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Donnelly sparks debate by tying governor rival Kashkari to Sharia law

PoliticsLaws and LegislationElectionsTim DonnellySocial IssuesGovernment
Donnelly says Kashkari backs Sharia law because he took part in a U.S. Treasury conference on Islamic finance
Kashkari calls Sharia law allegation 'absurd'
A GOP activist accuses Donnelly of racism

Sparking the latest controversy in the governor's race, Republican candidate Tim Donnelly is claiming that GOP rival Neel Kashkari supports fundamentalist Islamic law.

"Given the recent stories and protests about the outrage of the discriminatory nature of sharia law, we're horrified that Kashkari would support sharia anything," says a Tuesday post on the assemblyman's Facebook page.

Sharia law, the Islam-based code that governs personal and business behavior, has been in the news because celebrities and activists this week protested its imposition in Brunei, whose leader owns the Beverly Hills Hotel. The protesters oppose sharia's harsh punishments for homosexuality and adultery.

On Monday and Tuesday, Donnelly said Kashkari condoned the strictures of sharia law because he once participated in a U.S. Treasury conference about Islamic finance.

Kashkari, a former Treasury official, called the attack "absurd on its face."

"To accuse me of trying to promote sharia law in America is absurd, literally the exact opposite of the purpose of the conference, which was to show how American free-market principles could be brought into Islamic countries," he said.

"Once again, it demonstrates he doesn't understand the most basic elements of what he's talking about," he said.

The Islamic Finance 101 forum was sponsored by the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush's tenure and by Harvard Law School's Islamic Finance Project. Kashkari, then an assistant treasury secretary, delivered opening remarks at the event on Nov. 6, 2008.

The forum included academics, policy makers and bankers and focused on "understanding how you can still have free market principles and open economies even in Islamic countries," he said.

Financial restrictions under Islamic rule include not allowing the charging of interest, and not investing in companies that produce forbidden goods.

Some Republicans said Donnelly's comments have clear racial overtones — Kashkari is Hindu and of Indian descent.

"I'd say it was a thinly veiled racist attack, but the fact is, it's more than that," Eli Rubenstein, a GOP activist from San Diego and a Kashkari supporter, wrote to Donnelly's campaign.

"Anybody with brains knows that you're using the fact that Neel has darker skin and a name that sounds like it could be middle-eastern to scare uninformed voters and rally your base," the letter said. "I'm a proud Republican, and if you're the nominee, I will be enthusiastically supporting [Democratic Gov.] Jerry Brown for re-election."

Donnelly has repeatedly said he is not a racist, citing his family. His wife is from the Philippines.

"If I am a racist, I'm not a very good one," Donnelly told CNN en Español in January, after a flap over a video he made with actress Maria Conchita Alonso and posted online. "… I married a woman with dark skin."

The Facebook statements were the latest in a series of controversies involving Donnelly.

He made headlines Monday by casting the lone Assembly vote against a bill that would bar the sale of the Confederate flag on state property. He has flouted California's gun laws and compared President Obama's gun policies to Adolf Hitler's.

He recently stood by a speech he gave years ago as a Minuteman, calling illegal immigration an insurgency that should be rooted out of big cities.

The dust-ups have prompted some who once supported him to reconsider.

Aaron Park, a conservative activist, donated to Donnelly's campaign but is now backing Kashkari.

"It was a steady drip, and it was one after another, and it demonstrated a pattern," he said.

Park said he understood Donnelly's free-speech rationale for the vote on the Confederate flag, but it was poor strategy. "The problem is you've got a gigantic spotlight on you…. What are you thinking?"

Park said he agreed ideologically with Donnelly but feared the candidate was making too many mistakes.

"Donnelly is my guy on the issues," he said, but "… Neel Kashkari is going to be the best candidate for the long-term health of the California Republican Party."

The Alameda County GOP denounced Donnelly's remarks as racist. But many other conservatives, whose support has made Donnelly the front-runner among GOP candidates, stood by him.

"We're just getting the mud-slinging back and forth, and that's all it is," said Randall Jordan, co-founder of the Tea Party California Caucus.

Veteran conservative activist Mike Spence added that remaining in the headlines aids Donnelly , while Kashkari is unknown in Republican circles aside from having liberal social views and having administered the unpopular federal bank bailout.

"I think the controversies actually help [Donnelly] with conservatives," Spence said. "They clearly identify what he's willing to stand up for. You know what Tim Donnelly stands for. You can't say that about the other candidate running for governor."

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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