Kashkari Sings an Old GOP Tune in Governor’s Race

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Once again, a new Cincinnatus of the GOP has surveyed the political landscape, put down his, ah, spreadsheet and marched off toward Sacramento to restore fiscal order to the state.

“I owe it to the people of California to share my wisdom with them,” he tells the waiting scribes. “But only if I can be the boss.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Neel Kashkari is the latest Republican/businessman/rich guy to decide that the best way to get into California politics is to start at the top. It’s governor or nothing for the 40-year-old Kashkari, who moved to California in 1998 and has lived here ever since, give or take a couple years in Pennsylvania to earn his MBA at the Wharton School and his three-year stint at the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C.

To put that in perspective, Gov. Jerry Brown has ties that have been in his drawer longer than Kashkari’s been in California.

That time as an appointed official at Treasury marks Kashkari’s lone connection with government service. Not for him the stints as an assemblyman and big city mayor that led Republican Pete Wilson into the Senate and then into the governor’s office. There’s no reason to spend 16 years in the Legislature and a term as attorney general before becoming governor, as George Deukmejian did. Heck, even Jerry Brown, who at age 36 was the youngest California governor since the 1860s, spent time on the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees and a term as secretary of state before running for the state’s top job.

Republican actors Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger both had spent time on the political hustings before being elected as governor. And way more people had heard of those two Hollywood types than have ever heard of Kashkari.

In the normal world of politics, if there is such a thing, a young guy like Kashkari who wants to get into political life would maybe run for the local school board or city council, with an eye toward taking a shot at an Assembly or state Senate seat when one opened up. He would work with the local party, show up at the state conventions, hand out his cards and shake hands with anyone who would stand still long enough.

Look at the folks in California’s statewide offices now. Sen. Dianne Feinstein was a San Francisco supervisor and mayor. Sen. Barbara Boxer was a Marin County supervisor and congresswoman. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom was a San Francisco supervisor and mayor and Attorney General Kamala Harris worked seven years as San Francisco’s district attorney. Controller John Chiang spent two terms on the state Board of Equalization and state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson are all veterans of the Legislature.

Not a lot of political novices there. But when it comes to Republicans running for governor, experience counts for less than nothing. For them, there’s something vaguely unseemly about the give and take of the political life, compromising on some issues so you can win on others. Not to mention the unpleasantness of constantly asking people for money.

The wealthy candidates, folks like Meg Whitman, Bill Simon and Democrat Al Checchi, tout their business backgrounds, arguing that they were just too darn busy making money and doing far more important things in the business world to get involved with the slippery lower rungs of the political ladder.

After all, they reasoned, they were big fish in the business world, so why should they be forced to take a step down to go into politics. Leaders should lead or not get involved at all.

But that seat on the school board or the city council is more than just a stamp on a political resume. It’s a chance for an aspiring politician to learn how to deal directly with people and their problems, to find out what’s important to the very folks he or she will represent. It’s a place to build connections, to show people that, as Bill Clinton would say, “I feel your pain.” And mean it.

Successful politicians discover things in the seemingly endless round of living room coffee klatches, street corner meet and greets and weekend precinct walks that make up local campaigns that can’t be learned by just hiring a pricy consultant and writing checks for 30-second TV spots. It would be interesting to know just how many envelopes Kashkari, Whitman and Simon stuffed or what doorknobs they hung campaign literature on before their runs for governors.

Too many business types, Republicans and Democrats alike, come off as Lord or Lady Bountiful when they campaign, standing delicately above the rough and tumble of the political fray and deigning to give voters the opportunity to elect them.

Just ask Whitman how well that worked.

But Kashkari is young and likely won’t suffer from the CEO mentality that doomed so many other business types in their runs for office.

He’s already learned some political lessons, like the one that says the whole truth and nothing but the truth should be reserved for the courtroom, not the campaign trail.

In the biography on his campaign website, for example, it said that Kashkari, an engineer, wanted to learn more about entrepreneurship, so he got an MBA. Then, in 2002, “Neel returned to California to help Silicon Valley entrepreneurs raise capital to grow their companies and create jobs.”

That’s fine, although a little heavy on campaign buzzwords like “entrepreneurs” “Silicon Valley” and “creating jobs.” What the campaign bio doesn’t mention, though, is that Kashkari did that work as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs, then followed Henry Paulson, the company’s chairman and CEO, to Washington when Paulson became Treasury secretary.

There’s no scandal attached and Kashkari reportedly did a fine job at Goldman Sachs and at the Treasury. But with people still pretty touchy in the wake of the Great Recession, brought about in large part by the financial shenanigans of the financial industry, it’s a pretty good bet that Kashkari won’t be listing “Investment Banker” as his occupation on the June ballot.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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