Former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari announced Tuesday that he is running for governor, arguing that the status quo is failing millions of Californians and staking his campaign on his ability to create jobs and improve public schools.
"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," the 40-year-old Republican told hundreds of people at a lunch at Cal State Sacramento.
"That's my platform, jobs and education. Jobs and education," he said.
Kashkari has long been mulling over a gubernatorial run and has spent much of the last year meeting with donors, politicians, policy experts and GOP activists. He has also visited schools, homeless shelters and diverse communities throughout the state, learning about Californians' concerns.
Pacing the stage and speaking without notes, Kashkari highlighted those experiences and cited statistics about the state's high rates of unemployment, poverty and poor-performing students to argue that Sacramento is not meeting voters' needs.
"The status quo is unacceptable," he told a crowd of businesspeople and some students. "Don't let the defenders of the status quo get away with it. They're going to tell you, 'The state is back, we've fixed all the problems.' Don't let them get away with it."
Kashkari, a Laguna Beach millionaire, talked about his background as a child of Indian parents who thrived after immigrating to the United States. Their lives were proof, he said, that prosperity is possible if the right economic conditions and educational opportunities are in place.
He did not propose specific policies, pledging instead to roll them out during the campaign. He also did not mention Democratic incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown by name, although he slashed at the governor's support for California's $68-billion high-speed rail project, calling it "the crazy train" and evidence of misplaced priorities.
Any Republican challenging Brown faces a daunting path. The governor is popular among the state's overwhelmingly Democratic voters, and Sacramento is no longer in the grip of financial crisis.
The state Republican Party, meanwhile, is at a crossroads. Californians last elected a Republican to statewide office eight years ago, and GOP voter registration is at a historic low of less than 30%.
Kashkari's entry into the contest offers Republicans dramatically different choices as they try to take on Brown. The other main Republican in the race — Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks — is a staunch conservative, founder of a Minuteman border-patrol chapter and a favorite of the tea party.
A fiscal conservative, Kashkari nonetheless supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights and voted for President Obama in 2008.
Kashkari has never held elected office. He ran the taxpayer-funded federal bank bailout under President George W. Bush and Obama and has worked as a fund manager, investment banker and engineer.
In his speech Tuesday, he cited his work on the bailout, when politicians came together to ward off another Great Depression, as an example of the bipartisan cooperation he hoped to achieve in California. He also noted that every bailout dollar was paid back, with taxpayers ultimately making 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," 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."
Opponents on the left and the right immediately attacked him for his work on the bailout, formally called the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.
Donnelly campaign manager Jennifer Kerns said TARP helped Kashkari's banker "cronies" as ordinary Americans were having their homes foreclosed.
"We'll be educating voters about the impact that Mr. Kashkari's policies have had on Californians," she said in a written statement. "There isn't a 'tarp' big enough to hide his record."
Democrats highlighted Brown's record, seizing on a report Tuesday that Kashkari has not always voted and comparing him to other wealthy business figures, such as unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who ran for high posts without ever having held elective office.
"Gov. Brown has fundamentally and profoundly restored California's fiscal health. He took the wheel and kept us from careening off the fiscal cliff, which is why we're once again creating jobs and improving schools," said Dan Newman, Brown's political spokesman.
Kashkari "says he's running to balance the budget, create jobs and fix schools," Newman continued. "But if Kashkari truly cared about those issues, then he would have bothered to vote in elections for president, governor and local schools. Then again, maybe this is yet another of California's self-funded, self-indulgent, ego-fueled vanity campaigns."
The Kashkari campaign acknowledged Tuesday that the candidate has not voted in every election. He has been registered since he was 18, they said, and voted in nearly every presidential and gubernatorial general election since then. And they reiterated that he has worked in government under two presidents.
Kashkari has previously said he lacks the resources to fund his own campaign.
In coming days, Kashkari will be tested as he ventures onto the public stage as a candidate, hoping to take down a man who has been in the public eye nearly all of his life as the son of a legendary California governor and as a man who has held elected office for a total of 29 years.
Kashkari's status as a political newcomer was on display Tuesday. After he finished his speech, he paused to capture the moment on his smartphone before leaving the stage.
"I'm going to take a picture of all of you," he said. "Say cheese!"