Homeless stunt illustrates serious issue

SACRAMENTO ??? Critics of California GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari chided him for his latest campaign effort ??? a week-long stint as a homeless man. The wealthy financier took a bus from Los Angeles to Fresno, where he looked for work and survived with only 40 bucks in his pocket and no place to sleep other than parks and underpasses.

Anyone critical of Kashkari ought to think about what other state politicians were doing and saying recently. Gov. Jerry Brown was in Mexico, where he issued dire warnings: ???We can see how some are fearful of children walking across the border. What will they think when millions of people are driven north from the parched landscapes of a world degraded by intensifying climate change????

With Brown away, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Darrell Steinberg out of state, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins was ???acting governor.??? Atkins issued a statement about her pride in ascending to that spot while supporters tweeted about her being the state???s first openly gay governor. Meanwhile, GOP lieutenant governor candidate Ron Nehring was in an Israeli bomb shelter as part of a ???solidarity??? trip.

Governors and lieutenant governors don???t make foreign policy and acting governors don???t do much of anything. So Kashkari, who used the stunt to produce a 10-minute campaign video, was, arguably, the only one who illuminated a legitimate California policy matter.

??????California Comeback!??? is the favorite slogan of Sacramento politicians cheering a temporary budget surplus provided by a roaring stock market,??? Kashkari wrote in a Wall Street Journal column about his Fresno trip. ???But California also has the highest poverty rate in America at 24 percent. Is California back????

That???s a good campaign question. California does indeed have a budget surplus now, even though that surplus disappears when one starts looking at the unfunded liabilities and other debts that remain largely unaddressed. But the bigger issue involves the overall state of California???s economy.

At a press conference Thursday at a Sacramento food bank, Kashkari admitted that he is using ???creative tactics??? to force the media and Brown to focus on the state???s continuing economic problems. He argued that pro-growth policies ??? fewer regulations, lower taxes, investment in water infrastructure ??? are better than focusing on increases in the minimum wage and other government-driven efforts. Brown???s global-warming approach, he noted, won???t fix the Earth???s climate, but it is driving up California energy costs and sending jobs elsewhere.

Kashkari???s homeless effort gave him only ???a sliver, a taste??? of what it???s like to be down on one???s luck. The homeless problem is a complex one that involves substance-abuse and mental-health issues, he admitted. But he wanted to illustrate a point.

Given Brown???s huge lead in the public-opinion polls, it???s clear the governor will continue to ignore his long-shot challenger. The state Democratic Party, however, released a statement from Fresno County chairman Michael Evans.

Evans admitted that his region is hurting, but said that???s ???precisely why we need the high-speed rail program that Mr. Kashkari opposes.??? He slammed the ???Reagan-Romney philosophy??? and reminded Kashkari that he could have signed up for welfare and food stamps.

Such is politics. Yet it???s hard to argue that California, with one of the highest tax burdens and some of the most generous welfare benefits in the country, is in need of more government spending or should depend on a large-scale infrastructure project that still remains controversial.

After the press event, Kashkari and I talked about the way California???s land-use rules have so driven up rents and home prices that it???s tough for poor people to find an affordable place to live. Even in the lower-cost Fresno area, state efforts to limit suburban construction (as part of anti-global-warming legislation) artificially inflate existing real estate.

Sure, Kashkari???s pretend-homeless effort probably won???t jump-start a needed statewide debate about economic issues. But good for him for trying. And it???s hard to argue that this was the oddest political gimmick of the summer.

Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at