07/19/2014 06:45 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2014

California Republicans in Focus: The Controller's Race Gets a Democrat

The long road back for California Republicans came into clearer focus in the past few days as the Democratic candidate in the race for state controller was finally confirmed and the party's little-known nominee for governor took some ill-advised cracks at the only Republican to win two landslide elections as governor of the nation's largest state since Earl Warren more than 60 years ago.

A month and a half after the June 3rd primary election, former Assembly Speaker John Perez dropped his recount bid and thus his race for state controller, letting his fellow Democrat, state Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, assume her spot in the November 4th run-off election against what may be the Republicans' only rising star, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin. Yee finished just 481 votes ahead of the heavily favored Perez in the June open primary, as each trailed Swearengin's 25 percent of the vote with 21.7 percent each.

Swearengin, a moderate conservative who backs Governor Jerry Brown's controversial high-speed rail project already had the only shot at preventing another statewide Democratic sweep before the chaotic aftermath of the primary. With all the uncertainty and Perez's attempt to tilt a recount his way by cherry-picking areas he did well in -- a plan that yielded little once set in motion -- the lightly-funded Yee has lost several weeks of building a general election campaign as the Democratic candidate. Not that the party organization didn't step in and endorse her earlier this month, a key cue to Perez to find the door.

How did the heavily favored Perez, from vote-rich LA, get in this situation? Well, he chose to save funds for what he expected to the general election against Swearengin. His campaign was blindsided on two fronts. First, by the emergence of Republican accountant David Evans, who nearly made the top two himself with a 21 percent showing after running second much of election night. Then by the campaign of San Franciscan Yee, a chief deputy budget director under Governor Gray Davis who refused to back away from Perez.

The reality is that Perez should not have been surprised either by Evans's surprise showing or by Yee's tenacity. As a powerful recent Assembly speaker -- he just gave up the office to San Diegan Toni Atkins in May -- Perez has a platoon of political operatives, advisors and consultants. Yet nobody noticed how the campaign was unfolding.

Swearengin, an articulate former local TV news anchor, found her way into politics as a leader in the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, a regional improvement organization created by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The party's sacrificial candidate for governor, former Assistant U.S. Treasury Secretary Neel Kashkari, in contrast, did not find his way into politics via Schwarzenegger. So, despite the fact that he has a few ex-Arnold aides working on his campaign, he has some very negative things to say about the former governor. Kashkari has taken to calling the state's high-speed rail project, heavily championed throughout his governorship by Schwarzenegger, "the crazy train."

He also ripped into California's landmark climate change program, a signature Schwarzenegger accomplishment with global recognition, casting doubt on the effects of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and saying that California shouldn't go it alone on what is supposed to be a worldwide issue. As fate would have it, he issued this opinion on the same day that President Barack Obama, through the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration, ordered major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, following the lead of California

In a Thursday talk in Newport Beach, Kashkari said that Schwarzenegger failed to reform the state -- at least to his liking -- because "he needed to be loved."

Actually, Schwarzenegger spent an entire year of his governorship pushing four controversial reform initiatives, all of which were defeated. He would have been better served had he tried not to do so much. As it was, he later got one of the those initiatives, on redistricting reform, passed on another try. And his administration's moves served to tee up a successful (so far) lawsuit challenging the state's very expansive teacher tenure laws.

He also infuriated many Democrats by cutting social programs even as he moved forward on the biggest infrastructure program in decades.

In contrast, Kashari says he is the right man for governor because doesn't need to be popular, ignoring the fact that you need to have a certain degree of popularity to get elected in the first place.

"When I talk about my need to be loved, I like to point out I'm the guy who ran TARP," Kashkari gibed. TARP, of course, was the Troubled Assets Relief Program, better known as the Wall Street bailout. Kashkari thinks that was a great success.

And so it was. For some.

More than $400 billion of federal government funds was injected into Wall Street investment firms to keep them afloat after their highly speculative and leveraged projects nearly destroyed them. The program saved the firms, allowing them to keep paying big bonuses to their executives and continuing their business with little interference from the government. It even got paid back, on a dollar for dollar basis, but certainly didn't make any money for the treasury as would have been the case with a private bailout.

It also came with so few strings attached that the economic recovery which followed during the Obama administration has been marked by a relative paucity of broad-based investment, resulting in a remarkably uneven recovery in which vast numbers of Americans have participated not at all.

Which sounds remarkably like the hollowing out of the middle class that Kashkari ludicrously blames on Jerry Brown.

I would say that Kashkari can't possibly believe that he can run against Jerry Brown on the Wall Street bailout, but I've noted his extraordinary ignorance before.

The reality is that he is a bog standard corporate conservative. To him, a tough choice is one that doesn't hurt the elite. He's also a decidedly down-wing candidate, in that he rejects the sort of signature programs of future-oriented candidates of civilizational uplift, i.e., "up-wing" politicians like Schwarzenegger, such as renewable energy, climate change, and high-speed rail.

Instead, Kashkari sticks to big business as usual while he pretends that the only real problems in the state are caused by public employee unions.

If Kashkari was smart, he would study Schwarzenegger's two campaigns for governor for clues on how to be a successful candidate in California without being a liberal Democrat.

Otherwise, he is just an occasional minor noise-maker in Jerry Brown's latest political parade.

Brown delivered this rousing, largely extemporaneous keynote address last week at the annual InterSolar North America conference in San Francisco. Brown, who championed one of the first major solar programs back in 1975, when solar collectors were used for heating water rather than producing electricity with the latter still a phenomenon of the space program, declared solar energy one of the keys to a more just world. But he warned that, despite the vast progress on renewable energy achieved in California, the state still has not achieved a sustainable economy. Yet.

Speaking of which, Brown -- who solved the state's chronic operating budget crisis by continuing Schwarzenegger's budget cuts, adding more of his own, and then raising some taxes on the clients of the firms bailed out by Kashkari's claim to fame -- got some more good news recently, this time about the high-speed rail project. First, longtime Atlantic writer James Fallows launched a series of articles supporting California's high-speed rail program as an historic project after the fashion of the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system, even the Silk Road.

The Silk Road? Really? Well, let's not get too carried away.

Then more signs emerged that the bullet train is getting on course. Brown's decision to dedicate a portion of the annual proceeds from the state's greenhouse gas cap-and-trade market has triggered new interest in potential private investments in the project.

Meanwhile, demolition work has begun in the Fresno area to clear the way for the first length of track.

I bet Kashkari ends up getting involved in this when he's back in the investment banking business.

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