Running on the Bailout

Neel Kashkari is banking on his Treasury experience to help him unseat California Gov. Jerry Brown.

California Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari pauses during a Bloomberg West Television interview in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. Kashkari, former head of the U.S. Treasury's bank bailout program, discussed his decision to run for governor in California and his strategy to stimulate manufacturing and employment in the state.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
March 27, 2014, 5 p.m.

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?

Yes, ab­so­lutely.

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.

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