Jerry Brown has been called a lot of things in his 45-year political career, from “Governor Moonbeam” to “the old man,” but no one ever accused him of being a do-nothing dud of a politician. Until now.
Changing the state’s school-funding formula, balancing the budget after years of deficit, proposing a massive water transportation plan and spearheading a successful campaign for a tax increase were not enough to make Brown a busy man, says his most likely fall re-election rival.
“Brown is a caretaker governor,” charges Neel Kashkari, leading Republican in some recent polls. “I’m telling you, he’s a status quo guy. I call him lazy and unwilling to make the major changes we need to bring California back from the Great Recession. All he does is nibble around the edges of problems.”
This criticism of Brown will be a major theme of Kashkari’s campaign against the 75-year-old Democrat.
Kashkari, a former executive of the Goldman Sachs banking house, led the federal Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program for several months under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He takes much credit for rescuing the U.S. economy from disaster and is the early favorite over fellow Republicans Tim Donnelly and Andrew Blount in the June primary election.
For sure, Kashkari is a different sort of Republican candidate, perhaps one California voters will be ready to accept. The Ohio-born son of Indian immigrant parents, he didn’t get here until 1998, then left for more than three years’ work in Washington, D.C. So he’s only lived here about 13 years, less than any serious candidate for governor in modern memory.
“If time in California were the criterion leading to a great governor, Brown would be great,” the intense, shaven-headed Kashkari said, seated in a San Fernando Valley coffee shop.
Kashkari is unlike other recent top Republican nominees: He’s not a billionaire, his net worth estimated at “only” about $5 million; he can’t write big checks to his campaign every time the bank account gets thin, a la Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Arnold Schwarzenegger and William Simon.
“I won’t contribute anything,” he says. That would contrast enormously with Brown’s 2010 opponent, Silicon Valley executive Whitman, who spent more than $140 million of her own money without coming close.
“Brown is vulnerable,” Kashkari declares. “He wants to spend $67 billion on his crazytrain (Kashkari code for high-speed rail) and one poll I saw had only about 33 percent of voters wanting to re-elect him.”
The same survey, however, found 59 percent approve Brown’s job performance, an odd polling combination.
Kashkari says he’d pursue two main goals if elected: creating jobs and reviving California education. Asked how, he makes a major commitment to exploiting the state’s huge shale oil and gas reserves, without imposing a new drilling tax. He would also make a big push for less regulation of business, something Brown has tried, but not been able to push through the Legislature.
How would Kashkari operate as a Republican dealing with a large Democratic legislative majorities? He doesn’t explain in detail. But he insists that “I would bring a lot of companies back to California, not have them continue moving out of state,” also a theme of the previous three GOP candidates for governor. But he doesn’t detail how he’d help business cope with high housing costs that prevent many companies from recruiting out-of-state workers here.
He also insists he’d pursue development of new reservoirs to store water in wet years and prepare for dry ones, but does not say where he’d put them.
“We need a large water bond on the fall ballot,” he says. “I blame Brown for lack of preparation for the drought.”
But in more than an hour discussing what he would do, there were no details on how he’d revive education, where California’s per-student spending is among the lowest in America.
Kashkari brings obvious energy to the campaign trail. But his big handicap also is obvious – voters don’t know him. Not one person in that coffee shop appeared to recognize him, despite his distinctive appearance.
Can Kashkari win in a state where Republicans are badly outnumbered and where he’s never run for any office, where he’s voted in barely half the elections during his time here? He says yes.
Brown doesn’t seem worried.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at [email protected]