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Why the '$700 billion man' thinks he's a candidate with a difference

January 22, 2014 15:09 IST

Why the '$700 billion man' thinks he's a candidate with a difference

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Aziz Haniffa

'I feel blessed. My parents came to America 50 years ago from India. My family wasn't wealthy, but I had a huge advantage because my parents were highly educated and they made sure that my sister and I got a good education.'

'Because I got a good education, all of the opportunities in America have been opened to me and that's what makes America great.'

On Tuesday, January 21, Neel Kashkari, the son of Kashmiri Pandit immigrants, declared his candidature for California's governor.

If the young Republican unseats incumbent Governor Jerry Brown, he will be California's first Republican governor since Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In an exclusive interview with Rediff.com's Aziz Haniffa, Kashkari, who played a key role in reviving the US economy after the crisis of 2008, reveals what pushed him to consider a career in politics.

He may have formally declared his intent to run for the governor of California only on Tuesday, January 21, but Neel Kashkari, 40 -- once dubbed the '$700 billion man' for administering the United States Treasury's bailout of the nation's leading banks under the Troubled Asset Relief Programme -- for all intents and purposes, has been in campaign mode for nearly a year.

He has been crisscrossing the state and travelling across the country, meeting with potential donors, financiers and the hierarchy of the Republican party establishment, receiving their blessings and pledges of support.

Kashkari is already talking like a winner who has prevailed in the Republican primary and is rearing to go toe-to-toe with the Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown, 76.

Kashkari has already met with the likes of former President George W Bush, in whose administration he served as an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, his former boss and mentor Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and other Republican heavyweights, who have all promised to back him to the hilt.

He has met more than 700 potential donors in California and across the country, including Indian-American Silicon Valley heavyweights. Sources have said he already has pledges to the tune of $10 million.

He could use this to drown out the message of his Republican challengers with their anemic resources and have plenty left over to take on Brown, who also has a campaign chest of $10 million left over from 2010 when he thrashed Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO, in a landslide despite her $144 million campaign.

It is not just the fat cats Kashkari has been cultivating. His grass-roots activism has extended to spending nights at homeless shelters, picking strawberries in fields, working in the docks, volunteering at food banks, marching with over 80,000 Sikhs at the Yuba City parade, interacting with students in indigent and minority neighborhoods and, according to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, even worshipping at a Pentecostal church in South Los Angeles.

The former Wall Street banker, who cut his teeth at Goldman Sachs, has also been scrupulously using social media to get his message out.

And, as any serious candidate would do, he has deployed some of the leading hired guns in the political business from both former Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign and also operatives from former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's team.

An Indian-American heavyweight in Silicon Valley, who recently brought together some leading Indian-American Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to listen to Kashkari and pledge their support, told Rediff.com that although defeating Brown would certainly be an uphill -- if nigh impossible -- task, "Even if he loses, he will get major name ID and recognition, and if the Republicans take the White House in 2016, you bet he will be up for a senior administration post, maybe even a cabinet job, perhaps treasury secretary. It could also be a launching pad for a future, more viable run in 2018 for the governorship, and who knows, even a run for the US Senate."

Kindly click NEXT to read Aziz Haniffa's exclusive interview with Neel Kashkari...


Image: Neel Kashkari at the India Abroad Person of the Year 2013 event in New York City.
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

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Why the '$700 billion man' thinks he's a candidate with a difference

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Aziz Haniffa

When the rumour started circulating that you were contemplating a run for California governor people were surprised, I guess because they didn't comprehend you as a political animal. What made you seriously explore running for public office, particularly this office?

I feel blessed.

My parents came to America 50 years ago from India. My family wasn't wealthy, but I had a huge advantage because my parents were highly educated and they made sure that my sister and I got a good education.

Because I got a good education, all of the opportunities in America have been opened to me and that's what makes America great.

But if you look in California, Californians are struggling -- our schools are ranked 46th in America, almost one in five Californians, either have no job or are stuck in a part-time job.

If you put these two things together, California has the highest poverty rate in percentage terms in America.

I looked at this and said we need to make major changes in our state so that millions of people are not being left behind.

I looked around the state and said, 'Where are the candidates who are really going to push to make these major changes?' I didn't see any.

