Roams Fresno streets, discovers misery of being jobless, running out of money.
By Sujeet Rajan
NEW YORK: Neel Kashkari, the Indian American Republican gubernatorial candidate in California, has done an Emperor Akbar act – roam streets in disguise to gauge social problems that beset constituents.
In the 16th century, Emperor Akbar frequented the city of Agra in disguise, to check on the social services for common folks, check on corruption. He dealt justice based on those visits.
In modern times, in the United States, variations of that form of realistic probe has seen the former governor of New Jersey Richard Codey roam streets disguised as a homeless man; and elsewhere, Pope Francis venturing out of the Vatican, to meet with the homeless, in Rome. There have been many journalists who have gone in disguise to do slice-of-life stories, notably John Stackhouse, the former Editor-in-Chief of the Globe and Mail, who spent a week as a homeless man on the streets of Toronto.
The multi-millionaire Kashkari, 41, a former investment banker, who is best known as being the Treasury official who led the US government’s Wall Street bank bailout, is trailing far behind incumbent Governor Jerry Brown in polls for the November race, and worse, had little chance of catching up because his war chest has dried out, while Brown is reportedly sitting on some $22 million in campaign funds. Kashkari has already spent $2 million out of his pocket to win the primaries. Increasingly, the odds against Brown seemed insurmountable.
Kashkari’s bold move to be out on the streets of Fresno, from July 21 to July 27, with only $40 in his pocket, no credit cards, and a backpack with only a change of clothes and a toothbrush, in futile search of a job – any job, to sustain himself, is a stark reminder of the life many young and middle-aged Americans are forced to lead today.
In Fresno, after he reaches there on a Greyhound bus from Los Angeles, Kashkari is turned away from business after business where he looks for a job, treads miles on foot in 100 degrees heat. He starts to run out of money – $2.25 to launder his clothes seems a luxury; $1 for two bananas at a store has him look exhausted, rest helplessly on a sidewalk, the fruit by his side.
Kashkari is forced to sleep on the streets at night, on benches – interrupted by police and guards; trudge away elsewhere. With money running out, he takes succor at shelters to survive. He has only one shower during the days and nights in Fresno. Quickly, his priorities change. Survival instincts set in. He’s forced to be close to the shelter for his next meal; hopes of getting a job fades into oblivion. As it must be, for millions of people who have gone through the same ordeal.
“This has been one of the hardest weeks of my life,” an unkempt, scruffy looking Kashkari says in the video.
At the end, speaks directly to the camera, he says: “The solution is not more welfare. It’s not more food stamps. It’s jobs. And we know how to do this. These problems are of our own making. We know how to rein in regulations so our businesses can grow and thrive and hire. We know how to invest in water so that our farms have enough water and can hire workers.”
The video ends with a question: ‘California back?’ which attacks and denounces as deception the election slogan of Brown, ‘California Comeback.’
Kashkari’s compelling experience, replete with interviews with business owners and ordinary individuals who are having a hard time making a living – with one man saying that people are looking for a ‘hand up’ not a ‘hand down’ – strikes at the practice of food stamps which Kaskkari attacks in the 10-minute video, captured by two videographers who accompanied him.
The video may just be the volatile game-changer that Kashkari was looking for in the race against Brown, get a discussion going in the state with people questioning if Brown is right for them going forward.
Of course, it’s hard not to remember while watching the documentary that here is a man who knows that his ordeal is only going to be for a week, come what may, and he will then get to be back in his lavish Laguna Beach mansion, get a shave, a hot shower and chow on choice food, while hosting multimillionaire friends, who will gather around in designer clothes sipping expensive wine, listening to a tale of ‘night(s) out on the town’, literally.
But the documentary makes one thing clear to the most skeptical of viewers: Kashkari is not trying to amplify a problem, he’s pinpointed it.
The choice for the voters is, do they go along with the same way of life, or choose a candidate who promises to reverse the high jobless – ranked 44th state in terms of job prospects in the country – drought-ridden, calamity-hounded state California has turned into, with the highest poverty rate in America, at 24 percent.
In an Op-Ed in The Wall street Journal, coincided to release with the documentary, Kashkari writes of knowledge gleaned during the course of his travels: “The Fresno Community Food Bank is doing a record business these days, serving food to 220,000 residents, including 90,000 children, each month, up 340% from a few years ago, according to the food bank. Fresno is in the heart of California’s agriculture economy. With a third year of record drought, farmers don’t have enough water for their almond, cantaloupe and other crops. The rising cost of water had forced farmers to idle about 500,000 acres of land. One young woman in line at the food bank said it simply: “There’s not enough water. Crops can’t be grown. My family works in the fields and they can’t get work every day . . . sometimes just on weekends.”
He writes of his predicament: “No. I needed a job. Period. Like others, I have often said the best social program in the world is a good job. Even though my homeless trek was only for a week, with a defined endpoint, that statement became much more real for me. A job was the one thing that could have solved my food, housing and transportation problems.”
Brown, who has been warding off Kashkari’s attempts to engage him in debates ahead of the elections, would now have a tougher time ignoring his opponent.
And as for Kashkari, even if he doesn’t end up being the third Indian American governor in the US, after Republicans Bobby Jindal in Louisiana and Nikki Haley in South Carolina, one thing is for sure: he has a bright future as an actor, if he ever decides to be one. Although, after his experience with poor folks, philanthropy may be a priority too.
In the video, Kashkari looks ruggedly handsome and lead actor material; he’s extremely comfortable in front of the camera, with one profile shot staying in this writer’s mind: riding a local bus in Fresno, wrapped in a blue shawl, he looks up, with a desolate, glazed look, as if realizing the true meaning of life at last, as some mendicant would, pondering the future.
The video of Kashkari can be seen here: http://www.neelkashkari.com/poverty/
(Sujeet Rajan is the Editor-in-Chief of The American Bazaar)