Indian American Neel Kashkari Runs for Governor of California


Neel Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury official who ran the Trouble Asset Relief Program, has announced his candidacy for governor (Richard Springer photo). Second photo: Amber India Restaurant Group owner Vijay Bist (center) hosts a reception Jan. 7 for Neel Kashkari (right) at Amber in Los Altos, Calif. At left is well-known entrepreneur Kumar Malavalli.

SAN FRANCISCO, United States

After crisscrossing California meeting potential voters and huddling with Republican leaders and potential campaign donors nationwide, Neel Kashkari, who ran the U.S. Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, Jan. 21 declared his candidacy for governor of California.

He made the announcement in Sacramento, Calif., during a noontime keynote address at the Sacramento Business Review at California State University, Sacramento (see sidebar).

In a far-ranging interview with India-West in downtown San Francisco recently as he prepared to enter the race, the Indian American candidate gave a preview of his campaign strategy.

Kashkari roundly criticized Democrat Governor Jerry Brown — who is expected to run for reelection as the prohibitive favorite — mainly on California’s poor educational performance and high unemployment rates.

Born and raised in Stow, Ohio, a suburb of Akron, the former TARP overseer also emphasized his parting of the ways from President Barack Obama, whom he voted for in 2008 and under whom he served in the last three months of his tenure as head of the $700-billion U.S. financial rescue program.

As president, Obama greatly disappointed him by turning out to be “a partisan warrior,” he said, and the person most “responsible” for the divisiveness of the two major political parties in Washington, D.C., he added.

While Democratic Party leaders in California previously denigrated Kashkari’s possible candidacy by pointing out snidely that he is the former Golden Sachs executive selected by Henry Paulson, the company’s former CEO and Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury, to run TARP, Kashkari is unapologetic about the recovery program.

He said it proved successful, averted a great crisis for the nation and produced an “$11 billion profit” for the government.
Kashkari was referring to a TARP summary issued Dec. 30 by Adam Hodge, a spokesperson for domestic finance at the Treasury Department, who said, “To date, Treasury has recouped $432.8 billion on all TARP investments — including the disposition of Treasury’s remaining investment in AIG — compared to $421.9 billion disbursed.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the 75-year-old Brown has amassed more than $17 million in campaign funds ready to be tapped, once he formally announces.

Candidates challenging Brown dwindled by one Jan. 16, when former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Republican, ended his gubernatorial bid in the central coast town of Santa Maria, where he became the city’s youngest mayor at the age of 28 about 20 years ago.

“It’s just time for me to take a break and focus more of my time on being a full-time dad and husband,” Maldonado said. Political analysts, however, pointed out that the Mexican American former state senator’s campaign failed to gain traction or raise significant funds to challenge Brown since its launch in April.

Maldonado was a key mover of California’s open primary system, approved by voters in 2009. This year, candidates from all parties appear on the same ballot in the primary and the top vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election.

According to the Chronicle, a Public Policy Institute of California poll done in December showed Maldonado with just seven percent support among likely voters, less than half of that for conservative Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks in San Bernardino County, a Tea Party favorite and now the only other Republican running for governor.

Media reports have speculated that Kashkari has received campaign pledges for at least $10 million. He did not confirm that to India-West, but said he believes he will be able to raise enough to mount a formidable challenge to Brown.
He also emphasized that his discussions with GOP leaders nationwide didn’t necessary include endorsements yet.

Kashkari confirmed that the GOP leaders he has consulted with include Paulson, former President George W. Bush, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice.

He has also met with the citizens of California — including visiting schools, sleeping one night in a homeless shelter in Oakland, Calif., marching with members of the Sikh community at a parade in Yuba City, Calif., and meeting with about 60 Indian American professionals Jan. 7 at a reception hosted by Amber India Restaurant Group in Los Altos, Calif.

Kashkari’s parents, Chaman and Sheila Kashkari, were born in Srinagar. His father, who has a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, joined the electrical engineering department as a professor at the University of Akron. His mother, a doctor, works at Akron City Hospital; and his sister, Meera, is a physician in North Carolina.

“My parents came from India 50 years. They were not especially wealthy, but they were educated and like most Indian Americans in America, they valued a good education.”

His family, he added, “hard-wired” him on the need to give back to America and “help those less fortunate.”

His father supported efforts to “reduce poverty in Indian and African villages…When you can transform lives, you have a moral duty to help,” he said.

Kashkari told India-West that he “remembers vividly” being present at the White House when his father received the “Presidential End Hunger Award” from President George Bush, Sr.

As an undergraduate, he attended Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio. After graduation, he majored in aerospace engineering in the graduate program at the University of Illinois, where he was on a team that “built a solar-powered car.”