Frankly, I said if no one else is going to go fight to turn the state around, so that everybody can get a fair chance, I feel like I have to go do it. That's really why I am looking at this.

How do you go from Wall Street to Main Street? How do you counter criticism -- sure to come -- that you are a carpetbagger who has come to California and now wants to run for governor?

I first moved to California in 1998 when I was an aerospace engineer developing technology for NASA. So, California has been my home for the last 15 years.

Granted I went to Washington for three years, but I was still a California voter during those times; so California is my home.

My background is that of a normal kid growing up in an immigrant family in America. My family was not wealthy.

My father was a professor of engineering in the University of Akron (Ohio). He dedicated his life and research to try to eradicate poverty in villages in India and in Africa.

I remember (while) growing up that was always present in my household; he was always talking about his work around the world.

When I was in high school, he got an award from President George Herbert Walker Bush -- the Presidential End Hunger Award. I got to go with him and my family to the White House to see him receive this award.

So, for me, being the son of immigrants from India, running on a platform about fixing schools and empowering those who have been left behind, that's fundamentally different from what Republicans have done and quite frankly, what Democrats have done.

I think it's necessary that someone brings bold economic ideas to reach those who have fallen behind.

When people look at the substance of what I am doing and where I am spending my time, they are going to see why I am different.

How do you counter what some people may perceive as the TARP guy -- that probably is how many still know you as -- jumping into the political fray and running for governor right off the bat? Surely, this is something your critics would hammer you with.

I would argue that I am one of the only people who worked for both President Bush and President Obama, and that we got Republicans and Democrats to work together to tackle the worst economic crisis in 80 years.

We got both party leaders to put the country ahead of their own political interests and under my watch we deployed a little over $400 billion (Rs 24,87,600 crore).

What most people don't realise is that we got every penny of that back and we even made an almost $50 billion (Rs 310,950 crore) profit for the taxpayer off the banks.

So, tackling this terrible economic crisis in a completely bipartisan manner and protecting the taxpayer, I believe people will realise that that experience is good training to tackle the major issues in California.

Kindly click NEXT to read Aziz Haniffa's exclusive interview with Neel Kashkari...


Image: Neel Kashkari, left, volunteers at a soup kitchen in California.


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Why the '$700 billion man' thinks he's a candidate with a difference

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Aziz Haniffa

Is the Republican Party solidly behind you? You recently attended the California Republican convention and pumped hands, networked and interacted.

But are the kingmakers like Karl Rove in touch with you? More importantly do they see you as a viable candidate?

I am talking to several Republican leaders throughout the state and throughout the country.

President George W Bush was one of the first people I solicited, and got his advice.

Mitch Daniels has been very helpful. Also, Jeb Bush has been very helpful in educational reform, and Condi Rice (former US Secretary of State Dr Condoleezza Rice) out here in California.

I've been meeting with Republican leaders and they are all excited about the ideas and the focus on the issues.

If you think about the millions of people who are being left behind, the Democratic Party has not done much, when you think about it. They talk big words and they've talked about big social programmes.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party has ignored -- largely ignored -- people falling behind.

My message of bringing economic opportunity through good education and a job and a chance to work hard, I believe, is something that is going to excite Republicans, not just around California, but around the country and be able to broaden our tent so that many more people are joining us.

All the feedback that I have got so far from Republicans around the state and around the country, have been very, very positive.

President Bush, Jeb Bush and I am sure Hank Paulson, your former mentor and boss, are supportive of you. Have you gotten their blessings -- have they in a sense said their endorsement of you is a no-brainer if you run?

I haven't gotten to the stage of asking for formal endorsements, but they have made themselves exceptionally available to me, calling people on my behalf, making introductions, and most importantly, sharing their policy solutions.

If you look at what Jeb Bush has done in Florida... The great news is that we know how to fix these problems.

There are some things in the world we don't know how to solve; we don't know a cure for cancer, even though we are spending billions of dollars looking for it.

But we know how to fix schools -- Jeb Bush has done it in Florida.

We know how to grow the economy and create jobs; Jeb Bush has done it, Mitch Daniels has done it.

