Neel Kashkari's 'homeless in Fresno' campaign video draws questions about location, message

On July 21, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Neel Kashkari stepped off a bus in downtown Fresno with $40 in his pocket planning to spend the next week job hunting while living on the streets.

His campaign project went public Thursday, with a professional video of his Fresno experience posted on his website and a commentary published in The Wall Street Journal.

The 10-minute YouTube video shows Kashkari sleeping on a bench in Courthouse Park and on some bricks in Civic Center Square. It shows the multi-millionaire being rousted by security officials while sleeping in a parking garage.

All the while, he walks around downtown -- past Club One Casino and the "Welcome to the Mural District" sign -- asking about work and finding none.

"I came to Fresno expecting to find a job and take care of myself," Kashkari says in the video. "It's been a week and I've found nothing. I've run out of money and had to turn to the homeless shelter for food."

The point, Kashkari said Thursday in an interview with The Bee, was to show the economic recovery touted by Gov. Jerry Brown has not reached many parts of the state. Fresno, he said, best illustrated his point. It's the kind of publicity that Fresno leaders would rather not have.

Asked if Kashkari should have chosen another city for his project, Al Smith, who runs the Greater Fresno Chamber of Commerce, said, "I wish he would have. We don't need any help from him in that department."

Like Kashkari, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin also is running for statewide office. Swearengin has been running her controller campaign against Democrat Betty Yee on a platform of turning Fresno around and leading it out of the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

"A little bit of a mixed message, isn't it?" said Tom Holyoke, a Fresno State political science professor.

But, he added, "when you desperately need (media) attention, you do these sort of things."

Polls show Kashkari well behind Brown in both fundraising and in voter support. The video, some political experts said, got Kashkari more media attention than a week's worth of paid television commercials in all of California's major media markets.

Kashkari said his campaign has "talked about poverty since day one," and a month ago the idea was hatched to have him spend some time as a homeless job hunter as a way to highlight both homelessness and joblessness.

The rule would be $40 and no more, not even a credit card, Kashkari said.

But why Fresno?

"The Central Valley gets overlooked a lot by politicians," he said. "We wanted to go somewhere in the Central Valley. Fresno has the highest unemployment rate of any big city in California."

He said it also has been hit hard by the state's drought.

So he boarded a bus in Los Angeles -- a city with its own homeless challenges -- and rode north to Fresno. At the end of a week, he was still jobless and found himself having to eat and shower at Poverello House.

There are certainly jobs to be had in Fresno. The Fresno Bee's online classified ad postings and Craigslist together featured more than 100 job possibilities Thursday. In some parts of Fresno outside downtown, help wanted signs are up.

But Kashkari had no résumé. He only once ventured more than a short walk from the heart of downtown. Instead, he mostly popped into stores unannounced, saying he was new in town and asking for work.

"Hey, I just got into town and I'm looking for work," he says at one point in the video. "Are you guys hiring? Is anyone around here hiring at all?"

And with only one shower the entire week, he probably didn't smell too good after a few days.

Kashkari also clearly had a point to make with the video, which focused on the city's most desperate residents and featured scenes like food handout lines, rundown homes and the burned-out former Del Monte packinghouse in Chinatown.

There were no shots of River Park, Palm Bluffs Corporate Center or homes along Fort Washington County Club or on the bluffs overlooking the San Joaquin River.

"The solution is simple," a stubble-faced Kashkari, standing on a downtown Fresno street corner, says toward the end of the video. "It's jobs. It's 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. That means they're within our capacity to solve."

His solutions: reign in regulations, which will allow businesses to grow and hire more people. Invest in water infrastructure, which will help farmers who in turn will hire more workers.

It didn't take long for Fresno County Democratic Party Chairman Michael Evans to send out a lengthy written response to the video.

"Let me be clear, the problems Mr. Kashkari outlines here in Fresno are real; however, his 'solutions' to those problems are either completely lacking or based on long-discredited trickle-down economic theory that Republicans since the age of Reagan have been pushing," he wrote.

He pointed out that Kashkari opposes the state's proposed high-speed rail project, which would start construction in Fresno and "offer much-needed construction jobs and connect the region to our state's prosperous job hubs like the Bay Area and Southern California."

Evans mocks Kashkari for concluding that food stamps, welfare and a higher minimum wage are not the answer.

"That's an easy thing for a millionaire to say," Evans wrote.

He also wrote that the challenges Kashkari encountered have been "exacerbated" under Swearengin.

"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."

Kashkari in turn defended Swearengin, saying the problems he highlighted are caused by Brown and politicians in Sacramento, not local Fresno officials. She can't, for instance, reduce regulations on business, Kashkari said.

"There's only so much a mayor can do," he said.

Tim Clark, Swearengin's campaign consultant, said Kashkari's video also shows the system works. Clark said Kashkari found food and was able to shower.

"The real story is that Neel didn't go hungry," Clark said.

Two videographers accompanied Kashkari. One slept outdoors near him at night, the other stayed in a hotel room. During the day, they would switch places. Kashkari also had a hidden camera on him that he would use initially when he talked with people. He would then go back later to get permission to use the footage.

Kashkari doesn't yet know the total cost of the video because he has yet to receive an invoice from the videographers, but he did note that the campaign budget isn't unlimited so it is trying to do everything on the cheap.

Nobody in Fresno knew of Kashkari's visit.

"We really didn't know that he was here," Poverello House spokeswoman Gabriela McNiel said. "We got wind of it just before he put (the video) out there."

Swearengin's office got a similar last-minute notice.

While some scoffed at Kashkari's campaign tactic, the approach won kudos from the Rev. Larry Arce, CEO of Fresno Rescue Mission.

"Here is an individual with a good life, but he was willing to step down from where he was at and go out on the street and live with the folks and experience what they do on a day-to-day basis," Arce said. "As a minister, that relates to me as Christ came down to our level to feel our pain."

Arce added that "every politician across the nation should live on the streets and experience that. I think the mindset would change dramatically."

Kashkari said he learned something from the experience as well.

"My takeaway is a lot of people are struggling, but they haven't given up," he said. "I saw it up close. I didn't know what to expect. I just got a taste of what people are feeling and what they are going through."