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“Time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life.” John F.Kennedy

Can this man save California's GOP?

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California Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari speaks at a news conference on Wednesday, June 4, 2014, in the Corona Del Mar area of Newport Beach, California. 
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(Alex Gallardo/AP Photo)" />

Gubernatorial hopeful Neel Kashkari is the pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, pro-immigration former bailout czar who thinks he can solve the Republicans' problems in the Golden State — and beyond. Why he has a shot. (No, really.)

Certain human endeavors require more confidence than others. Climbing Mount Everest, for example. Circumnavigating the globe by sailboat. Swallowing fire.

But at least those pursuits are possible. Running for governor of California as a Republican in the year 2014 — and actually believing you can win — is something else entirely. To take on the dynastic reign of Democrat Jerry Brown in a state where less than 29 percent of registered voters are Republicans, you need more than mere confidence.

You need cockiness. Craziness. Brazen, borderline-messianic self-assurance.

You need someone, in short, like Neel Kashkari.

Neel Kashkari is the kind of guy who remembers watching the Sunday talk shows as a kid in Akron, Ohio, and thinking, "Maybe I'll go to Washington someday."

He is the kind of guy of who decorated his 1991 prep-school yearbook page with a gigantic photo of a Ferrari F40 and a Gulf War quote from President George H.W. Bush.

He is, to continue in this vein, the kind of guy who quit his first career as an aerospace engineer to become a Goldman Sachs investment banker, then cold-called Goldman chief Hank Paulson after George W. Bush nominated Paulson for treasury secretary and demanded to tag along. "I want to come with you," Kashkari said. "I don't care if I have to lick envelopes." A few years later, at the tender age of 35, he volunteered to run the Treasury Department's politically toxic $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). "Frankly," Paulson later confessed, "there weren't a lot of people raising their hands."

"The goal is to grow the party," Kashkari says. "Not just for this election cycle, but for future election cycles. And we are absolutely doing that.”


As a result of taking on such a thankless job — and surviving — Kashkari has become the kind of guy who occasionally likes to take credit for, you know, saving the global economy from near-certain collapse. "Four years ago, [Jerry Brown] praised President Obama's leadership … in stabilizing the banking sector," Kashkari declared at last month's first and only California gubernatorial debate. "That was actually me, Governor. Thank you very much for the compliment."

Which brings us to Kashkari's latest display of supernatural confidence. With less than three weeks to go until Election Day, he is now the kind of guy who spends his time touring California and telling voters that he "absolutely believe[s] in [his] heart" that he can defeat Brown — even though the governor has a $23 million fundraising advantage and a 20-point lead in the polls.

Whether Kashkari actually believes this or is just saying as much on the trail is hard to tell. "Goal No. 1 is to win," he told Yahoo News after a campaign stop last week in Studio City. He paused for a second before lapsing, momentarily, into a mood that resembled humility. "It remains to be seen whether we can do that."

The lapse didn't last long, however. "Goal No. 2," Kashkari continued, picking up the pace, "is to grow the party. To change the party. Not just for this election cycle, but for future election cycles. And we are absolutely doing that." His eyes widened. "This is a transformational moment," he said, referring to his own candidacy. "That's the big picture."

In other words, Neel Kashkari may or may not believe that he can beat Jerry Brown. But what he does believe is even more grandiose and improbable than that.

He believes he's on the verge of remaking the entire Golden State GOP in his own image.

The crazy thing is, he could be right.

Gov. Jerry Brown, left, and Republican challenger Neel Kashkari both speak during a gubernatorial debate in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014.&nbsp; (Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo/Pool)

Gov. Jerry Brown, left, and Republican challenger Neel Kashkari both speak during a gubernatorial debate in Sacramento, …
***
It's noon on yet another sunny Thursday in Los Angeles, and the local chapter of the National Federation of Republican Women has assembled for lunch in the dining room of the Woodland Hills Country Club. Outside, the bougainvillea is blooming against a cartoonishly blue sky; golf carts glide silently along the green fairways below. But inside, the only real color comes from the Halloween centerpieces: heaps of fun-size M&M packets and bedazzled skulls in purple or gold perched atop footlong poles. "Vote out the ghoul on Nov. 4!" the signs on each table insist.

The rest of the room is beige: the wall-to-wall carpeting, the tablecloths, and especially the attendees, who number about 80 and average about 65 years of age. In one corner, a somewhat younger couple is hawking "Right Wing Jewelry" beneath a stars-and-stripes banner emblazoned with the motto "It's Just Right!" "Are you sick and tired of the 'Tolerant Left' trying to define who you are???" their materials read. "Well, we are too!!!"

