California’s Next Governor

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

Neel Kashkari, a self-styled Republican with some impressive credentials, is not going to be elected California’s next governor, but give him credit for trying.

His recent debate with Governor Jerry Brown made for good theater even though neither scored any knockout punches. In the end, however, Kashkari will be looking back on a race that was Brown’s to lose from start to finish.

The last authentic GOP governor of California was Pete Wilson who served two terms in the 1990s.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was the next to win carrying the Republican banner—sort of!

In what amounted to a run-up to the open non-partisan blanket primary now in place, after a majority voted for Gray Davis’s recall, all candidates appeared on the ballot under the rules of the special recall election. 

The cinematic action-hero’s populist fresh-faced appeal struck a popular chord that enabled him to cross party lines attracting a sizeable number of moderate Democrats and independents and he won the necessary plurality with a little over 48% of the votes.

He was aided considerably by the hapless Democrat who fell victim to serious budget shortfalls, a chronic electricity crisis which eventually proved more phantom than real and a dry and somewhat humorless personality that did not weather well in the searing political spotlight.

Kashkari is not that dissimilar from Republican, Meg Whitman, the millionaire President and CEO of Hewlett Packard, who spent $144 million of her own fortune—still a record for a single election— getting clobbered by Jerry Brown when he launched his return to the governor’s office in 2010.

Each used a basic script that has put Democrats in firm control of all the state’s constitutional offices and both houses of the legislature, and each miscalculated the credibility of a professional politician who has wielded authority and made decisions over the promises of one who has not.

Both came out of the world of finance with some common roots—Kashkari, as an information technology security manager at Goldman Sachs, she as a member of their Board. Whitman went on to earn millions as CEO of the EBay the giant on-line e-commerce company.

Kashkari, after a stint as an Assistant Treasury Secretary joined Pimco, the global investment management firm headquartered in Newport Beach where he directed their equities portfolio before jumping into the gubernatorial race.

They also share spotty voting records—and eyebrow raiser concerning one’s readiness for and commitment to public service. He voted in only 13 of 23 elections in California and Pennsylvania. She ultimately apologized for having failed to vote at all for 28 years.

These are not particularly attractive resumes to millions of Californians still unemployed and a middle class struggling to regain its economic footing.

Though Kashkari plays up his immigrant ancestry (he is a practicing Hindu with Indian-American parents), his credentials as a successful investment banker against the backdrop of Wall Street’s recent iniquities put him more squarely in the mold of the wealthy class than as an advocate for the average worker.

Brown also has the luxury of running on a successful track record with jobs rebounding, new housing starts, drought-fighting initiatives, manufacturing revival (Tesla’s defection notwithstanding), tech sector expansion, and prudent budget management all racking up positive marks.

It is difficult being the “pro-growth” opponent when the state is back in high growth mode and the person you hope to unseat is its promoter-in-chief.

Likewise, Kashkari, in the tradition of many Republican candidates nationwide, favors changes that do not require new taxes and opposed Proposition 30, an income and sales tax increase which had Brown’s support despite his well known frugality..

As seen also in other states, when Kashkari vanquished Assemblyman Tom Donnelly in the open primary who had Tea Party support, he widened further the schism between moderate Republicans and their right wing allies who are a critical component of the GOP political base.

If Brown has any Achilles heel, it might be the very controversial $68 billion dollar high speed rail project (and counting) which he strongly backs and which Kashkari has dubbed “the crazy train.” It is already enmired in litigation with more to come.

However, its complexities, tangled economics, and the widely conflicting views as to its benefits and downsides will make it difficult for the public to get their arms around it. Also it is not on the ballot again in November which makes it something of a non-issue during this election cycle.

This could be a growing headache for the governor after his probable re-election but the bullet train is not one Kashkari can hope to ride to victory.

Kashkari scored some points in his tilt with Brown and proved himself a stronger adversary than expected. However, don’t look for any rematches with Brown well ahead in the latest polls.

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