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Opinion Meet Kevin Paffrath, the YouTube wealth influencer who wants to replace Gavin Newsom

Kevin Paffrath, a Democrat running in the recall against California Gov. Gavin Newsom, at a campaign rally in Los Angeles on Aug. 20. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Is financial savvy enough of a qualification to serve as governor of California? It might need to be. Kevin Paffrath, a self-described “JFK-style Democrat,” shot to public attention this month when a Survey USA poll discovered he was leading the pack of 46 candidates seeking to unseat Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). Days later, another poll put Paffrath in second place, behind talk-show host Larry Elder (R).

Paffrath might be gaining ground because Democrats feel compelled to support someone with a (D) beside their name — and prominent establishment Democrats have stayed out of the Sept. 14 recall race to help strengthen Newsom’s chances of staying in office. Then again, recent history teaches us not to underestimate the appeal of professional media personalities who can frame complicated issues in an easy-to-follow style.

Paffrath, like many a public-facing financial guru, is charming. His YouTube channel has nearly 1.7 million subscribers; it features entertaining informational videos, real estate management advice, livestreams on market openings and closings, and more. Last year, Paffrath and his wife, Lauren, earned $6 million from a combination of rents (they own almost two dozen properties), YouTube advertising income, and various subscription income and affiliate deals.

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Paffrath, 29, told me via Zoom last week that he’s running because he doesn’t want his children to ask one day why they were raised in California. But his policies to attack a host of thorny issues are a mishmash. Paffrath is for both a universal basic income and doing away with state income taxes on earnings of less than $250,000. (One way he would raise money instead: legalize gambling.) Paffrath argues that high housing costs could be tackled in part by streamlining housing approvals with the state government in Sacramento while still honoring local regulations. This, he says, would help enable building hundreds of thousands of affordably priced homes throughout California. He’d also like to loosen gun regulations, making it easier to legally own a firearm.

To reduce California’s entrenched and rapidly growing homeless population, Paffrath says he would immediately issue an executive order giving everyone living on the streets 60 days to enter a shelter or find other housing. He says he would identify properties around the state that could be quickly converted to large shelters. The state National Guard would do the heavy lifting, he says, from building new units to helping feed the homeless.

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As for education, Paffrath wants new institutions offering vocational training, beginning at age 16, for kids who don’t want to attend college. He would mix core academics with lessons on financial and sales skills, as well as preprofessional training. Adults seeking further education or career retraining would receive up to $2,000 a month if they attended. “We can use that schooling and education to get people off of Medi-Cal, welfare, the Section Eight and other poverty programs,“ he says.

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Are these attention-getting proposals? Absolutely. Are they actionable? That’s much less clear. The odds of Paffrath’s homelessness plan surviving a legal challenge appears to be about nil. “What governments can do is limited by the Constitution,” UCLA law professor Gary Blasi noted of the proposal. As for concrete plans to work with the legislature and interest groups to enact his agenda, Paffrath doesn’t appear to have much beyond his conviction that they would cooperate with a Democrat — and a belief in his own sales prowess. “I understand the value of negotiating and that’s what we have to do,” he told me.

Watching Paffrath’s videos didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. In a 2019 video, “27-Year-Old Landlord: How I Prevent Getting SCREWED by Tenants,” he recommends: “Never, ever tell the tenant that you’re the owner. You’re just the manager.” If a tenant learns you are the owner, say you are one of many, he advises. This way, when a tenant makes a request, you can say: “I’m so sorry. The owner said no.” When I asked about this guidance, Paffrath said he advocated that approach to prevent the owner-tenant relationship from turning adversarial.

Beyond that less-than-sterling leadership advice, Paffrath has had a troubled relationship with high-profile finance personalities. Personal finance guru Dave Ramsey sued Paffrath, who had a previous business relationship with his firm, for revealing proprietary information in videos; the recordings have been taken down, and the dispute ended in a confidential, out-of-court settlement. A beef with real estate investor Grant Cardone got Paffrath charged with trespassing after he entered Cardone’s office in Florida without permission. (The charges were eventually dropped.) “That’s Kevin three years ago,” Paffrath told me of the incidents. “It’s not what I do anymore.”

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This week, several dozen supporters turned out to an Irvine park to ask Paffrath questions and cheer him on. Most were male, and almost all appeared to be younger than 40. Several said they follow Paffrath’s YouTube channel, and some told me they had made money taking his advice.

Bottom line: Paffrath is a charismatic guy. His strength, however, is not his political vision. Ultimately, his talent is for attracting eyeballs and clicks. That might make him a successful online guru, but it’s not a qualification to be governor, no matter what he or his followers think.