An unlikely savior for California GOP?

02/02/2014 12:00 AM

01/30/2014 4:36 PM

In 2006, just about the time of his 33rd birthday, Neel Kashkari was working as a vice president in the investment banking division of the hottest firm on Wall Street. On top of that, he was assigned to Goldman Sachs’ office in the Silicon Valley, the venture capital epicenter of America.

But when CEO Henry Paulson stepped down to become U.S. Treasury secretary, Kashkari reached out and told Paulson he’d like to come with him. After an interview, Paulson offered him a job on the spot. Kashkari accepted.

“People at Goldman thought I was crazy to give up that great, lucrative job,” Kashkari told me. “But it was a complete no-brainer for me.”

When he called his then-wife – he’s since divorced – she asked how much money he’d be making in pursing this calling to government service. Kashkari’s response: “I have no idea.”

Consider that story prelude to what Kashkari is now attempting to do. He has made the bold – some might call it crazy – decision to run for governor of California. A complete political unknown, he hopes to challenge an incumbent Democratic governor whose name is almost universally known.

And he hopes to do it as a Republican, banking that GOP voters in California are so tired of losing that they'll be willing to back a candidate who holds some views that are antithetical to the beliefs of many core conservatives.

He is, for instance, a social libertarian who believes government ought to stay out of the lives of women who are faced with the decision of whether to carry a pregnancy to term, and out of the business of telling anyone who they can marry.

Kashkari holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and says he finds the science of man-made climate change “compelling.”

And – get ready for this, Republicans – Kashkari acknowledges that he voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008. At the time, he was in charge of running the Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program – commonly known as the bank bailout.

He and his staff briefed the campaigns of Obama and Sen. John McCain on the program and the risks of sliding into another Great Depression. Kashkari told me he decided to vote for Obama because “the quality of economic advice he was getting was head and shoulders above what Sen. McCain was getting.”

That’s a lot of ideological strikes for someone running in a primary against Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a proud tea party supporter and darling of the party establishment.

Kashkari believes even conservative voters might be ready to embrace a Republican who promises to focus on two core issues – jobs and education – and is prepared to actively reach out to voter groups who in recent years have shunned GOP candidates.

“I want the Republican Party to show all Californians, regardless of socio-economic status, regardless of ethnicity, that we care that their families have a better life,” he says.

Though Kashkari has said the extent of his platform will be jobs and education, all he’s done so far is lament the status quo. Proposals for actual policy prescriptions are yet to come.

GOP leaders around the state believe that having Kashkari at the top of the ticket this fall would help all Republican candidates on the ballot because he wouldn’t be constantly reminding voters who’ve turned away from the party why they did so.

“A lot of decline-to-state voters are former Republicans who are ashamed or embarrassed about where the party has gone,” Kashkari said.

He’s not the kind of candidate one might pick from a catalog to become a party savior. His qualifications to become the state’s chief executive are thin.

Kashkari, 40, has no experience in state government and has spent only about eight years actually living in California. And his only government experience was in directing a federal program that, although many experts believe was essential to avert a calamitous depression, was broadly reviled by the public.

But he is a man of great energy and passion, and so accessible that he interacts directly with followers on social media. In a campaign culture dominated by calculated caution, he is unafraid to give straight answers even to those he knows disagree with where he stands.

The most interesting political question in California this spring will be whether Republican voters who’ve found themselves on the losing side for two decades will be willing to take a flier on a candidate whose approach is outside of the box and, for many, holds positions outside their comfort zone.

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