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GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari hands out free gas cards

Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari smashes a plastic toy train at a Mobil gas station in Burbank, saying he was sending a message to Gov. Jerry Brown to "stop the crazy train."
Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari smashes a plastic toy train at a Mobil gas station in Burbank, saying he was sending a message to Gov. Jerry Brown to “stop the crazy train.”
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Wearing safety goggles and wielding a white mallet aimed at a wind-up toy train, GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari on Wednesday made his latest attempt to move the needle in a contest stacked highly in favor of his Democratic rival, Gov. Jerry Brown.

“We’re here to send a message to Jerry Brown,” Kashkari said, before smashing the tiny locomotive in front of a few dozen onlookers at a Burbank Mobil station. “Jerry Brown, don’t raise our gas prices to fund [the] crazy train. Let’s stop the crazy train.”

His campaign staff handed out $25 gas cards to the first 100 people who eventually showed up.

Campaign lawyers noted that the free gas cards went beyond the hot dogs and sodas typically given out at political rallies and questioned their appropriateness. California’s election code prohibits the giving of gifts to garner votes for or against a candidate.

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“I think this could be characterized as an inducement to vote,” said Jim Sutton, an attorney in San Francisco who has worked on electoral issues for both parties. But “is the D.A. going to bother for $2,500 given out by this B-level candidate who’s trying to garner some press attention?”

Brown’s campaign called the event questionable — and dismissed it.

“Pathetic, and at least a little bit gross, if not outright crooked,” said Dan Newman, Brown’s political spokesman. “Maybe it’s technically legal … but it sure smells bad.”

Kashkari said the event had been OK’d by his campaign’s attorneys.

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The former Wall Street bailout chief was aiming his ire at issues that were favored by California voters: a bullet train to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco and a cap-and-trade plan for commercial polluters to battle climate change.

Voters have since soured on the soaring cost of the high-speed rail network. And some state lawmakers have sought to delay the Jan. 1 start of a new phase of the climate-change law that includes motor vehicle fuels in the system for buying and selling rights to emit pollutants. Many expect that to prompt an increase in gas costs.

More broadly, the Republican candidate for governor was seeking to jolt the sleepy gubernatorial race in which he is struggling for support even among fellow Republicans. Recent polls, including one released Tuesday evening, show Brown leading Kashkari by 20 or more points.

And last weekend at a state party convention, two GOP candidates for statewide office declined to endorse Kashkari, the neophyte candidate at the top of their ticket.

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In car-crazy Southern California, stunts like Wednesday’s can resonate.

Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped a wrecking ball on an Oldsmobile in front of thousands of cheering spectators to protest Democratic Gov. Gray Davis’ increase in annual car fees during the historic 2003 recall campaign that ultimately swept the move star into office.

But Kashkari’s event paled by comparison. It took more than an hour for 100 people to drop by and collect the free gas cards.

Many attendees were supporters. Kevin Estrada, 47, was one who focused on the $68-billion rail plan.

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“It’s a really smart issue to have on your plate,” said the Burbank resident, a Republican who said he would probably vote for Kashkari in November. “There’s so much opposition, and the money — there are so many better uses for the money.”

Others had no idea who the candidate was and simply wanted the gas card.

Burbank resident Nancy Chavez, 23, said she saw the spectacle while out walking with her daughters, ages 5 and 1 month.

“I don’t know anything about it. I’m just here for the gas card,” said the nursing assistant, who is not a registered voter. “One day when you don’t have anything, it could help out a lot.”

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seema.mehta@latimes.com
Twitter: @LATSeema


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