Neel Kashkari first came to prominence as the face of one of the most hated programs in modern American history: the 2008 bailout of Wall Street. Now he's asking people to vote for him.
The former Treasury official is running for California governor against popular Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown. The 40-year-old's upstart bid (he must also top a tea-party Republican opponent in the June primary) has many wondering why a promising young politician would take on such a steep climb in his first-ever campaign. National Journal caught up with Kashkari at a coffee shop in downtown San Francisco. Edited excerpts follow.
In the entire country, you might be the only politician running on the bank bailout.
The truth is, this is one of the only examples in recent history where Republicans and Democrats worked together. They all took huge career risks. It was obviously a deeply unpopular thing we had to do. But our leaders showed real courage. Isn't that what we all want our leaders to do?
How do you deal with the fact that an average person doesn't think of it that way? An average person thinks Wall Street got gobs of cash, their cash.
If I had 10 seconds to say, "We hated that we had to do it; we wanted to let all the banks fail but we had to prevent the Great Depression and we made a profit," most people say, "Wow, that's amazing — I didn't know that."
Do most people believe you?
A lot of books have been written about the financial crisis. What's the best one?
I'm biased; [Hank] Paulson's book is the definitive ticktock of what we did and why.
Outside of people you worked for.
I think [Andrew Ross] Sorkin's book [Too Big Too Fail] is the most entertaining read. [Dave] Wessel's book [In Fed We Trust] gives the Fed perspective.
Have you read the Michael Lewis book?
I'm a Michael Lewis fan, but he cherry-picked four guys who happened to have been right in hindsight. It would have been really impressive if he picked those four guys in advance.
Who were among the sharpest lawmakers you dealt with at the time, and who were among the worst?
I'm going to answer half of that question.
Some of them might be gone.
They can still read. The sharpest people were guys like Bob Corker and Judd Gregg and Barney Frank. A lot of Republicans really criticized Frank's housing policies as contributors to the run-up to the crisis. Perhaps so. But I'll tell you something: When we're in the middle of the crisis, he was a constructive force for good.
Most people were introduced to you during your hours of testimony before Congress. What was that like?
I testified before Dennis Kucinich twice, and on both times he got himself and me on NBC Nightly News, where Brian Williams said, "Look at what happened to Neel Kashkari today," and there's Dennis Kucinich screaming at me. [But] in the hallway, he's like, "You're doing a great job. Keep doing what you're doing. I know how hard this is." It was pure theater.
Brown is considered a heavy favorite. How much of your candidacy is part of not just building a race for this year but a rebranding of the Republican Party?
That is part of it. I think the contrast between me and Jerry Brown turns stereotypes on their heads. Now the Republican is the young one, the Republican is the minority, the Republican came from a modest upbringing, not the son of a governor. I'm not the son of a multimillionaire. And now I'm fighting for the middle class. These are not the typical stereotypes of Republican versus Democrat.
As potentially the first Hindu governor in the United States, do you view your candidacy as a glass-ceiling breaker?
It doesn't come up very often. I suppose so. I think a bigger glass-ceiling breaker will be young social libertarian, minority — as a Republican. I think that is a bigger, that's most unusual, more noteworthy than the fact that I'm a Hindu.
Is this the only office you'd like to hold?
I mean, honestly, haven't thought about — I don't think I would enjoy being a senator. This is not about me getting on television and giving speeches. This is about getting big things done. I view myself as the guy you send in when the shit's hitting the fan, to do the stuff nobody wants to do but we know needs to get done.