Neel Kashkari, an Indian-American with a glittering résumé, but no political office-holding experience, has declared his gubernatorial candidacy for this year's election in California as a Republican.
A son of Indian immigrants, Kashkari, only 40, faces a multitude of obstacles in his Quixotic quest to unseat popular Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown, 75, who is riding high from engineering the state's remarkable recovery from near economic collapse a few years ago. (Brown has not yet formally announced his candidacy, although his team has already raised about $17 million for the presumptive campaign.)
As such, Kashkari is stepping into an arena with many risks and challenges.
Part of Kashkari's woes have to do with factors far beyond his control -- namely, changing demographics that have pushed the once-powerful Republican Party into near irrelevance in California.
Indeed, the California GOP, which once produced icons like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, now has less than 30 percent support from the public. California has not even elected a Republican to statewide office in eight years.
“The Republicans here are dangerously close to obscurity,” said Dr. Larry Gerston, a political science professor (with a focus on public policy) at San Jose State University, in an interview. “The percentage of Californians who identify as Republican is now nearly as low as those who claim no party affiliation.”
Beyond demographics, Dr. John J. Pitney Jr., professor of politics at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., noted that the decline of the aerospace-defense industries in the state during the 1980s also led to the exodus of thousands of people who were loyal Republican voters.
Gerston predicts the GOP will continue to decline in the state.
“Republicans here are generally aging or aged conservative white men,” he said. “Demographics could spell doom for them. The ethnic 'minorities' in California -- Latinos, Asians and blacks -- together now comprise a decided majority. And they have shown little inclination to support the GOP.”
Thus, Kashkari presents a kind of a puzzle -- a member of a minority group that typically votes Democrat, but someone who has embraced the philosophy of the Republicans.
Overall, Kashkari boasts impressive credentials, including stints as a top official in the U.S. Treasury Department (under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama), an asset fund manager at PIMCO, an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and an engineer.
But his track record presents many questions for voters -- some even from within his own party. Some skeptical Republicans cannot forget or forgive that Kashkari voted for Obama in 2008.
With respect to the Obama vote, Kashkari asserted he was a lifelong Republican and the only reason he pulled the lever for Obama was because the Democratic candidate received better advice on the economy than GOP challenger Sen. John McCain did. Kashkari then dumped on Obama. "I cast a ballot on the person who I thought was better equipped to handle the terrible economic crises of 2008," he said. "I got duped."
Other GOP activists dislike Kashkari's embrace of liberal values with respect to abortion and same-sex marriage.
On these polarizing social issues, Kashkari said he simply toes the libertarian line of small government and no interference by the state in one’s personal life.
"I just want government out of our lives," he said. "I want you to decide what's right for you and your families."
Kashkari's prominent role in the multi-billion-dollar bailout of banks -- i.e, Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) -- also leaves him vulnerable to attacks from both left and right.
Kashkari responded to these criticisms by citing that the bank bailout arose from a spirit of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill -- something grossly lacking in 2014.
"What I learned in Washington was [that] the executive branch and the legislative branch must work closely together," Kashkari said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "The job of the executive is to focus attention on the biggest problem. [Currently] I see no leadership."
Kashkari boasted that the bailout money was paid back in its entirety, with taxpayers even getting a $13 billion profit.
"If we got Republicans and Democrats to work together in Washington, D.C., then I know we can get them to work together in Sacramento [the capital of California]," Kashkari said. "If we got them to work together to break the back of the worst economic crisis our country has faced in 80 years, then we can get them to work together to break the crisis that is hammering millions of California families."
Kashkari also had to respond to charges that he failed to cast a vote in a number of elections, both local and national.
Dan Newman, Brown's political spokesman, blasted Kashkari for this and other perceived flaws. "[Kashkari] says he's running to balance the budget, create jobs and fix schools," Newman said. "But if Kashkari truly cared about those issues, then he would have bothered to vote in elections for president, governor and local schools.”
Newman then made a sly reference to the failed 2010 gubernatorial campaign of another Republican business person, Meg Whitman. “Then again, maybe this is yet another of California's self-funded, self-indulgent, ego-fueled vanity campaigns," he sniped.
In response, Kashkari told reporters: “I believe voting is critical, and civic participation is critical. That’s why I left a very attractive career in the private sector to go serve in the government for three years under two different presidents.”