If you want to know what went wrong with California's GOP, this gathering is a good place to start. Once upon a time, the state party was a symbol of Republican hope and reach; the last two elected Republican presidents not named Bush, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, both hailed from the Golden State.


But as California grew more socially progressive and demographically diverse, the national GOP moved in the opposite direction — and the state party followed suit. The results were disastrous. When Republicans swept the 1994 midterms, Pete Wilson and his fellow conservatives also won big in California. But Wilson had thrown his weight behind Proposition 187, a ballot initiative meant to deny public services and benefits to illegal immigrants. The state's surging Latino population was not pleased. Two years later, Republicans lost their majority in Sacramento.

Some analysts predict the GOP will fall behind independents and become the state’s third-place party as soon as 2018.

Subsequent elections have only aggravated the problem. For years now, California's hyper-gerrymandered map has forced primary candidates in safe, mostly inland Republican districts to cater to the party's ever-more-conservative base — a vicious cycle that has made the state GOP smaller, whiter, older, and less popular with each passing year. Today, not a single Republican holds statewide office, and only 15 of  California's 53 Congress members have R's after their names. Democrats control the State Assembly and Senate by insurmountable margins. In fact, Republican registration rates are plummeting so rapidly in California that some analysts predict the GOP will fall behind independents and become the state's third-place party as soon as 2018. "The institution of the California Republican Party, I would argue, has effectively collapsed," Republican consultant Steve Schmidt recently explained. "It doesn't register voters. It doesn't recruit candidates. It doesn't raise money. [It] has become a small ideological club that is basically in the business of hunting out heretics."

Which is why the bald, besuited Kashkari stands out at the Woodland Hills event. It's not just his age (41) or his un-WASPy appearance (brown skin, black eyes, thick brows, Mr. Clean haircut). It's his entire political persona, which is about as heretical as a Republican's can be, at least these days. Pro-choice. Pro-gay-marriage. Pro-immigration-reform. Kashkari's view is that, from now on, California Republicans should forget about the social issues and "focus 100 percent" on jobs and education. Hence the slogan his staffers have slapped onto the bumper stickers stacked near the door: "Jobs. Education. That's It.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, left a note for Gov. Jerry Brown on one of the bundles of paper bags he delivered to the Governor's mail room at the Capitol in Sacramento, California on Sept. 10, 2014. Kashkari said the bags represent the 6,500 jobs that Tesla Motors has said it will create in Nevada, where it plans to build its new battery factory.&nbsp;&nbsp; He said Brown and the state Legislature were focusing on legislation to ban single-use plastic bags instead of trying to persuade Tesla to build in California. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo)

Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, left a note for Gov. Jerry Brown on one of the bundles of paper …

The logic of Kashkari's approach is obvious. But oddly, until now, no statewide Republican candidate had ever really committed to it. Arnold Schwarzenegger was pro-choice, but he was also Arnold Schwarzenegger: a party-of-one fluke. The 2010 GOP nominee, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, billed herself as a social moderate, too. But then she spent the entire primary trying to out-conservative her Republican rival, which made it impossible for her to scramble back to the center in time for Election Day.

The novelty of Kashkari's campaign is that he has refused, again and again, to play that game. His primary opponent, State Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, was as conservative as they come: a founder of the California Minutemen who has likened the "Hispanic insurgency" of illegal immigration to the war in Iraq and accused Kashkari, a Hindu, of plotting to impose Sharia law in the United States. But throughout the primary, Kashkari stayed the moderate course, and on primary day he squeaked past Donnelly by 4.3 percentage points. It was a decisive moment for the California GOP: given the choice between self-destructive purity and pragmatic centrism, the party finally picked the latter. "For the better part of two decades now, California Republicans have looked for a series of quick fixes to improve their situation," says Dan Schnur, a former spokesman for Pete Wilson and John McCain who currently teaches politics at the University of Southern California and earlier this year mounted an unsuccessful independent campaign for California secretary of state. "Only now do they seem to be coming to understand that there aren't any magic answers. It's going to be a long, hard slog."

Back at the Woodland Hills Country Club, Kashkari is insisting that his come-from-behind victory was a big deal — and that he can repeat the trick in November. "You know the facts," he tells the old-school crowd. "We're down to 28 percent registered Republicans. We don't win another election if we just get 100 percent of that 28 percent. We need to bring the Republicans along. But we also need to bring the independents back. We need to bring some moderate Democrats along, too. And we can only do that if we talk about issues that cut across party lines." He pauses and looks around the room. "So that's what I'm here to do."

