SACRAMENTO -- Pledging to create jobs and fix the state's public schools, former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari on Tuesday said he will run for California governor.
During a speech at Cal State Sacramento, the 40-year-old Republican called the state's high poverty rate an unacceptable "status quo" that Gov. Jerry Brown has allowed to fester by failing to jump-start the economy.
But unseating Brown, a popular Democratic incumbent who is widely expected to run for re-election, will be an uphill battle for Kashkari, a political novice whose voting record and work experience on Wall Street are already under fire.
"California is like a rocket ship with multiple engines running at half throttle," Kashkari said. "We need to be competitive; we need to be in the hunt. We're not, but we can be."
Kashkari, an Indo-American who lives in Laguna Beach in Orange County, previously worked for Goldman Sachs and ran a controversial Treasury Department program that bailed out the nation's largest banks. He called that experience an example of the bipartisan compromises he hopes to strike in California.
"If we could get Republicans and Democrats to work together in Washington, D.C., then I know we can get them to work together in Sacramento," Kashkari said in a statement. "If we could break the back of the worst economic crisis our country has faced in 80 years, then I know we can break the back of the crisis that is destroying opportunity for California families and kids.
Last year, Kashkari quit his job as an investment banking executive and began traveling across the state and mulling his run for governor, meeting with potential donors, community organizations and regular Californians.
He said he formed his campaign platform -- creating jobs and fixing schools -- by spending time in a homeless shelter, meeting with Central Valley farm workers and listening to average Californians discuss their unmet needs.
"People don't want welfare; they want jobs," said Kashkari, who did not elaborate on his policy positions.
Right now, Kashkari's only GOP challenger is Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks — a tea party favorite and staunch social conservative.
The same characteristics that set Kashkari apart from traditional Republicans are the factors that will make June's primary election tough for him, said Jack Pitney, a political-science professor at Claremont McKenna College.
"Brown has his constituency — labor, Democrats, liberals — and Donnelly has his constituency — conservatives, the tea party, gun folks," Pitney said. "Kashkari is looking toward a Republican Party in California that doesn't exist yet."
But other political analysts point out that under the state's new "top two" primary system -- in which he will compete against both Brown and Donnelly -- Kashkari won't have to placate the right-wing Republican base and take positions that damage him in a general election in which a growing number of independent voters usually pick the winner.
Kashkari is fiscally conservative, but supports abortion rights and gay marriage. He owns a gun, but he's in favor of requiring background checks before all firearms sales.
In the coming weeks, Kashkari's favorability among the state's Republican and independent voters will be tested, as will his ability to raise enough money to be competitive against Brown, who has already amassed a campaign war chest of $17 million.
Kashkari is a multimillionaire, but he said he does not have enough personal wealth to self-fund a campaign like GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman did in 2010. That's why the fundraising committee he announced Tuesday is stacked with GOP heavyweights who were instrumental in financing Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.
The political team Kashkari has assembled is also full of veterans who worked on campaigns for Romney, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and U.S. Sen. John McCain.
Kashkari's voting record over the past two decades could also haunt him, just as it hurt Whitman. According to a report in Tuesday's San Francisco Chronicle, Kashkari has failed to vote in nearly half the elections in which he was eligible since 1998. Some of those contests were school board elections; others were statewide elections and primaries.
Aaron McLear, a spokesman for Kashkari, said the candidate has been open about his voting record.