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TARP's "$700 Billion Man" Wants To Lead California

Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio

He’s never held elected office.  He’s not a household name.  To the extent he is known, it’s for running the politically unpopular federal bank bailout program.  And he’s the man many California Republicans are counting on to rescue their party.  He is NeelKashkari , a former US Treasury official under Presidents Bush and Obama.  And now, he’s now running for governor of California.

Neel Kashkari is challenging a popular Democratic governor with a $17 million campaign war chest – as a Republican in one of the bluest states in the nation.  Why?

Neel Kashkari: “If I saw a deep bench of talented Republicans who were going to do that, I’d go help them.  But I don’t see it.  And so if no one else is gonna do it, then I’m gonna go do it.  I’m gonna go charge up this hill and fight to turn the state around and give middle class families a fair chance – and we’re gonna break the cycle of poverty.”

The 40-year-old Kashkari is a practicing Hindu, the son of Indian immigrants.  As one of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s top advisors, Kashkari essentially wrote the Troubled Asset Relief Program during the 2008 financial crisis.  Then, Paulson assigned him to run TARP – prompting nicknames like the “Bailout Czar” and the “700 Billion Dollar Man.”

Michele Davis “Boundless energy, I think, would be the first phrase that comes to mind.”

Michele Davis worked with Kashkari at Treasury, as Secretary Paulson’s lead spokesperson.  She describes him as “relentless,” and praises his analytical skills, his passion and his cool confidence under pressure.

Michele Davis: “When the problems were coming at us fast and furious, it was really easy to be daunted.  And he needed only that split-second to catch his breath and then was immediately on to, okay, we can take this on, we can figure it out, let’s just go get it done.”

In an interview with Capital Public Radio, Kashkari talked of running a new kind of Republican campaign.

Neel Kashkari: “My priorities are very simple: jobs and education.”

On jobs, Kashkari supports tax incentives and regulatory reform.  For education: career technical programs and a longer school year.  If you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s pro-immigration reform, pro-choice and pro-same-sex marriage.  But he’d rather stick to his priorities.

Neel Kashkari: “I believe my message of economic empowerment – a good job and a good education – will resonate with a very broad range of voters – Republicans, decline-to-states, moderate Democrats, high income and low income.”

To Senate GOP Leader Bob Huff, that’s the kind of top-of-the-ticket candidate his party needs as it tries to dethrone Democrats’ legislative supermajorities.

Bob Huff: “Neel brings a lot of things to the table that do capture the imagination probably of more of the mainstream of the – let’s call it the political center of California – which, if you’re at 29 percent registration as we are, that’s where you have to aspire to.”

That’s an unspoken comparison to the other declared Republican candidate, Tea Party Assemblyman Tim Donnelly.

Republican political consultant Beth Miller agrees Kashkari has a chance to broaden the GOP’s appeal.  But, she adds, Governor Jerry Brown starts the race in an “extraordinarily strong” position – and Kashkari faces plenty of challenges:

Beth Miller: “He is not well known.  He’s gonna have to communicate who he is.  He’s running as a Republican, but he’s also publicly stated that he voted for Barack Obama.  And he has a more moderate social agenda.”

Most of all, there’s TARP.  Kashkari took beatings at congressional hearings like this one in 2008, where Illinois Republican Donald Manzullo criticized TARP’s executive compensation rules.

Donald Manzullo: “And you can sit there and not come to a decision as to whether or not a $3 million bonus is too much?  If you even have to ask that question whether it's too much, Mr. Kashkari, you're not the man for the job.  I think you should step aside.”

Kashkari defends TARP, saying it stabilized an economy on the verge of collapse – and made taxpayers a profit.  But his opponents are already making TARP a campaign issue.  Dan Newman is one of Governor Brown’s political advisors:

Dan Newman: “He was a banker at Goldman Sachs, and then his one public policy act was to hand $700 billion to Wall Street banks.  So it’s hard to imagine how that makes one qualified to be governor of California.”

Neel Kashkari: “Can I ask your indulgence?  I want to capture this moment.  I’m gonna take a picture of all of you. Say cheese!”

After a year of meticulously laying the groundwork for his campaign, Kashkari finally went public Tuesday in Sacramento.

Neel Kashkari: “Here today on this stage, I am announcing that I’m running for governor of California.”

The event at which he spoke?  Where else – an economic forecasting event.


Kashkari's Journey: A first generation Indian-American's road from mechanical engineer to overseer of the Troubled Asset relief Program roll-out to a bid for governor of California.