Neel Kashkari is not yet a name most Republicans would recognize, and he holds policy positions many Republicans abhor. But the former banker who spearheaded the 2009 bank bailout may also be the Republican Party’s best hope for salvaging its brand in the nation’s most populous state.
In June, Kashkari came in second in the California governor primary with 19% of the vote. That makes him the single man standing between Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who won 54%, and what is assumed to be Brown’s impending, unprecedented fourth term. Kashkari, however, says he refuses to let Brown coast to victory again. “He thinks he’s entitled to the governorship because his daddy was governor,” Kashkari told TIME, when asked about Brown. “It’s like a coronation. So, okay, this is a democracy. I’m gonna make him answer.”
A native Ohio son of two immigrant parents, Kashkari is not a typical Republican, which may prove to be his most threatening feature in the increasingly blue Golden State. He’s a fiscal conservative, and a former Goldman Sachs financier, who supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but has also been endorsed by Mitt Romney, whom he strongly supported in 2012. The 41-year-old has never held an elected office, unless you count being elected to lead the finance club at Wharton Business School (which he, half-jokingly, says was a very stiff competition). With coffers dwarfed by Brown’s $22 million war chest, and $2 million of his own money already sunk into the race, Kashkari has been finding creative ways to win the spotlight.
In July, he spent a full week living homeless on the streets of Fresno, playing out an experiment wherein he tried his best to find work and failed, sleeping in parking garages and eating at homeless shelters. It was an attempt to point out that things could be better in California, and he made a video to prove it.
This week TIME sat down with the candidate. Here is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
The California GOP seems to be on the decline. There are fewer than ever registered Republican voters. A Republican hasn’t won a statewide office in eight years. The legislature is controlled by Democrats. Where did the party go wrong?
I can’t point to any one thing and say this is where they went wrong, or where we went wrong. I think it’s been a gradual decline. But that’s part of my mission. California is obviously a unique state, right? And probably the most diverse in the whole country. And I don’t think our party has done a good job reflecting that diversity, which is why I feel I have such a great opportunity to show the state, and show the country, that there’s a Republican party, a Republican candidate, that can reflect that diversity and reach out into the diverse communities and unite everyone.
So there’s embracing more diverse groups. Is that just one prong in a larger reinvention that needs to happen for the California GOP?
I don’t think it’s reinvention. One of the things that the Republican party has done a lousy job of nationally is explaining how our economic ideas help regular families. That’s part of why I did what I did a couple weeks ago in Fresno … We’re down to 28% registered Republicans. That data is right there. We’re not going to win another election if we just win the 28% of registered Republicans. So we have to grow our party. And what I’ve been doing for the last year and a half is reaching out into Latino communities, African-American communities, Asian communities and learning, What do you want? And you know what they want? A good education for their kids and good jobs.
Do Republicans at large need to be embracing the LGBT community more?
Absolutely. A few weeks ago, I marched in a gay pride parade, and the LGBT press said it was the first time a Republican gubernatorial candidate had done that. And my reaction was, Well, why wouldn’t I? They’re an important part of California, and I want to help them achieve their dreams. And you know what their dreams are? They want good jobs and they want good education for their kids, the same as everybody else. I’m working extra hard to reach out into every community, especially ones that have historically come to believe that Republicans don’t care about them.
Do you support same-sex marriage or believe, from a libertarian perspective, that it simply should not be banned by the government?
To me it’s the same thing. I support same-sex marriage. And I think the government shouldn’t be getting into any of our business. People should be free to live the lives that they want to lead, as long as they’re not hurting anybody else. I was asked about reparative therapy recently, which I think is absurd. The idea that you’re going to convert a gay person to a straight person. You’re as likely to convert me to being gay … People should be allowed to marry whomever they want.
There’s been a lot of controversy about the law banning reparative therapy in California. There’s also been controversy over a new law that allows K-12 transgender students to access sports teams and bathrooms that align with their gender identity. What’s your take on that?