***
Kashkari says he's been a "free-market Republican" "for as long as [he] can remember," and it's not hard to imagine him as the Alex P. Keaton of Akron. (The rest of the Kashkaris were liberal, like the Keatons.) One teacher recalls the young Reaganite "leap[ing] to his feet" in chapel "and, with much fanfare and bombast, announc[ing] buoyantly that the U.S. forces had engaged the Iraqi army" — "the lone exultant warmonger in a room full of somber faces."

Still, Kashkari never planned to become a politician. As a kid, he was "always good at math and science" and "liked building stuff," he says, so mechanical engineering "seemed like a logical thing to study" when he enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1991. As a senior at UI, Kashkari led a student team that entered a solar-powered car in the 1,100-mile Sunrayce challenge, and after graduation he moved to Redondo Beach, Calif., where he developed satellite technology for NASA space missions.

It wasn't until Bush summoned Paulson to Washington in 2006 that Kashkari's passion for public service was rekindled; he'd never quite forgotten how he felt watching the Iran-contra hearings as a 13-year-old. "It was the summer of 1987, and I was glued to the television," Kashkari recalls. "I thought it was very glamorous." The candidate gives a tight grin — his teeth are Crest-commercial white — and shakes his gleaming head. "But when I was actually sitting in front of Congress," he admits, "it was not so glamorous."

Neel Kashkari, interim assistant secretary for financial stability and assistant secretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department, waits for the start of the hearing by the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee October 23, 2008, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

Neel Kashkari, interim assistant secretary for financial stability and assistant secretary for international affairs …

The news that a young, unknown tech banker would be running the government's response to the 2008 Wall Street implosion produced a considerable amount of agita in Washington. "It's amazing to me that a guy who is only six years out of business school has been given this kind of assignment," Samuel L. Hayes, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School, told the New York Times. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings called Kashkari a "chump"; other legislators demanded his head whenever he testified on Capitol Hill. Even Gawker got in on the act, dubbing Kashkari"our favorite a--hole banker" — a "Ferrari-loving overconfident Republican ski bum Wharton grad" with "laser eyebeams" — while mocking him for "putting on classic stress-related weight under his chin."

Behind the scenes, Kashkari had to create 135 TARP positions overnight. He worked 18 hours a day for 40 straight days, developing what he once described as an "enduring headache at the center of [his] brain." His routine was spartan: dine at his desk on Cool Ranch Doritos, crash on his lumpy office sofa around 2 a.m., then shower at 6 the next morning in the dank Treasury locker room. At one point a government economist burst into Kashkari's office sobbing, "Oh, my God! The system's collapsing!" Another colleague had a heart attack at his desk. Kashkari's wife spoke to him so rarely she described them as "dead to each other." They later divorced. Finally, after serving seven months under Presidents Bush and Obama and disbursing more than $400 billion, Kashkari resigned. He spent the rest of 2009 in a cabin near the Truckee River in Northern California, chopping wood, building a shed, and trying to lose 20 pounds. "Washington detox," he called it.

On the trail today, five years later, Kashkari insists that he never even considered running for office until Election Day 2012. "Literally November 2012," he'll tell you. "Mitt Romney lost, Democrats took the supermajority in Sacramento and I said, 'Somebody's got to lead the fight.'" His experience in Washington, however brutal, had convinced him that Democrats and Republicans can occasionally unite around common priorities — if there's a crisis grave enough to counteract their partisan instincts.

Former Interim Assistant Secretary of Treasury Neel Kashkari chops firewood on his property on November 19, 2009 in Truckee, California. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Former Interim Assistant Secretary of Treasury Neel Kashkari chops firewood on his property on November 19, 2009 …

"I was amazed," he says now. "Dennis Kucinich was one of my big antagonists on the Hill. Then Bloomberg News did an article about me. They had quotes from Kucinich saying something like" — he recites Kucinich's words almost verbatim — "'Neel's one of the most talented people Bush had working for him. He's a good man.' And I was thinking to myself, 'What? You used to beat the crap out of me.'"

Kashkari's wheels were already turning. "It dawned on me that even if we had different views, people like Kucinich were paying attention to what I was trying to do," he says. "So I was like, 'OK, if I can earn the support of such a diverse group in Washington, then I can go into diverse communities in California and do the same thing.' I've never been one to throw red meat at the grassroots, so I wouldn't have to change."