These experienced governors are giving me their best ideas from around the country to California.

Are your twin goals and your key campaign themes going to be poverty alleviation and education?

Absolutely. It is all about education and jobs. To me, it is education and jobs that is going to be the only way to break the cycle of poverty.

People ask me 'Is this trickle-down economics?' and I say, 'No, it is the opposite of trickle-down economics.'

If we fix our state so that those people who have the most disadvantages can still get a good education and still get a decent job and a chance to work hard, then we know that everyone in the state will succeed.

So, we start at the bottom and we help lift everyone up.

I believe besides President Bush, Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Condi Rice and the Republican leadership, you also recently met some leading community leaders and Silicon Valley heavyweights? How was the response?

So far, the response has been wonderful.

You know as I do, that the Indian community has a long history of focusing on education and on reaching those who are falling behind.

I believe it is not only my upbringing -- watching my parents -- but it is also my Indian heritage that I am able to express with this platform.

Indians of all stripes -- Democrats, Republicans, Independents -- have said to me that if your platform is educating and empowering people, we are excited by that and we don't care what party you are from. So, the feedback has been great.

Kindly click NEXT to read Aziz Haniffa's exclusive interview with Neel Kashkari...


Image: Neel Kashkari connects with the grassroots this year. Among other things he haspicked strawberries in the fields


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Aziz Haniffa

Granted Indian Americans are all for education and empowerment, but this is the mantra of every one who runs for political office.

Why should Indian Americans and the broader South Asian American community support you, besides the fact that you have a common heritage with them?

Because our community -- Indians in America or South Asians in America -- have benefited so much from America.

A few weeks ago, I went to this Yuba City parade, which was the Punjabi parade, where there were over 80,000 Punjabis.

It was an amazing thing to see. Only in America are South Asians so welcome, where they can preserve their culture and their heritage and yet be welcomed to our communities and they get a chance to get a good education and work hard.

So I feel that most South Asians agree, most Indians agree, that we have a duty to give back to America, and we have a duty to help everybody in America enjoy the same privileges and opportunities that we've had.

If I run for office, do I want the Indian community and the South Asian community to support me because I am of a South Asian heritage? Absolutely.

But I really want them to support me because helping those folks who've been left behind is the right thing to do and it benefits everyone.

Every single person that we move from welfare to work, we get a two for one benefit in our budget because the negative -- needing state support -- becomes a positive.

I believe my message is going to resonate across race, it will resonate across party lines and across the socio-economic spectrum.

With your track record with TARP and bailing out the banks, you are not exactly going to be a Tea Party favourite. How do you intend to co-opt the conservative base in the GOP to support you?

I am excited by the Tea Party because it represents people who are passionate about getting involved in government and being active participants in the political process.

I believe that's good and we need more Americans to be actively involved in government of all stripes, number one.

Number two, the ideas that I am developing -- education reform and a strong economy and economic growth and empowerment -- these are ideas that Republicans of all stripes are rallying behind.

So, I am meeting with a lot of conservative activists and I say to them, I want to fix the schools, I want to grow the economy, I want to create jobs, and I don't think government spending is the solution.

I believe it is getting people skills and letting them work hard. The Tea Party people love that and say that it’s a great solution.

I feel the two issues that I am focused on -- narrowly focused on -- jobs and education will resonate with virtually all Republicans as well as Independents and even moderate Democrats.

But let us face it: Most of your support thus far has been from the moderate, progressive, Republicans, who are sort of an endangered species now.

How do you bring the conservative base with you when they point out that you have got the likes of Jeb Bush and everyone else who belongs to this middle-of-the-road, non-confrontational Republicans, who don't want to go head-to-head with the Democrats on these issues, including social issues?

California is different from the rest of the country. So you are right, the politics of, for example, Jeb Bush, if he were to run for President, would have to face a very different landscape than what California looks like.

Right now in California, the Republican Party has been under a lot of stress, a lot of challenges, and the Democrats have a super majority in both the legislative bodies -- they have every state-wide office.

So, what I have found is that a lot of Republicans are saying, 'Listen, we need to focus on those issues that we have in common that unite us and take that message forward because we need to be relevant again.'

