LOS ANGELES – On a recent sunny Sunday in South Los Angeles, worshippers gathered in a wood-beam Pentecostal church to sing and offer testimonials of faith. In the middle of the African-American congregation, swaying during the hymns and dropping money into the collection basket, stood Neel Kashkari, the Republican candidate for governor.
Democratic politicians often drop by the Living Gospel Church – Rep. Maxine Waters and former Rep. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke are familiar faces. But Kashkari is the first GOP candidate to visit, said church administrator Lafayette Shelton.
The campaign appearance – like Kashkari’s weeklong experiment living as a homeless person last month and marching in a San Diego gay pride parade – reflects the unconventional campaign he hopes to mount in his improbable run against Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. It’s a strategy driven by two factors: the need to create a buzz with little money – the Laguna Beach millionaire’s campaign is practically broke – and a belief that the state GOP needs to expand beyond its small, mostly white share of California voters to survive.
“He’s running the best campaign money can’t buy,” said Claremont-McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney.
Provocative gambits are old standbys in politics.
Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Lawton Chiles of Florida each walked more than 1,000 miles in their respective states during campaigns in the 1970s. Bob Graham of Florida and Tom Harkin of Iowa held “workdays,” doing the jobs of their constituents, such as plucking chickens and shoveling horse manure. Last month, several Democratic politicians lived on $77 for a week, the average earnings after taxes and housing costs for a full-time worker making the federal minimum wage.
In sleeping on park benches, eating at a food bank and showering only once, as Kashkari says he did, the former chief of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout is trying to generate attention for a campaign that is largely being ignored.
And he is hoping such moves will help him forge an image as a new kind of Republican.
Even many members of his own party have viewed the first-time candidate as a dilettante.
Harmeet Dhillon, vice chair of the state GOP, said many Republicans supported Kashkari in the June primary out of alarm over the candidacy of controversial conservative Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks. They had little enthusiasm for Kashkari because of his 2008 vote for President Obama, his role in the bank bailout and his liberal social views, such as support for gay marriage.
Now some, including Dhillon, have changed their minds.
Kashkari’s effort to highlight poverty and unemployment was “a stance a lot of us would love to see other Republican politicians take – show some imagination and flair and take some risks and really walk the walk of the people in California who are suffering.... That is dedication, that is for real, and I am impressed,” Dhillon said.
Brown’s camp was not.
The governor’s political spokesman, Dan Newman, branded Kashkari’s week among Fresno’s homeless a cynical stunt and said the candidate’s record contradicts his words. He questioned Kashkari’s concern about the impoverished, saying the candidate saved big banks while people lost their homes.
And he dismissed the Republican’s professed commitment to gay rights, pointing out his history of supporting candidates who opposed gay marriage, including President George W. Bush and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“It’s great that he now finds it politically expedient to pretend to care about issues like poverty and civil rights,” Newman said. “But people are judged by their actions.”
Kashkari faces long odds against Brown, who boasts a $22 million war chest and a 20-point lead in opinion polls. The Republican hopes to get some traction by arguing that the “California comeback” Brown has touted is not a reality for many.
“I’m using every tactic, every creative strategy I can come up with to force us in this state to have conversations” about the millions of Californians who are still struggling, Kashkari said.
Kashkari has criticized Brown for paying too little attention to poverty and education in disadvantaged communities, topics that are not part of the traditional GOP playbook, though such issues are increasingly being raised by prominent Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.