Despite Brown’s popularity in the state, he is not without weaknesses. Brown's greatest liability likely relates to California's very high poverty rate -- according to data from the Census Bureau, nearly one-fourth of the state's residents (some 8 million people) live below the poverty line. Latinos, who are on the brink of becoming the state's single largest ethnic group, bear the brunt of this massive deprivation -- an estimated one-third of California's 15 million Hispanics struggle daily to make ends meet.
In addition, while Brown has received praise for converting the state's budget deficit into a surplus through a series of draconian spending cuts and tax hikes, California faces a mountain of debt and the crushing burden of pension payments and health care costs for its bloated public sector workers in the coming years -- all of which threaten to destroy the state’s financial structure.
But while Kashkari has criticized Brown for the high poverty rate and underperforming urban schools in California, he has thus far provided few specific details about his own platform, aside from vague platitudes about jobs and education.
"I want good jobs, I want kids to get a good education," he told Republican activists at a golf course in Valencia. "These are the most important issues in our state."
In another venue, at Cal State-Sacramento, he declared: "I'm running for governor of California to strengthen California families, so that every kid in California gets a good education, and to create a lot of good jobs. That's my platform, jobs and education. Jobs and education."
Given the dominance of Latinos in the state (they account for at least 40 percent of the population, and about 27 percent of the electorate), Kashkari and any political candidate will have to address their concerns. But Dr. Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate professor of political science at the University of California-Riverside and also director of the National Asian American Survey, noted that, despite the many difference between Hispanics and Asians (which includes Indians), there is significant overlap in what issues are most important to them.
“Latinos and Asians are very interested in policies related education, health care and immigration,” Ramakrishnan said in an interview. “They generally endorse Obamacare and comprehensive immigration reform.”
Even if Kashkari loses this gubernatorial election, the media coverage that such a high-profile campaign would generate will serve to highlight the rising power and aspirations of the Indian-American community. And perhaps by increasing his name recognition and raising his public profile, Kashkari could again run in 2018, when he will still only be 44 years old.
Indian-Americans account for only about 2 percent of California's population, but they comprise a tight-knit, affluent community (at least one-third of Silicon Valley trace their ancestry to the sub-continent) that has now also become politically active.
Already, Dr. Ami Bera, a Democrat, occupies a Congressional seat in eastern Sacramento County; Democrat Rohit "Ro" Khanna (former deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Commerce under Obama) and Republican Dr. Vanila Singh (a Stanford anesthesiologist) are running for a House seat in the San Francisco Bay Area in the heart of Silicon Valley.
In addition, Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco lawyer, was recently elected vice chairwoman of the California Republican Party. But perhaps the most famous current Californian political figure of Indian descent is Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose mother is from Chennai.
As most Indian-Americans (in California and elsewhere) vote Democratic, Kashkari surely hopes he can obtain campaign cash from big-money Indian donors willing to cross-party lines -- as they did with two other successful Republican Indian-American governors, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
“When there’s an Indian candidate, Indian donors have been very enthusiastic about supporting them [regardless of their party affiliation],” Dhillon told the Associated Press. “They’re a longstanding funding base for candidates, but there are very few candidates.”
Kashkari, who has an estimated net worth of about $5 million, said he will not dip into his personal fortune to help finance his campaign -- thereby making donations from deep-pocketed Indians crucial.
“To try and raise enough money to credibly challenge the governor, we’re going to have to tap into Indians, not just in California, but across the country,” he told AP. “The idea that one of their sons could go run for governor of California is really exciting for them, and then the platform that I’ve developed, focusing on jobs and education and economic empowerment, that's just -- it’s a perfect fit.”
Kashkari may also have some other aces up his sleeve. For example, Pitney noted that it would be hard for the state’s Democrats to depict Kashkari as an “extremist” in any way.
“As a young Indian Hindu, he contradicts the popular stereotypic image of the GOP as old white Christian men,” he said. “Plus, Kashkari’s status as a political outsider is probably both an asset and a liability, depending upon one’s perspective.”
Ramakrishnan also noted that, even though Indian-Americans overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008 and 2012, a large chunk of this community does not identify with either of the two big parties. “This could provide a kind of opening for Kashkari, along with the fact that he is a social moderate,” he said.
“But for the moment, Brown looks pretty unbeatable.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.