Politics & Government

Neel Kashkari seeks to build image as Republican ‘fighting for the poor’

Neel Kashkari asked for a Coke and situated himself in his political consultant’s Sacramento office last week, irritated by lingering effects of a cold and comparisons to other products of the private sector who turn out to run for California governor.

There was Al Checchi, a Democrat, in 1998, and Bill Simon, a Republican, in 2002. Meg Whitman, the billionaire former eBay CEO, spent $144 million of her own money in her gubernatorial campaign, only to be pummeled by Jerry Brown.

“Oh, give me a break,” said Kashkari, a former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. Treasury Department official. “You’re comparing this to Meg? Give me a break.”

Kashkari, 40, is expected to join a small field of Republicans bidding to unseat Brown next year. None of them is well known to the electorate, according to a Field Poll last week, but Kashkari’s slate is the blankest of them all. His activities in recent months suggest the difficulties of a candidate who, lacking any record in elected office, must establish his political profile in one brief run-up to a campaign.

Kashkari, who ran the $700 billion bank bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program during former President George W. Bush's administration, has not yet said if he will run for governor. But he has been laying the foundation for such an effort for nearly a year. He left his job at Newport Beach-based Pacific Investment Management Co. in January, assembled a team of advisers and started visiting food banks, schools and businesses throughout the state.

Kashkari said these experiences, which he has promoted on Twitter and, most recently, a series of newspaper interviews, have both inspired him and aided his understanding of poverty and education. His emphasis on poverty isn’t typical for a Republican candidate, but he said he wants to make it the focus of his campaign.

“I genuinely want to learn what people are facing,” Kashkari said. “I would want to be the candidate fighting for the poor.”

It is unclear if voters will believe him, or whether they will embrace him if they do.

“It’d be one thing if this was somebody whose career was based in service to others,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “But it’s kind of like a senior in high school who joins a bunch of clubs in hopes of impressing admissions officers. Most admissions officers are aware of such tactics. I think voters are similarly jaded.”

In Washington, Kashkari gained prominence as a central figure in the bank bailout. The controversial program became a liability for many congressional Republicans whose constituents viewed it as a handout and is likely to be problematic for Kashkari with Republican voters in June. Rank-and-file members of the GOP may also object to his vote for Barack Obama in 2008, if not his support of same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

His views on taxes and unions are more traditionally Republican. Last year, he said, he voted against Brown’s tax increase and for an unsuccessful initiative to weaken the political influence of labor.

Kashkari, who is divorced and lives in Orange County, said his experience at the Treasury Department qualifies him to be governor.

“I think that tackling the worst economic crisis our country’s faced in 80 years is great training,” he said. “I can’t think of better training than that.”

Kashkari said in a 2009 interview at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School that he “learned a lot about myself and my ability to build a team and lead a team under excruciating pressure, and get that team to perform.” But he also acknowledged it was then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson who “was making the ultimate decisions on our big strategic moves” and “made the tough calls when we had to make the tough calls.”

Asked if his experience was more like that of a chief of staff than a chief executive, Kashkari cited the “huge amount of responsibility” he undertook. Then he asked, “Do you think either of the other Republican candidates for governor are more qualified to run this state?”

The other Republicans in the race are a former state lawmaker and lieutenant governor, Abel Maldonado, and a Twin Peaks assemblyman, Tim Donnelly. If the Republican Party “had a deep bench of great candidates,” Kashkari said, he would not entertain a run.

“I don’t need to go do this,” Kashkari said. “I have other things that I can do, and other good opportunities in the private sector that I’ve walked away from.”

Kashkari said his candidacy will be different from any other because “to me, for a Republican to run on a message of alleviating poverty and empowering the poor, I haven’t seen a Republican do that before.”

Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said Kashkari “potentially could be the new kid on the block with new, fresh ideas.”

However, DiCamillo said, “it takes a long way to get from here to there and a lot of money. That’s how you introduce yourself to voters. You have to run ads.”

Brown has not yet said if he will seek a fourth term, but he is widely expected to run. The Democratic governor has raised more than $14 million for his re-election effort, while Maldonado and Donnelly report holding less than $300,000 between them.

Kashkari has said his personal assets total less than $5 million, too little to self-finance a campaign. He has not opened a campaign account but said he has met with nearly 700 potential donors throughout the country. No Republican is expected to beat Brown, but Kashkari said some donors may contribute to improve the GOP’s messaging in a heavily Democratic state.

One of the businessmen Kashkari visited, Howard Vipperman, a rubber and plastic products manufacturer in Southern California, may be among them.

“I’ll spend some money because perhaps the message can be put out there,” Vipperman said. “But no, I don’t have great hopes. This is the bluest of states. It’s blue, and it’s moving bluer.”

Kashkari first registered to vote when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Illinois, and he has voted fairly consistently in recent elections. He said he voted against Proposition 8, California’s now-invalidated ban on same-sex marriage, and for Proposition 14, the initiative instituting the state’s new top-two primary system. Despite his reservations about California’s landmark law to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, Assembly Bill 32, he said he voted against Proposition 23, which sought to roll back the law’s implementation.

His voting record was less consistent in earlier years. Among elections Kashkari missed was the 2005 special election in which then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed measures to weaken teacher tenure, cap state spending and change how political districts are drawn.

If Kashkari’s visits to community centers and homeless shelters have afforded him a more nuanced appreciation for the electorate’s concerns, they also have allowed him to practice interacting with the public and have armed him with a store of anecdotes from which to draw during a campaign.

“All that this is doing is building a foundation,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist who likened Kashkari’s effort to the year he spent traveling the state with Checchi. “At the end of the day, very few voters are ever going to get to meet him in person, and his success or failure is going to depend on what voters learn about him both in the press and in advertising.”

Still, Sragow said, the exercise is valuable – perhaps necessary – for a candidate who has spent little time in politics and doesn’t have it “embedded in their skin.”

“This is basically a crash course for somebody who wakes up one day and says, ‘I want to be governor of California,’” Sragow said. “Whether or not it’s sincere actually is important, because if it’s sincere and he’s good at listening, he’s going to get a sense of what he should be doing and saying on the campaign trail.”

Following a visit by Kashkari to Loaves & Fishes, a homeless services charity in Sacramento, the organization’s director, Sister Libby Fernandez, said Kashkari “spent a good couple of hours” on site, asking detailed questions about gaps in service for the poor.

Fernandez said she never asked Kashkari if he was a Democrat or Republican, and he didn’t volunteer it.

“He didn’t talk about politics,” she said. “He did a lot of listening.”