom’s father was the president of the carpenters’ union, a labor leader, and his brother was the mayor of Santa Clara,” Saba said. “So I come from a family that really values public service and giving back to the community.”
He also takes a cue from his father, George, a psychologist and professor at the UC San Francisco School of Medicine.
“Instead of choosing a glamorous life of publishing fancy papers and giving speeches to make a national name of himself,” said Saba, who later clarified his father is indeed a well-published author, “he decided to work with the poor in San Francisco while taking a pay cut. So I’m really inspired by him to really put other people first, and people who need help.”
The congressman appreciates his legislative aide’s sacrifice and sense of purpose.
“It’s really, to me, encouraging and heartening to see someone of Geo’s talent, where the world really is his oyster after having gone to Stanford and been a Gates Scholar, choose public service,” Khanna said. “To go and say, ‘I want to make a difference in the nation’s capital and I’m going to take much less pay and I’m not going to get any stock options, but I want to make a difference for my country.’ It used to be that a lot of the best and brightest in this country chose public service and that’s what made our country so successful.
“And I really hope that more millennials will make the choice that Geo does, that they can make a contribution to this country, because we need thinkers, we need the best and brightest of the next generation to choose government service.”
There is no MLB career to chase.
But his time inside the dugout at Stanford forever influenced this public servant. After all, it was longtime head coach Mark Marquess, who retired last month after 41 years at the helm, who encouraged Saba to accept the internship at the White House four years earlier.
“I wouldn’t be the man that I am today without them,” said Saba, who also singled out Dean Stotz, the associated head coach until 2013. “Coach Marquess not only taught baseball, but he also taught how to be a good human and taught good practices for building character. Whether that’s being five minutes early to everything or hustling all the time, no matter what happens.
“Running out pop flies I think is a good metaphor. Sometimes in life you need to put 110 percent effort, even if things don’t go your way, and worry about the process.”