My issue with that law is not the substance. My issue is the way it was done. There was never a discussion statewide. Parents were, frankly, not consulted. And all of a sudden this is passed, seemingly in the middle of the night. This is a real issue, and kids need to be protected from bullying … [But] we’re 46th out of 50 for education. This is the biggest issue that the governor and the legislature is focused on in education? We’ve got this Vergara case that just happened in June, finding that the civil rights of minority kids are being violated. To me, it’s a question of priorities. Let’s go fix our schools so that every kid—gay, straight, transgender—every kid gets a good education.
In the California GOP platform, unnecessary spending on social programs is derided. Are you prepared, when you’re addressing these issues of homelessness, poverty, lack of jobs, to spend money on social programs?
We’re spending a lot on social programs today. Those, in my view, are meant to be a bridge, a bridge to a job. But when you just push social programs, social programs, social programs, and there’s no destination at the end of the bridge—it’s a bridge to nowhere—you accomplish nothing. And that’s my big beef with both the policies that the Democrats and Jerry Brown have pursued and, frankly, President Obama has pursued nationally. Unemployment benefit extensions, more food stamps, more welfare. But to what? To what end?
Where does inequality rank in terms of California’s problems?
It’s an output. Income inequality and poverty are products of a failure in our policies, education policies and economic growth policies. If we get a lousy education, stuck in a failing school, we get left behind when the economy grows. And income inequality just expands. More people get left behind in failing schools. And that’s why this Vergara case is landmark. Because finally a judge has said education is a civil right, and we need to look at it through the lens of civil rights.
In a way these are issues that have been around since Proposition 187, and before. What are your thoughts about what happened then and how it relates to now?
To me, that’s old news. I always go into every community with the same message. I want your kids to get a good education. I want you to get a good job. And people say to me, Well, what about immigration? I say, Look, I’m the son of immigrants. I believe immigrants add tremendous value to our country. We’re a nation of immigrants, and we need to embrace immigration. But we also need to update our laws to provide the workers our economy needs. In Silicon Valley, they need engineers. Farmers need farm workers. Let’s prioritize those workers that we need. And then we need to enforce the law. There’s no point to having any laws that are utterly unenforced, whether it’s gun laws or immigration laws.
To drill down on one specific point, what kind of public services should undocumented immigrants have access to?
I don’t have a laundry list in my head of ‘These are what’s appropriate, and these are not.’ I don’t think that people are coming to this country or coming to this state in pursuit of such services. I think they’re coming here in pursuit of jobs. And the more we can grow the economy, the better off everyone is going to be.
It’s easy to draw a comparison with some former GOP candidates, like Meg Whitman, who came into the race with a fortune of their own. Is there a disconnect between talking about poverty so much and coming from a background that was relatively privileged?
Compare my background to Jerry Brown’s. My parents were immigrants. I grew up middle class, mowing lawns and bagging groceries. Jerry Brown grew up in the governor’s mansion. He’s worth way more money that I am. I said, Okay Governor, you want to talk about who’s rich? Let’s release your taxes. You want to do one year? I’ll do one. You want to do five, I’ll do five. You want to do 10, I’ll do 10. Do you know what he’s said since then? Nothing. So if I’m not allowed to talk about poverty, and he’s not talking about poverty by choice, who’s going to talk about it?
What do you think about the sort of anti-politician stance Brown’s been taking in recent months?
I think it’s the height of arrogance. He thinks he’s entitled to the governorship because his daddy was governor. It’s like a coronation. So, okay, this is a democracy. I’m gonna make him answer.
Have you interacted with Brown or met him?
In other interviews, you’ve acknowledged that in some ways the state is better off since he took office. Unemployment is down, though still not ideal. Exports are up. The economy is growing. How bad are things in California now compared to when he took office?
