FRESNO — The rescue mission for addicts stands squarely in the path of California's controversial bullet train, and gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari had decided to use the grim setting for an attack on the rail project dear to Gov. Jerry Brown.
The 65-year-old shelter, dedicated to rehabilitating the city's most desperate residents, could disappear if "the crazy train" comes through, Kashkari said, and it must be stopped.
"Sacramento and Gov. Brown are focused on building a train and not really putting people back to work in a real way," Kashkari said in an interview at the shelter, not far from sidewalks where the homeless slept. "I think it's an egregious example of him having the wrong priorities. It's a vanity project."
Kashkari, a Republican former investment manager and U.S. Treasury official who announced his candidacy six weeks ago, had so far focused on fundraising and introducing himself to voters. The Laguna Beach millionaire has offered few policy prescriptions, speaking only broadly of creating jobs and fixing schools.
But his glancing criticisms of the high-speed rail project have drawn notable applause from his audiences. Influential talk-radio hosts have adopted his language to characterize the train. And it is no secret that voters, who once approved $9 billion in borrowing to help finance the network, have soured on it.
So Kashkari, who ran the $700-billion federal bank bailout created in 2008, has seized on the rail issue. His new campaign swag is bumper stickers featuring not his gubernatorial ambition or political party but the slogan "No Crazy Train," derived from a 1980 Ozzy Osbourne song about the Cold War.
In a swing through the Central Valley this week, he pledged to try to block the rail project if elected, saying that if courts don't dismantle it, he would revisit it with voters. He dismissed the Democratic governor's argument for the train as an investment in California's future.
"We have more important things to do," Kashkari, 40, told a Stanislaus County farmer. "Hopefully Governor Brown will admit his error."
The three-day tour — conducted sans crowds, aimed at the campaign videographer and local news crews — was part of Kashkari's effort to build momentum in a red-leaning region that is pivotal to his effort to finish high in June's top-two primary.
If the political neophyte, making his first bid for elective office, succeeds and takes on Brown in the fall, his odds of prevailing are long: The state tilts blue, Brown is popular and the governor has an overwhelming fundraising advantage.
By the state's official estimate, building a bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles will cost $68 billion. A majority of California voters opposed going forward with the project in a USC/Times poll last fall, saying it was a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Seven in 10 said the proposal, for which voters in 2008 authorized $9 billion in borrowing, should be brought back to the ballot — a feeling that Cal State Fresno political science professor Tom Holyoke said has hardened among some residents of the Valley.
"The last thing they want is to be more closely connected to Los Angeles and San Francisco," he said.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini said state money would be better spent on an extra lane for the main freeway that bisects the region, "not something stupid like this bullet train that nobody will ever use."
"People like us, we use the local roads and the freeway," DeMartini told Kashkari as they bumped around a 1,100-acre fruit and nut farm in the town of Westley in a muddy pickup truck. "I don't go to Los Angeles."
At the sprawling farm, Kashkari asked Daniel Bays, 27, the third generation of his family to till the soil there, his opinion on the rail network. Bays, who said he has no party preference and has not decided how to vote in June, said he preferred to see improved highways, canals, reservoirs and dams.
"You kind of update and take care of what you have before you go out on something new," he said.
Kashkari's main GOP rival, state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks, also opposes the high-speed rail program. As he barnstormed the state recently, meeting with voters, Donnelly joked that he would slap "high-speed rail" stickers on the Southwest Airlines planes that crisscross the state and be done with it.
Even some onetime supporters of the train, such as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, have backed away from the project as it has become entangled in the courts and costs have spiraled. But Brown has adamantly stuck by the project, likening high-speed rail to the Golden Gate Bridge, the transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal — public works projects with great purpose that outlived their creators.
"I think California is still that generator of dreams and great initiatives," he told reporters in January.
Kashkari did not meet with those in the Valley who agree with the governor. They say the rail network represents the region's best chance to decrease unemployment and increase opportunity.
"Voters voted for high-speed rail. Unfortunately, it hit some bumps along the way," said Visalia Councilwoman Amy Shuklian.
She's a Democrat who voted for Brown in 2010. She is uncertain whether she will support him again. But she believes her city's future depends on high-speed rail.
"If it's going to happen, we need to be part of it," she said. "We don't need it to pass us by."
Rev. Larry Arce, chief executive of the Fresno Rescue Mission, wants the train to pass him by.
"They told us it's coming right through our front door," he told Kashkari in his tidy office, the nerve center for the intense 18-month rehabilitation program aiding the nearly 100 men in his charge in one building and up to 175 women and children in another one nearby.
"Our biggest problem as a rescue mission: Where do we go from here?" Arce said, noting that some of the men are sex offenders. "Who wants a rescue mission in the vicinity of their neighborhood or business?"
Then, bowing his head, the clergyman asked his Lord to help Kashkari, by providing "all the resources and help and things he needs in this campaign."
"Amen," Kashkari said.