Judging Neel Kashkari's Week of "Homelessness": 5 Reactions

Neel Kashkari on the campaign trail
Neel Kashkari on the campaign trail
Kashkari for Governor

Running for office can be grueling, but it's usually not this bad. Neel Kashkari, the Republican contender to unseat Gov. Jerry Brown, spent a week living on the streets of Fresno to underscore his jobs message.

Voluntary hardship is becoming a Kashkari trademark. Whether he's taking a beating on Capitol Hill, facing a roomful of screaming Tea Partiers, or running a long-shot campaign against a popular incumbent, Kashkari has always been willing — even eager — to suffer for the cause. This is the most extreme example yet.

Here are five reactions:

Judging Neel Kashkari's Week of "Homelessness": 5 Reactions

5. This is a good political stunt.
The Kashkari campaign reported just $198,000 in the bank on Thursday, with $164,000 in debt. That would have been the story of the day if Kashkari had not released video of himself begging for work and sleeping on the sidewalk.

In effect, Kashkari pretended to be broke in order to distract from the news that his campaign actually is broke. In the process, he also generated tons of free media attention, which is what you need when your campaign is broke.


4. Paul Ryan wants his shtick back.
Suddenly it's popular for Republicans to talk about poverty. For more than a year, Rep. Paul Ryan has been on a nationwide poverty tour, attempting to shake the party's reputation for indifference to poor people.

The difference is that Ryan emerged with some interesting ideas on shoring up the safety net. Kashkari, meanwhile, returned from a Fresno homeless shelter with the same talking points he went in with.

"The solution is simple. It's jobs," Kashkari concludes. "It's not more welfare. It's not more food stamps. It's jobs."

Judging Neel Kashkari's Week of "Homelessness": 5 Reactions

3. Kashkari's solutions sound pretty familiar
Republicans are in trouble in California. Kashkari has pledged to rebuild the party by taking it in a new direction. But on poverty issues, his prescription is the standard Republican agenda: less regulation and less taxation.

Kashkari chose Fresno because 25 percent of the city's residents live below the poverty line. But Fresno's unemployment rate is 10 percent. So the issue isn't just "jobs." It's jobs that pay a living wage.

And Kashkari is against raising the minimum wage. He told an audience in Whittier in May that raising the minimum wage is "good for those workers who get to keep their jobs, but it’s devastating for those workers who are out of a job as a result of that."

Kashkari does talk about things like income inequality. But he does so in the context of education reform. In an interview with the Weekly in May, he argued that Democrats have hurt poor people by supporting teachers' unions and opposing reform efforts.

"To me, the root cause of income inequality really is a failure at the K-12 level," he said.

He also argued that increasing school funding, as Brown did with Prop. 30, is "like pouring money into a leaking bucket."

Right or wrong, that position is not going to ruffle any feathers in the Republican Party.

Turn the page for more reactions to Kashkari's stunt, including one Republican he's almost certainly pissed off.

The view from Neel Kashkari's window
The view from Neel Kashkari's window

2. Kashkari risks drawing attention to his wealth
It's well and good to focus attention to the difficulties faced by poor people. But things get dicey when Kashkari complains about how much he personally suffered during his week on the streets.

"This has been one of the hardest weeks of my life," he says at the outset of the video.

Hold on there. No matter how difficult Kashkari's week may have been, when it was over he got to go back to his multimillion-dollar house in Laguna Beach (pictured above). It's hard to compare that to to the experience of actual homeless people.

A few years ago, author George Saunders spent a week in a homeless encampment in — coincidentally — Fresno, and wrote about it for GQ. While he also did a fair amount of complaining, the focus of the piece was on the hardships of the people he met.

They suffered with feeling inadequate and left behind. They spent considerable time and energy telling and retelling the story of their lives, as if looking for the place where things had gone astray. They were lonely and seemed to long for the better things in life: ease, property, companionship

Worth a read.

Judging Neel Kashkari's Week of "Homelessness": 5 Reactions

1. Ashley Swearengin must be pissed
Ashley Swearengin is running for state controller. She is widely regarded as the Republican with the best chance of winning statewide office in November. She's also the mayor of Fresno, and she speaks about her tenure there in terms of renewal and reform.

How does she feel about the candidate for governor from her party portraying her city as a dystopian wasteland? According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Kashkari did not inform Swearengin ahead of time of his plans to camp out in Fresno.

Homelessness is a tough issue anywhere, and it's been really tough in Fresno. Last year, the city cleared a homeless encampment. Many complained that it did not do enough to relocate the people who were displaced.

Kashkari's stunt gave Democrats a chance to attack Swearengin on that issue.

"The mayor has all but declared war on the homeless in our community, evacuating encampments, destroying the property of the homeless, using police to harass the homeless community and keep them on the move during daylight hours — all while failing to bring new well-paying jobs to the area," the chair of the Fresno County Democratic Party said in a statement.

Kashkari even lent some credence to one of those allegations.

"Night after night," Kashkari wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "I was woken up and told to move along by security guards or the police."

Whose cops are those? Ashley Swearengin's.

Asked about Swearengin's handling of the homeless issue, Kashkari spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner turned the focus back to the governor.

"He hasn’t closely examined the Mayor’s record but understands that she is addressing jobs and homelessness through programs like Fresno First Steps Home and the Business Friendly Fresno initiative," Kinner said in an email. "She’s doing great work but is severely constrained by the bad economic policies coming out of Sacramento."

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