Kashkari said he liked “technological challenges” and admired what NASA was doing, so after graduation, he was hired by TRW, a NASA subcontractor in Laguna Beach, Calif. While at the company, he worked on a project to help stabilize the giant mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope.

It was then his career trajectory changed when he decided he needed to add business and finance capabilities to his experience, so he entered the MBA program at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

After getting an MBA from Wharton, Kashkari returned to TRW briefly, before joining Goldman Sachs in 2002 in Menlo Park, Calif., which gave him an inside look at the entrepreneurial world in Silicon Valley.

He met Paulson at this time, but said that he was by no means an intimate of the future treasury secretary.

But when Paulson later told Kashkari in a phone conversation of his (Paulson’s) impending appointment by President Bush as treasury secretary, the Indian American said he emphatically told Paulson that he wanted to accompany him to Washington, no matter how junior the post.

He worked at lower-level positions at Treasury in housing and alternate energy assignments, before being tapped by Paulson to run TARP. After leaving Washington, he joined Pacific Investment Management Company in Newport Beach, Calif., where he managed its equities division. He left the firm last year to prepare for a gubernatorial bid.

Kashkari, who is divorced, is a moderate on most social issues, taking positions that are an anathema to the more conservative wing of the Republican Party.

He is pro-choice, supports same-sex marriage, favors giving Green Cards to foreign graduates with master’s and Ph.D. degrees in STEM fields from U.S. colleges and universities, and believes the estimated 11 million to 12 million people currently in the U.S. illegally “need some form of legal status so they can file their taxes,” he told another Indian newspaper.

“We should reform our immigration laws to put priority in the skills that we need in our economy,” he said. The current immigration bill in the Senate “is a reasonable starting place,” he added.

Kashkari said he met recently with the conservative Lincoln Club of Orange County and received not one question on abortion or same-sex marriage. People at the meeting were more interested in his positions on education and jobs, “which are the issues resonating with voters now,” he said.

Regarding Brown’s plan to use fees paid by carbon producers to partially fund a $68 billion high-speed rail system in California, Kashkari said it is a “crazy plan and a misplaced priority.”

California has “$5 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.” A failure to take it into account “is like balancing your checkbook, but ignoring making your mortgage payment.”

Brown on the campaign trail, he pointed out, will have trouble defending California’s 46th ranking among states in spending per pupil in K-12 schools (according to 2011-12 data), and its unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, the sixth highest in the country.

“These problems are solvable and I’ve been meeting with Republican leaders to find out what works in their states,” he told India-West.

With Silicon Valley, the movie industry in Hollywood, and increased manufacturing in Southern California, the state is a “rocket ship that is not running at full speed,” Kashkari asserted, due to red tape and a restrictive climate for business that encourages businesses to relocate to other states.

Kashkari by press deadline had not commented for the record on Brown’s new $155 billion proposed budget, but some Republicans have praised the governor for advocating spending $11 billion on debts and liabilities — including a $6 billion deferred payment to schools — and setting aside $1.6 billion in a “rainy day” fund.

Under the proposed budget, about $4 billion would be used to pay down economic recovery bonds issued by former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, spending on K-12 would increase to $70 billion from $60 billion, and spending on higher education would rise by $1 billion, including $142 million in increased funds for the University of California and California State University systems, where tuitions would be frozen.

A Kashkari aide rebutted by e-mail, “This budget actually represents the highest level of general fund spending ever. Not only is it the second-largest increase in general fund spending (as a dollar amount) in state history, but it’s also a 29% increase in total spending since Gov. Brown took office.”

“Yet no money in the 2014-15 budget is directed toward any part of the unfunded pensions, including the growing $80.4 billion unfunded teachers’ retirement system.”

Concerning Brown’s controversial $25 billion Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which proposes boring two massive tunnels to siphon water from the Sacramento River and carry it beneath the delta to link up with the state Water Project near Tracy, while at the same time trying to protect endangered species with large-scale habitat restoration, Kashkari said it is too expensive.

“There have to be cheaper ways, such as building more (facilities) for storage. That is a no-brainer.”

Family farm owners in the Delta, many of them Punjabi Americans, complain the plan would cut off their freshwater supply. But proponents claim it is the best solution to solve the water crisis, which could leave up to 25 million people in the state without drinking water. Brown Jan. 17 declared a drought emergency in California.

Inevitably, Kashkari’s thoughts returned to education.

“Every child can learn. Schools need to educate the poorest kids and empower our teachers by not imposing restrictions that tie their hands. We also need more vocational training. We have lost that…Not everyone has to go to college.”

Citing statistics that show kids regressing during summer vacations, the Indian American said he thinks year-round schools are a good idea. “Schools need to allow teachers and parents to customize learning to meet the needs of their kids,” he said