With a hidden camera in his backpack and a professional videographer waiting outside, Neel Kashkari, the Republican candidate for California governor, said he walked into stores, restaurants and car washes throughout Fresno during a recent week spent posing as a regular guy in need of a job.
“I would just say, ‘Hi, my name is Neel. I just got into town and I’m looking for work. Are you hiring?’ And they’d say, ‘No,’” Kashkari told reporters Thursday during a press conference outside the River City Food Bank in Sacramento.
Kashkari, a millionaire who is making his first run for elected office as a longshot challenger to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, said he never told people about his professional experience as an investment banker and a high-ranking official in the George W. Bush administration as he applied for minimum wage jobs in the Central Valley, thousands of miles from the centers of power where he built his resume.
Kashkari called the press conference the morning after releasing a 10-minute video about the experience, penning an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal. He appeared on a national news program earlier Thursday.
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The closest he got to landing a job during his time in Fresno, Kashkari said, was at a taco stand where the owner needed a cook. But she was looking for someone who had a year of experience cooking Mexican food, Kashkari said, a requirement the 41-year-old former Goldman Sachs executive couldn’t meet.
When pressed to explain the video camera following him around, Kashkari said he would tell people he was making a documentary about “the job situation in California.”
“A few times people probed further, ‘What is this for? Who are you?’ And then if they probed further, we would come out and tell them who I am and what this is for,” Kashkari said.
One night as he was going to sleep in a park, Kashkari said a private security guard recongized him as a political candidate after rousing him to tell him he had to leave.
“I tried to play it off. And he said, ‘No, I really do recognize you. You’re Neel Kashkari,’” he said.
“I said, ‘Do me a favor... I’m working on a documentary on the plight of jobs and joblessness and homelessness. And I would really appreciate if you don’t tell anybody that you saw me.’ And he said, ‘That’s no problem.’ And then I left.”
As Kashkari spoke about his experience – acknowledging it as a publicity stunt meant to drive a political debate about the economy – a Sacramento family waiting for free groceries from the food bank watched on from a shady spot in the parking lot.
“I think it was nice that he did that. Now he knows what a lot of people are going through,” said Rose Parker, who held her 2-year-old grandson on her lap.
The boy’s father chimed in, saying he thinks more politicians should do the same.
“I think everybody that works at the Capitol should do that, spend a whole week in the normal world instead of being in their nice comfy offices,” said Gary Stephens.
Stephens said he makes minimum wage working as an airport custodian. Even though he works full time and minimum wage just went up to $9 an hour, Stephens said the job doesn’t pay enough to support his family.
“Because look, we have to come here to get food,” he said. “We only come here once a month, but at the end of the month we are strapped.”