Ex-Treasury official considers challenging Jerry Brown in 2014

Meeting with half a dozen formerly homeless people at an Orange County nonprofit, Neel Kashkari told them what has been an open secret in California political circles: The former U.S. Treasury Department official and banker is weighing a run for governor next year.

"I'm considering running for governor of California, and the biggest issues I'm focused on [are] the economy, creating more jobs so people can work, get a decent job, afford a place to live and education," Kashkari said at the Illumination Foundation in Stanton last week. "I am convinced we can do better."


Kashkari has spent much of the last year meeting with voters, donors and policy experts to determine whether he has a viable path to victory. In Stanton, he listened attentively, head cocked and hands folded, as former drug addicts and strippers talked of their descent into homelessness and their efforts to turn things around with the nonprofit's help.

The event underscored a key theme of a potential Kashkari campaign: He's a different kind of Republican.

"Reaching out to minorities, reaching out to low-income voters would be core to our campaign, it wouldn't be an afterthought," he said in an interview, describing his approach as the opposite of trickle-down economics. "If we can fix the state so those folks who have the most challenges can still get a good education and still get a decent job and a path upward … we help everybody."

To test his message, Kashkari has assembled a team that includes former advisors to 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But he would face a long list of obstacles in challenging Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

He's a Republican in a state that hasn't elected a Republican statewide in seven years. He has never held elected office, and he is wealthy, inviting comparisons to unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and Senate candidate Carly Fiorina. His claim to fame is having overseen the $700-billion federal bank bailout as an official in President George W. Bush's Treasury Department.

And Kashkari's fundraising ability is unclear. He declined to describe his net worth but said he lacked the wealth to fund a campaign.

Brown, who is widely expected to run again next year, would be a formidable foe. An incumbent who is viewed favorably by state voters, the 75-year-old governor already has a $12-million campaign war chest.

A recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showed that fewer than a third of voters said they planned to vote for Brown next year. But pollsters and political analysts said that would probably change if measured against a named opponent.

Kashkari, a trim, wide-eyed 40, attributes any uncertainty about Brown to the large number of Californians who are living in poverty, are unemployed or underemployed and are suffering.

He said he respected Brown and found him well-intentioned. However, "I think Gov. Brown is competent at presiding over the status quo," Kashkari said, and "the status quo is horrible for millions of Californians."

Kashkari said he sees no other California Republicans capable of challenging Brown. He is unimpressed by Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a tea party sympathizer from Twin Peaks who announced his gubernatorial bid this month, and former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, a Santa Maria rancher who is considering a run.

"We need to make major changes in our state," Kashkari said. "If there were a deep bench of really talented people, I wouldn't be doing this. Since we don't have that bench, in my judgment, I feel like I have to go do this."

An Ohio native, the son of Indian immigrants, Kashkari worked for Goldman Sachs in Silicon Valley, helping tech start-ups raise money before joining the Treasury Department in 2006. He voted for President Obama in 2008 and stayed on through the first few months of his administration but says Obama has disappointed him by failing to bridge the partisan divide in Washington.

In 2009, Kashkari returned to California to work for investment firm Pimco, where he was head of global equities until he stepped down in January to explore his political prospects. He is divorced and lives in Laguna Beach with two giant Newfoundlands, Newsome and Winslow, who are named after former Cleveland Browns players. The dogs, like Brown's corgi, have their own Twitter profiles.


Kashkari supports abortion rights, same-sex marriage and a path to legalization for the millions who are in the country illegally. But he does not linger on these issues, preferring to discuss the economy and schools.

He speaks broadly of reducing business regulations and increasing energy production to create jobs, but he has not developed more detailed proposals on those issues. On schools, he deplores the state's low ranking in national assessments of reading and math skills, though he repeatedly cited incorrect rankings (a spokesman later said Kashkari had been using 2011 figures because he was unaware of 2013 rankings released Nov. 7).

Kashkari sees his work on the bank bailout as both a strength — "one of the best examples in modern American history of Republicans and Democrats coming together and putting country first" to stave off another Great Depression — and a vulnerability if he decides to run.

Democrats agree.

"He claims to be a new California Republican, but he's a super-rich Goldman Sachs guy who just last week said that bailing out Wall Street banks was the greatest economic policy in history," said Dan Newman, a political spokesman for Brown. "That sounds like Carly Fiorina meets Meg Whitman."

Kashkari won't say when he plans to decide whether to run. The filing deadline is in March.

As he left an elementary school last week in an impoverished neighborhood in Huntington Beach, where he visited with community groups working to help students and their families, he turned to the volunteers.

"Stay tuned," he said.