A lot of Republicans have said to me, you know what, this may not have been the optimal platform four years ago or eight years ago, but the ideas that you are pushing forward today make a lot of sense today and we can get behind that.

You have still got a primary challenge where the Tea Party has got its own favourite and there are also a couple of others in the fray.

How do you intend to overcome this primary challenge because that is where the nitty-gritty is going to be played up in terms of progressives, conservatives, middle-of-the roaders, etc, and compounding all this would be that you will be portrayed as the Wall Street and TARP guy who bailed out the banks?

Sure, but two things. One is, and you probably know this, the law has now changed and it is an open primary where everyone can be on the ballot together and everyone votes together.

There is no longer separate Republican and Democratic primary. So, that may change the dynamic for more crossover votes.

Number two -- and you can dig up this data -- Tim Donnelly is one of the candidates who is running and he is the Tea Party favourite, and in nine months of active campaigning, he has raised -- I may get the number wrong -- about $100,000.

Abel Maldanado, the other candidate, in six to nine months of active campaigning, has raised about $300,000 or $400,000.

So, unless either of them is able to raise the resources to get their name out there, it is really going to come down to fundraising.

If I can out-fundraise them, then we will be in a very strong position to get our message out and reach conservatives as well as moderates throughout the state.

So far, in the last 11 months, I have met with almost 700 donors around California and around the country and I feel, from the feedback I am getting, that if I run, we'll be able to raise the financial resources that we need to be competitive, not just in the primary, but in the general.

Kindly click NEXT to read Aziz Haniffa's exclusive interview with Neel Kashkari...


Image: Neel Kashkari marched with over 80,000 Sikhs at the Yuba City parade in California.


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Aziz Haniffa

It seems your strategy -- going by your confidence that you've already got a critical mass of financiers, donors, who've pledged their support -- is to completely out-flank and overwhelm these guys in terms of fund-raising and drown out their message with yours?

I don't know about completely out-flanking them, but the feedback that I've been getting is that we'll be able to raise enough money to be very competitive, both in the primary -- and if we can get through the primary then in the general.

All the donors I have been meeting with have been very encouraging. All the grass-roots communities I've gone into have been wonderful, and talking to the best policy minds in the country has convinced me that we know how to fix these problems and can bring big solutions so that every kid in California can get a good education and people have a chance to get a decent job and work hard.

Those are the three things that I continue to work at and so far, I am feeling very optimistic.

Would you be pumping in any of your own money too?

No. It is funny people think that because I worked on Wall Street, I am this billionaire. I am very comfortable, but I don't have enough money to finance this campaign.

I will have to go and raise the money from donors across the country who care about these issues and want to turn California around.

How do you live down the fact that you voted for Obama? Won't that be another chink in your armour?

With the truth, which is, the only time in my life I voted for a Democrat for President was in 2008.

The first time I voted was for George Herbert Walker Bush in 1992 when he was running for re-election against Bill Clinton.

The reason I voted for Obama was because my job at Treasury was to stave off the great depression and prevent an economic collapse and at Treasury we had a lot of exposure to both campaigns and we were keeping both the McCain campaign and the Obama campaign abreast of what we were doing because we wanted their support -- we didn't want them to be attacking us when we were negotiating with Congress.

While honestly, I deeply admire and respect John McCain, I couldn't believe the difference in the quality of economic advice that Barack Obama was getting from what John McCain was receiving from his team.

So, I felt that Barack Obama was better equipped to handle the acute economic crisis in 2008. That is why I voted for Obama.

Now, I think that was true. He continued all of President Bush's programmes that we started under the TARP and he asked me to stay and we continued to complete the programmes. We stabilised the economy, we got the money back.

Now, I don't agree with President Obama on his broader economic agenda that is very disappointing.

I also believed Obama when he said he was going to bring both parties together. I believed him and he didn't do that.

I watched him become, in my opinion, a partisan warrior where he has battled the politics much more than healing the country and that is why I supported Mitt Romney in 2012.

How will the changing demographics in California affect your campaign?

I am spending a huge amount of my time in poor communities across California -- in Latino communities, in African American communities, in Asian communities, literally sleeping in homeless shelters, picking strawberries in the fields, going to schools in the poorest neighbourhoods.