The bright Studio City sun is shining on Kashkari's forehead; he loosens his tie and undoes his top button. "I'd get to be fresh," he continues. "That's an advantage I have. That's the bet I was making."
***

When Kashkari launched his gubernatorial campaign in January, many observers scoffed. "Thank God … that this goofball footnote caricature of the bailout era has decided to run for Governor of California," Matt Taibbi wrote on RollingStone.com. "Never in history has there been an easier subject for a blog post." Taibbi went on to lambaste Kashkari for "hurling fistfuls of cash at the banks in a fashion that turned out later to have been beyond haphazard" and to suggest that maniacal laughter, à la Robert De Niro in "Cape Fear," was the only suitable reaction to his announcement.

Even now, six years later, the bank bailout still infuriates liberals and conservatives — and with good reason. But hammering at TARP didn't work for Donnelly in the GOP primary, and the subject barely ever comes up on the trail. The truth is, if you actually bother to watch Kashkari interacting with voters for a couple of days, it's difficult to dismiss him as a joke.

In this still frame from video provided by the Kasakari For Governor campaign, Neel Kashkari, the Republican candidate for California governor, speaks to the camera during a week he posed as a homeless and unemployed person on the streets of Fresno, California. (Kashkari For Governor campaign/AP Photo)

In this still frame from video provided by the Kasakari For Governor campaign, Neel Kashkari, the Republican candidate …

If the coverage of Kashkari's bid rarely captures his skill and seriousness as a candidate, it's probably because the only time reporters tune in is when the underfunded Republican performs low-budget, high-concept stunts designed to get their attention. In July Kashkari crashed the national American Federation of Teachers conference in Los Angeles to challenge Governor Brown on tenure. Later that month he spent a week living as a homeless man on the streets of Fresno to highlight poverty. And in September he passed out free $25 gas cards to the first 100 people who eventually showed up at a Burbank Mobil station to watch him smash a model train meant to symbolize Brown's pet high-speed rail project. (Kashkari wants to repurpose those billions for long-term water-storage measures.) Otherwise, as one pundit put it, "Kashkari has been virtually invisible throughout what has passed for the campaign."

And yet the invisible moments are telling. One recent Saturday morning, Kashkari drove in a staffer's white Chrysler 300 from his rented home in Laguna Beach to Christ Our Redeemer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Irvine for an 8:00 meet-and-greet with a group of black and Latino pastors.

"You're running for governor?" one of the pastors asked him. "What's your name?"

"Neel," Kashkari said, reaching out for a handshake. "With two E's."

After some orange juice and croissants and a brief tour of the church's sparkling new facilities, Kashkari stepped to the podium. "Whenever I go into African-American or Latino neighborhoods," he said, "people look at me kind of funny and say, 'What is he?'" The crowd laughed; Kashkari grinned. "I mean, it's a fair question."

After explaining "what he is" — the Hindu son of Indian immigrants — Kashkari launched into an abbreviated version of his standard stump speech. I grew up middle class, working odd jobs, but my parents gave me a gift that made all the difference: a good education. The problem is that millions of California kids no longer have the same opportunities as me. Never mind what Jerry Brown says about balancing the budget. The truth is, California is in crisis. We're 44th in the country in jobs; 46th in education; and No. 1 in poverty.
"Good Lord," muttered one member of the audience.

Kashkari's speech lasted all of 10 minutes. But he hadn't really come to Christ Our Redeemer expecting to convince anyone: 96 percent of African-Americans voted Democratic in the last presidential election, and 72 percent of Latinos did the same. Kashkari had come, it seemed, to listen. And so he took his seat — and stayed there for the next 45 minutes — while the pastors discussed institutional racism: how California keeps its prisons "overfilled" with young black men to "make the profit"; how there may be "a connection between whites getting weapons of mass destruction and the declining of their race." Most Republicans would have left right after their remarks, if they had bothered to show up at all.

A similar scene unfolded later that day when Kashkari appeared at the United Community Church in Glendale for a Filipino-American election event. In the buffet line, guests piled tokwat baboy, kalderata, and chicken adobo onto their paper plates; an eager young man with long black hair and studded slippers sang Michael Bublé karaoke over the PA. As soon as Kashkari took the stage, he made sure to introduce his fiancée, a slim Filipina immigrant named Christine Ong.

Almost immediately, Kashkari opened the floor to questions. His answers were thoughtfully conservative. Asked about jobs, he explained he'd like to tap into the Golden State's "massive" oil and gas potential "while protecting the environment" and bring manufacturing back by zeroing out state taxes for 10 years for any business that builds a new plant in California. And there's no need to do away with regulations, he continued; a better idea would be to design them so they're automatically set to expire after 10 years, at which point they could either be renewed or abandoned. "Streamlining," he called it. Finally, unlike nearly every other Republican in the country, he didn't insist that an immediate income-tax cut would somehow solve all of America's problems. "I would love to say, 'Let's go cut everyone's taxes,'" he told the crowd. "But here's the devil: an income-tax cut in California is, by definition, a tax cut for the rich. So let's create more jobs and broaden the tax base instead — then we can lower taxes eventually."

