LOS ANGELES — The man who oversaw the $700 billion bank bailout in 2009 is hoping to persuade California voters that the intensely unpopular policy looks better in retrospect.
Neel Kashkari, the former assistant U.S. Treasury secretary who directed the federal government's $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program for banks following the economic crisis, is running for governor of California as a moderate Republican to challenge Gov. Jerry Brown.
Kashkari's shot at the nomination comes largely because Brown is widely considered a shoo-in. Although he has not yet officially announced his candidacy, no other Democrats have stepped forward to challenge him, and his campaign has raised $17 million. Former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado dropped out of the race two weeks ago, leaving Kashkari to contend with Tim Donnelly, an assemblyman who was featured in a 2007 Colbert Report clip about building a fence on the Mexico border with the Minutemen.
"I look at California schools ranked 46, jobs ranked 46, No. 1 in poverty. Someone has to fight to turn it around and I don't see a bench," he said. "I don't see a long line of people running to Sacramento to make major changes in the state, and so I said, look, if a guy like me — 40 years old, a lot of energy, experience in public policy — if a guy like me is not willing to try and turn it around, how's the government going to get better?"
The lack of depth on the Republican bench could have something to do with Brown's popularity. A January Public Policy Institute of California poll found 60% of likely voters approve of the job the governor is doing, and according toThe Los Angeles Times, former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson is "skeptical" of Republicans' chances of unseating Brown.
But Kashkari looks to other underdogs for hope that he can unseat the longest-sitting governor in California history.
"Clearly Gov. Brown is a very powerful incumbent, but there are so many examples nationally of where very powerful incumbents lose," he said, citing George W. Bush's victory over Texas Gov. Ann Richards in 1994.
"Ann Richards was a wildly popular Democratic governor of Texas," he said. "People loved her, she was a really funny lady and everyone thought she was unbeatable. And then here was this young man named George W. Bush who had never held elected office before and said, 'I think I can beat her,' and then beat her."
"There are definitely Republicans who feel like California is lost and California is a permanent Democratic state and there's no point competing here," he said. "I don't believe that at all. Things can change quickly and if you have the right leader who has the right message and right ideas, I think you can bring a lot of people together rather quickly."
But before Kashkari takes on Brown, he needs to be among the top two vote-getters in June's open primary.
California's open-primary system, passed by voters in 2010, does away with traditional party primaries where Democrats and Republicans run against members of their own party to advance to the general election. Instead, all candidates vie for the top two slots, regardless of party.
"We're all vying for No. 2," he said.