Look at how bad things are now in an absolute sense. I went to Fresno for seven days looking for a job. I did not see a single ‘Help Wanted’ sign. But virtually all the fast food restaurants now accept food stamps. It’s in the windows. If you want to just hang out in the Bay Area, you’re right, things are great. But if we travel around the rest of the state and see where most of California lives, a lot of people are struggling.
Your stint of homelessness has gotten you a lot of national media attention. What was that like on the ground?
It was literally seven days, six nights, of walking miles and miles and miles each day, going into diners, hardware stores, auto dealerships, saying, ‘Hey, I just got into town. I’m looking for work. I’ll wash cars, wash dishes, pack boxes, anything.’ And the closest I got to a job was with one woman, who runs a Mexican restaurant, who said she was looking for a cook. And I said, ‘Great, I’ll be your cook.’ And she said I needed at least a year’s worth of cooking experience for Mexican food. I didn’t know what I’d find. I didn’t know if after two days or a day, maybe I’d get a job and then I’d spend four or five days living as a working poor. Or I didn’t know if after one or two days this might be so hard, I run out of money, I run out of food, that I have to pull the plug. But after three or four days, when I was running out of money, it was other homeless people who said, ‘Oh, you can go to this homeless shelter.’ So that’s what I ended up turning to for food.
What has Jerry Brown failed to do to address homelessness and poverty that you would do?
Here’s a Democratic governor with a Democratic super-majority in the state senate and the state assembly. And he’s making incremental changes. He’s tinkering around the edges. He should be Nixon going to China. He should be the guy saying, ‘You know what, as governor, I’m going to go fight for the civil rights of poor kids. And I don’t care if my union bosses are mad at me for it.’ That’s what a bold leader would do. Is he doing it? No. He doesn’t want to upset the apple cart. The thing that angers me the most is if anybody in California has the power to make big changes, it’s Jerry Brown. He’s not lifting a finger … In the face of record poverty, schools that are near the worst, and unemployment that’s near the worst, he does what’s politically expedient for him. That’s a hell of a record.
Now that you’re a few months out of the primary and 20 points or so behind Brown, and he has a huge war chest, what do you think your chances are of winning?
I was at 2% in March. And all the press said I was done. It was over. And we won the primary with 19% on June 4. And we’re now at 33%. So we’ve come a hell of a long way in just a few months. So Jerry doesn’t want to debate. We’re having the debate now without him. Jerry’s gonna hide under his desk. Let him keep hiding.
Have you heard back about debates?
We’ve received four or five different debate requests from media outlets around the state, and we’ve accepted all of them. And he’s hiding. Look, if my legacy were 24% poverty [a number that comes from an alternative analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data], I wouldn’t want to debate either. He thinks he can just cruise, not have to talk about poverty, not have to talk about education, not have to talk about jobs, and get away with it. Because it’s the coronation of Jerry.
In a lot of ways the bailout can be considered a success. A lot of people, of course, hated it, seeing it as the regular guys bailing out the rich guys. Looking back now, is there anything that you would have done differently with the bailout or that the government should have done differently?
We hated that we had to do it. We wanted to let all the banks fail. Because they deserved to fail. So for a year, they had been calling us, saying they’re in trouble. And we said, Flush the toilet. You made a lousy investment. You own it. Nobody owes you anything. But when we faced the Great Depression scenario, that’s when ultimately we said we didn’t have a choice. We’re gonna step in. There are lots of little things I wish we could do differently with the benefit of hindsight. But in the big picture, the collective actions that we took were the right things to do.
So you’ve obviously been getting creative with your tactics of late, crashing a Jerry Brown event and living on the streets of Fresno. What else do you have up your sleeve?
I can’t tell you. [Laughs.] The issues I’ve been talking about since the first day of this campaign are poverty, lack of jobs, failing schools, income inequality, canceling the high speed train because it’s a big waste of money, and investing in water instead. Those are the issues we’re going to keep talking about because those are the most important issues facing the state. We’re going to come up with every creative way we can. … And I’m going to make Jerry Brown answer for his silence.