Jerry Brown was in his 30s when, as governor, he decided to spend the night in a crime-ridden public housing project in San Francisco. The Democrat said at the time that he wanted to “experience what other people experience.”
Now Brown, 76, is running for an unprecedented fourth term as governor against a longshot Republican challenger who has taken a page right out of his own playbook. GOP candidate Neel Kashkari – who lags far behind Brown in opinion polls and campaign fundraising – announced Thursday that he had just spent a week on the streets of Fresno, sleeping on park benches and posing as a regular guy looking for work.
With a hidden camera in his backpack and a professional videographer waiting outside, Kashkari said he walked into stores, restaurants and car washes in the Central Valley city that faces 11.4 percent unemployment.
“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 news conference outside the River City Food Bank in Sacramento.
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Kashkari called the capital city news conference the morning after releasing a 10-minute video about his experience in Fresno and penning an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal bemoaning the lack of “help wanted” signs in poor parts of California. He appeared on a national cable news program earlier Thursday and needled Brown for what he called a lack of progress ameliorating poverty and improving education.
It was a well-timed publicity stunt, allowing Kashkari, a 41-year-old millionaire making his first run for public office, to position himself as the every man while Brown – who once worked alongside Mother Teresa caring for the downtrodden in India – traveled to Mexico on a trade mission with roughly 100 lobbyists and business leaders.
“This completely upends the stereotypes people have of politics,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “Jerry Brown is now the entrenched insider and you have a young Republican talking about poverty and living on the streets.”
The latest campaign finance reports show that Kashkari has $198,000 to promote his candidacy, compared with Brown’s $22.4 million. Pitney said Kashkari is making the most of the little campaign money he has “by doing exactly what Jerry Brown would have done when he was young.”
Brown’s campaign spokesman Dan Newman said he was “bemused” by Kashkari’s ploy given the role he played leading the federal $700 billion Troubled Asset and Relief Program that bailed out big banks at the height of the recession to avoid a deeper plunge into economic disaster.
“I’m puzzled trying to reconcile this bizarre campaign stunt with his cynical refusal to help struggling homeowners, unemployed Californians, and the working poor,” Newman wrote in a statement to The Sacramento Bee. “If one truly cared about the homeless (and) had $700 billion to spend, would he give it all to big banks and ignore families struggling to stay in their homes?”
Acknowledging that he experienced “just a taste of what people who are homeless are really dealing with,” Kashkari said his week on the streets was meant to force Brown into a political debate about the economy.
“Because if we just let him go ... he’s not going to address these issues. So I’m going to use every bold creative tactic to bring these issues into the forefront,” Kashkari said in Sacramento.
The former investment banker, who was a high-ranking official in the George W. Bush administration, said he never told people about his professional experience as he applied for minimum wage jobs in Fresno, thousands of miles from the centers of power where he built his résumé.
The closest he got to landing a job during his time there, 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 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 recognized 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.”
Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist who has tracked campaigns for decades as publisher of the California Target Book, said he considers Kashkari the most unique Republican gubernatorial candidate in the state’s history, in part because he is the son of immigrants from India.
“If these kinds of videos get you on the front pages of the newspapers, it shows he’s doing something right,” Hoffenblum said.
Yet the media attention is unlikely to lead to enough votes for Kashkari to win against Brown, he said.
“The question is does he lose by 500,000 or 1 million?” Hoffenblum said. “If he can hold Brown to 500,000, maybe he helps the GOP” retain and win contested down-ballot congressional and legislative contents.
Mike Herald, who advocates for the poor as a lobbyist at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said the compassion Kashkari displayed by sleeping on the streets and eating at soup kitchens conflicts with the message he promoted in the run-up to the June election, when he appeared in a television ad swinging an ax and said, “I’m not afraid to make a few cuts.”
“Maybe he doesn’t understand the role public benefit programs play in preventing homelessness,” Herald said. “Cutting welfare is going to increase homelessness.”
Michael D. Evans, chair of the Fresno County Democratic Party, released a statement saying the problems Kashkari identified in Fresno “are real.”
“However, his ‘solutions’ to those problems are either completely lacking or based on long discredited trickle-down economic theory that Republicans since the age of Reagan have been pushing,” Evans wrote.
“Yes, we need more good-paying jobs in Fresno. The region has a high unemployment rate and suffers from a sense, both perceived and real, of isolation from the rest of the state. That is precisely why we need the high-speed rail program that Mr. Kashkari opposes. The project would bring much-needed construction jobs and connect the region to our state’s prosperous job hubs like the Bay Area and Southern California.”
As Kashkari spoke about his Fresno experience Thursday, 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.”