As Kashkari explained his education plan — he wants to devolve control to local communities and charter schools — the boisterous audience stopped chattering and snapping selfies with their iPhones. "I could actually see myself voting for that guy," a squat man in a Tommy Bahama shirt said as he stepped out into the warm Los Angeles night. "Too bad he has no chance of winning."

***

Tommy Bahama is correct, of course: Kashkari will not defeat Jerry Brown on Election Day.

Sure, Kashkari is rich. In 2012 his assets totaled $7.2 million, and before launching his gubernatorial bid he made $500,000 a month as chief of global equities at PIMCO, one of the world's top bond firms. At the same time, he's no Meg Whitman, who spent $140 million of her $2 billion net worth trying to get elected in 2010 (and still lost). So far Kashkari has dropped about $3 million of his own cash; predictably, it hasn't moved the needle. His campaign had less than $680,000 in the bank at the end of September. "The biggest challenge," he confesses, "is how many Republican donors have given up hope. We need the resources to get the message out. And it's been hard — harder than I expected."

Even Kashkari's own party isn't united behind him: at the most recent California Republican convention, in September, state controller candidate Ashley Swearengin and secretary of state candidate Pete Peterson — acknowledging the reality that, if elected, they'll almost certainly be working with Brown next year — wouldn't commit to voting for Kashkari. Meanwhile, dozens of big GOP donors have already written checks to the current governor. "Brown has positioned himself very effectively as a centrist Democrat," says Schnur. "He has told the business community, 'I might not be your best friend, but I'm the only friend you got.'"

The sum total of Brown’s campaign spending currently stands at $305,179. He’s basically pretending Kashkari doesn’t exist.

As for Jerry Brown, his approval rating now hovers around 60 percent; many Californians credit him with saving the state from fiscal catastrophe. The governor is so sanguine, in fact, that he's not planning to run a single re-election ad before Nov. 4. "Kashkari has the right message, and he's performing a valuable service for California Republicans whether they realize it or not," says Schnur. "But he probably couldn't have picked a worse year to attempt that experiment." The sum total of Brown's campaign spending currently stands at $305,179. He's basically pretending Kashkari doesn't exist.

But here's the thing: California is better off when someone like Kashkari does exist. He's good for the state's struggling GOP — and what's good for the two-party system is ultimately good for the state. Up in Sacramento, Democratic supermajorities recently passed laws banning plastic grocery bags, regulating tackling in high-school football, and allowing dogs to dine on restaurant patios. Kashkari thinks legislators should be confronting more fundamental issues.

"The fact is, jobs and education are harder to fix," he says in Studio City. "If you want to fix the job climate, now you have to push back against some environmentalists who are on the extreme. If you want to fix the schools, you've got to push back against the teachers' unions. And those are big Democratic constituencies. So they're saying, 'Let's do the stuff that's easy.' That's what happens when you don't have another party bringing balance to Sacramento."

It's also what makes Kashkari run. He's a smart guy. He knows he's going to get clobbered in November. But in his view, the bar is so low these days for a California Republican that he's already cleared it. "I'm really proud of the fact that we got through the primary running the kind of campaign we did," he says. "There's no Republican nominee for anything in the country who has my features — or warts. I've demonstrated a model now in California." For Kashkari, the real test of that model won't be what happens on Election Day 2014. It'll be what happens next. "I want to stay involved," he says. "I want to stay active. I want to help rebuild the party and fix California."

But how do you actually rebuild an entire political party? Is that even possible?

"I think the Republican Party as a whole, both here and around the country, will be much more successful if we unite people around economic issues," Kashkari says. "And that starts with the candidates we put forward." He pauses to wipe a drop of sweat from his brow. "Good candidates," he continues. "Myself and people like me."

Right now, even Kashkari's fellow California Republicans aren't quite sure they agree — let alone Republicans nationwide. But Neel Kashkari, for one, is convinced.

 

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Published by Henry Plant , 20.10.2014 at 18:42
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Rosalin Edison
Rosalin Edison 20 October 14 21:35 Even the most conservative republican would not be able to straighten out the land of fruits and nuts. Text hided expand
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Chris Landy
Chris Landy 20 October 14 22:53 It is not funny, the Republicans attack all taxes, yet demand an educated population to work into early graves so that they can become more and more wealthy. Text hided expand
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