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September 16, 2014

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California Republican goes homeless to show economic gap

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AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

In this Dec. 4, 2013 file photo, Neel Kashkari, right, who later won the Republican nomination for governor of California, talks with Kenneth Whitaker, 62, at Loaves and Fishes homeless shelter in Sacramento, Calif.

SACRAMENTO — The Republican candidate for California governor said Thursday he spent a week living as a homeless person in Fresno to highlight the disparity between the governor's claim that the state is making an economic comeback and the reality faced by the working poor in the nation's most populous state.

Neel Kashkari, a millionaire and former Goldman Sachs banker who is far behind Gov. Jerry Brown in pre-election polls, released a short documentary about the six nights he spent sleeping in parking lots and on park benches, and wrote about his experience in an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal.

Kashkari, 41, said he had hoped to find work and stay in low-priced motels, but he was turned away from dozens of businesses where he offered to wash dishes, sweep floors, pack boxes and cook meals after taking a bus from Los Angeles to Fresno with $40 in his pocket. He eventually turned to a homeless shelter for food.

Kashkari acknowledged that his experiment gave him "just a taste" of the struggles faced by poor people and said he could not truly understand their plight because he knew his situation was only temporary.

Still, he said he wanted to force a discussion about poverty.

"Gov. Brown is not talking about poverty," Kashkari said at a news conference outside a Sacramento food bank. "He's not talking about unemployment in our state. He's not talking about our failing schools. He's declared a California comeback."

Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury official who helped lead the federal bank bailout at the height of the recession, also criticized the media for failing to challenge the Democratic governor about endemic poverty in some parts of the state amid an economic boom in others, such as Silicon Valley.

Dan Newman, a spokesman for Brown's campaign, said he was having difficulty reconciling Kashkari's "bizarre campaign stunt" with his assistance for big banks.

"If one truly cared about the homeless and had $700 billion to spend, would he give it all to big banks and ignore families struggling to stay in their homes?" Newman wrote in an email.

California's unemployment rate fell to 7.3 percent in June, higher than the national average of 6.1 percent, but it remained at 9.8 percent in the Central Valley city of Fresno. Still struggling with fallout from the recession, the Central Valley has also been hit hard by the state's epic drought, which has fallowed fields and left many day laborers without work in the region.

In the agriculture-dependent city of Mendota 35 miles west of Fresno, unemployment is 29.8 percent. Yet a tech boom in the San Francisco Bay Area 150 miles west has fueled massive growth, pushing the median home price above $1 million for the first time last month. In San Mateo, south of San Francisco, unemployment is just 3.3 percent.

Brown has touted what he calls a California comeback, saying in his January State of the State address, "And what a comeback it is: A million new jobs since 2010, a budgetary surplus in the billions and a minimum wage rising to $10 an hour." He did not directly mention poverty.

Asked for specifics on his plan to solve poverty in California, Kashkari said he would try to create jobs through "pro-growth economic policies" such as fewer regulations, investing in an overdue water storage solution, allowing greater development of oil and natural gas resources, and bringing back manufacturing jobs.

Gabriela McNiel, a spokeswoman for the Poverello House homeless shelter in Fresno, believes a clean-cut man who recently asked about a job was Kashkari. Other people shown a photo of the candidate on Thursday didn't recognize him.

Kashkari wrote that five days into his job search, "I asked myself: What would solve my problems? Food stamps? Welfare? An increased minimum wage? No. I needed a job."

"That's an easy thing for a millionaire to say," Fresno County Democratic Party Chairman Michael D. Evans said in a written response to Kashkari. He said welfare would have given Kashkari safe, temporary housing with at least a shower and a bed.

"As for his being 'hungry,' well, food stamps would have provided some sustenance, ensuring his job search was conducted on at least a half-full stomach," Evans wrote.

Kashkari previously pegged his net worth below $5 million before he spent about $2 million of his own money on his campaign. In financial reports filed Thursday, his campaign reported spending $4.5 million to defeat a tea party assemblyman in the primary.

Kashkari is considered a longshot against the 76-year-old Brown, who has raised more than $22 million in his bid for an unprecedented fourth term after first serving from 1975 to 1983. A poll earlier this month found Kashkari trailing Brown by 19 points and the race so far has generated little public interest.

Kashkari said he walked for miles with a backpack, change of clothes and toothpaste in 100-degree heat searching for work in Fresno. He said he showered once and was awakened five of the six nights by security guards or police asking him to move on.

He said he was committed to finding a job and had to change his focus about halfway into the experiment as his money was running out.

"It was find a job, find a job, find a job. And then it switched: I've got to find food," he said.

Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the campaign, said Kashkari later donated $500 to the homeless shelter that gave him food, which the shelter confirmed.

Associated Press writer Scott Smith in Fresno contributed to this story.

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