What has been amazing is when I go into these communities, people couldn't care less that I am Republican.

They are so shocked that someone is there who genuinely wants to learn what their life is like.

Mitt Romney had these unfortunate words about 47 per cent when he ran for President. The campaign I would run would turn that upside down where here is a young Republican son of immigrants who looks different, whose entire campaign is focused on getting to know, reaching out to those communities that are left behind and empowering them with good education and a good job.

Reaching the changing demographics of California is going to be the core of the campaign I would run.

Kindly click NEXT to read Aziz Haniffa's exclusive interview with Neel Kashkari...


Image: It is funny people think that because I worked on Wall Street, I am this billionaire. I am very comfortable, but I don't have enough money to finance this campaign, says Neel Kashkari.


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Aziz Haniffa

What is your take on the Senate immigration bill by the bipartisan Gang of Eight?

It is a reasonable start. To me, this needs to be solved at the national level. Each state going its own way doesn't make any sense. But I have four different principles that govern how I think about immigration.

Number one, the status quo is a disaster and while we should aim for perfection, let us not expect perfection -- let us make it better.

Number two, we have 12 or 13 million who are here illegally today. We are never going to deport them. So, we should not talk about deporting them.

I want 12 or 13 million more taxpayers in America -- that means they need some form of legal status so they can file their taxes.

Number three, immigration is a huge competitive edge for America -- the fact is that people want to come here.

We should reform our immigration laws to put priority on the skills that we need in our economy.

Silicon Valley says they need more engineers and yet farmers in California say they need more workers. We should reform our policies to encourage those needs.

And, finally, we need to enforce the law. There is no point having any policies, no matter how thoughtful if it goes unenforced.

So, we need to enforce the law at the border and in the cities and in the businesses.

These are my basic principles and I believe the Senate bill is a reasonable starting place.

There are a lot of details to be worked out, but it needs to be dealt with nationally for the entire country, and we need to recognise the huge contribution immigrants make to America.

Do you feel that there should be one comprehensive immigration bill or are you of the opinion that there could be a couple of separate bills where for instance PhD, masters candidate among foreign students, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects, should have Green Cards stamped to their graduate degrees as some Republican lawmakers in the US Senate and House have argued?

I'd love giving masters and PhD students in the STEM green cards. The idea that we are educating people here at Stanford and MIT and then sending them home is crazy.

Whether Congress wants to do this in a package or a few packages, I'd defer to them, but that's a great idea that we absolutely need to be advocating for.

Will you endeavour to get the likes of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to endorse you? Have you sent out feelers to them?

I will continue to reach out to governors across the country, including Governor Jindal, including Governor Haley, and solicit not only their support, but also importantly, their advice. Both matter. So, yes, absolutely.

How did your parents and your sibling feel about you exploring a career in politics?

They are excited. They didn't know what to think. When I gave up my job at Goldman Sachs to go to Treasury, honestly people thought I was crazy...

But in 2006, when I decided to do it, to me, it was a once in a lifetime chance to serve our country and give something back and learn how government works.

So my parents are used to me pursuing my passions wherever they lead me.

If you do run and win the Republican primary, Governor Jerry Brown, who is likely to seek re-election has got a tremendous infrastructure -- a massive war-chest, support of trade unions, and the Democratic establishment party machinery.

How are you going to fight a battle with a guy who, many say, would overwhelm you and drown you, with early polls indicating that none of the Republican challengers would pose a challenge to him?

That would certainly be what he tries to do. But here's the thing. Twenty-three percent Californians live in poverty today.

I like and respect Governor Brown and I think he is competent and presiding over the status quo.

But the status quo is horrible for millions of Californians.

What I would want to do is make this campaign about the millions of Californians that have fallen behind -- that don't have a job today -- so that when he attacks me, I will say, you talk to them, you tell them that they really have a good shot, when they know they don't.

They will be who I will be fighting for.


Image: Neel Kashkari, then acting US Assistant Secretary of Treasury for Financial Stabilization, testifies on Capitol Hill on TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Programme, in 2009. The post earned him the moniker '$700 billion man'.


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