NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — The topic is dumpsters. Rats seem to like them. “Yeah, so do cockroaches,” says Neel Kashkari, a hint of a grimace in his voice.
He should know: Kashkari, the Republican candidate for governor of California, found himself sleeping behind a dumpster this summer during a week spent posing as a homeless job-seeker in Fresno. He traveled to the depressed and drought-ravaged agricultural center with $40 in his pocket, he says, to test Gov. Jerry Brown’s claims of economic revival, eating at shelters and bunking outdoors after finding no work.
Brown’s camp dismissed it as a “bizarre campaign stunt.” And, frankly, it is odd discussing Kashkari’s grimy hunt for dishwashing jobs — “For seven days, I had one shower” — given his background as a millionaire global equities manager and former top U.S. Treasury official. Dubbed “the $700 billion man,” Kashkari shepherded the gargantuan bank bailout during the financial meltdown of 2008, an intervention that many economists believe staved off another Great Depression.
Weird, too, discussing poverty at a sunny Starbucks with a magnificent view of protected coastline in Newport Beach, one of the most moneyed enclaves of Orange County, where Kashkari relocated after he burned out on Washington. “The thing is, poverty is supposed to be their issue,” he says, meaning the Democrats. “Republicans aren’t allowed to talk about poverty.”
Kashkari, deeply down in the polls, is an abortion-rights and gay-marriage supporter who’s flexible on immigration (his parents emigrated from India) — and, as such, would make an unconventional GOP candidate on the national stage. But in California, he has found support from a discouraged Republican donor base, as well as the grass roots, to chart an anti-tea-party course. He has pushed themes of job growth, regulatory restraint and education reform in his campaign to claim the office held by Brown, a mainstay of Democratic politics for decades.
“I think he is a fiscal conservative, and that is the one thing in common that would unite all Republicans,” says former California governor Pete Wilson, one of the veteran GOP hands who have advised Kashkari.
“He is not lacking confidence,” Wilson adds with a chuckle, noting that candidate’s odds are “very long.”
Kashkari, 41, has been anointed as a comer and endorsed by nationally prominent Republicans — including New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, both prospective presidential candidates. They view him as a fresh-faced, moderate conservative who can help rebrand the party and draw in disaffected minorities, immigrants, women and younger voters.
“Neel is an ideas guy. He has been substantive and specific in his campaign,” Bush said by e-mail. “He is also talking about these ideas in a way that shows how core Republican values of freedom and free markets can resonate across different demographic groups. That’s going to be important for our Party to do more effectively across the board now and into the future.”
A successful politician can’t be too humble and Kashkari isn’t: “What I’m doing in California, the country isn’t ready for it, so to speak, but I think we can help lead the country in that direction — and I’m excited by that,” he says. “I’m excited by how much the national party is watching this race.”
He won the primary against a tea-party favorite after investing $2 million of his cash — “about half my net worth,” Kashkari says — but is strapped for campaign funds and hard-pressed to mount a crucial late-in-the-game TV-ad blitz before Nov. 4. One fresh poll has Kashkari trailing Brown by 21 points; and Brown’s still got millions to burn, if needed, before Election Day.
“It’s absolutely a steep climb, but it’s still doable,” says Kashkari, dressed in jeans, a comfortable, collared blue shirt and Asics running shoes. He flashes whitened teeth that probably looked out of place when he play-acted as a homeless guy but perfectly suit a politician. “I’ll tell you this, running for governor is not as hard as the financial crisis.”
Kashkari’s connection to the financial-sector bailout, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, has proved a bragging point and a vulnerability. In the candidates’ only debate, Brown criticized the billions in bonuses that Wall Streeters reaped after the bailout and derided Kashkari’s prior employment at Goldman Sachs (where Kashkari worked under Hank Paulson, the future treasury secretary).
Kashkari’s central defense is that the program succeeded. “We hated that we had to do it,” he says today of TARP. “We stabilized the economy, we got all the money back and we even made a $13 billion profit.”
Kashkari joined the Treasury Department in 2006, but it was his time as assistant secretary working intensively on TARP — seven months bridging the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations — that inflicted a harsh personal toll.
“His wife spoke to him so rarely, she described them as ‘dead to each other,’ ” a 2009 Washington Post piece recounted. His days came down to “dining at his Treasury desk on family-size Cool Ranch Doritos. Crashing at 2 a.m. on his lumpy office couch, his only companions the counter-snipers outside his window, on the White House roof. Showering in the Treasury locker room at 6 a.m., drenched in the smell of other men’s sweat and toilet cleaner.” He resigned in May 2009.
To “detox,” as he told reporter Laura Blumenfeld, Kashkari and his wife, Minal, moved to a cabin in the wilderness of Northern California, where his agenda was simple: Build a shed, chop wood, lose weight and help Paulson write a memoir.
After six months in the woods, the couple moved to Newport Beach, where Kashkari became an asset manager. They divorced in 2012 after 11 years of marriage.
“My time in Washington definitely exposed and intensified the problems in my marriage,” he says now. “I don’t want to blame it all on Washington, but it was a contributing factor.”
Today, he has a girlfriend who attends campaign events with him. But why on Earth enter politics and try to jump back into pressure-cooker public service? A governor’s gig can be as intense and soul-sucking as any high-profile Washington job.
“The Republican Party was on its back, and somebody has to lead the fight to turn it around,” Kashkari says on the Starbucks patio. He needed a challenge, and a statewide campaign is “not as hard in terms of the personal toll on me, but it’s a huge challenge.”
And time is short. Kashkari grows antsy as the interview wears on. His iPhone with its California-flag case beckons, just the way his blinking BlackBerry did in Washington. He has calls to make and fundraising events to get to in Santa Barbara, 140 miles north. He hopes to pick up a few $27,200 checks — the maximum individual contribution for governor.
Pundits say he can’t win. In a stunt launched after Kashkari’s homeless sojourn, Jack Ohman, the Sacramento Bee’s editorial cartoonist, walked the state Capitol grounds for an hour, introducing himself to about 40 people as “Neel Kashkari, running for governor.” Not a single one said, “Hey, you’re not Neel Kashkari,” Ohman reported in a video.
An expert pol like Jeb Bush knows how to craft a measured quote when it comes to a friend and underdog: “California voters will need to ask themselves if their state is on the right track or wrong track under Jerry Brown’s leadership,” he says. “If that is the defining issue of the election, I feel great about Neel’s chances.”
Kashkari is less practiced. There’s a degree of liberation being the Republican nominee when nobody believes a Republican can win.
“If I get elected . . . ” he pauses to shape his thoughts.
He declares that he is the guy people send in when the stuff is hitting the fan — although he didn’t say “stuff” — which, presumably, he thinks is the case in California.
“If I’m a one-term governor because we’ve done big things and people hate me for it, I will sleep like a baby,” he says.
Then the $700 billion man takes off in his new Jeep Grand Cherokee, in search of generosity.