(Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
(Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

The only debate between the two leading Republicans running for California governor took place Tuesday night adjacent to a skeleton with thick eyebrows that stood in for incumbent Jerry Brown. Former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari didn’t meet Assemblyman Tim Donnelly in a college auditorium or television studio, but on Los Angeles talk radio station KFI’s popular John and Ken Show.

The debate, in a ballroom at Anaheim’s Ayres Hotel, was unorthodox. But it did give Kashkari and Donnelly their only opportunity to question each other face-to-face. Neither candidate hesitated to unload the main ammunition they’ve been using against each other throughout the race.

Alluding to Donnelly’s recent vote against a bill banning the state from selling the Confederate flag and his accusations that Kashkari supports Islamic Sharia law, Kashkari turned to Donnelly and said, “In the last few months you’ve managed to denigrate Latinos, African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, Hindus.”

“If we are shrinking our party, we’re not going to win another election, period,” continued Kashkari as a largely pro-Donnelly crowd jeered and booed.

Donnelly immediately dismissed the criticism. “They don’t kick a dead dog,” he said. “They only attack you when you’re the front-runner and you’re a threat. And the only colors that matter to me are red, white, and blue. Because those are the colors of freedom.”

‘John McCain Had No Idea What Was Going On’

Donnelly, in turn, asked Kashkari why he voted for Barack Obama when he ran against Republican John McCain in 2008. Kashkari was working in the U.S. Treasury Department then, helping coordinate the government’s response to an economic collapse that, at that point, appeared to be teetering on the edge of a full-blown depression.

“We actually met with both candidates,” said Kashkari.  “And I’ve got to tell you something. John McCain had no idea what was going on in the financial crisis…. We met with both the McCain campaign and the Obama campaign, and were shocked at the poor economic advice McCain was getting.” Several books, including Peter Baker’s Days of Fire, have detailed how widespread that view was within the Bush administration.

Some of the debate’s most contentious moments came in the final minutes, when an audience member asked Donnelly why he recently accused Kashkari of supporting Sharia law during his Treasury tenure. Many observers viewed that as an attempt to insinuate the Hindu candidate is, in fact, Muslim. While Donnelly had previously apologized for the claim, which stems from a seminar the department ran on international banking, he stuck with it Thursday night. “Given how barbaric Sharia is, why would we want to be compliant with anything Sharia?”

“American banks want to go into Middle Eastern countries and push our financial products and our free markets there,” said Kashkari. “You have to start by understanding the laws in those countries. … The idea that President George W. Bush, the man who worked so hard to keep us safe, the idea that his administration would try to bring Islamic law to America? It’s outrageous and it’s offensive.”

Kashkari’s Aggressive Push

Kashkari tried again and again to land a punch during the debate, at one point working a reference to Donnelly’s criminal record into an answer about immigration policy. (The assemblyman is on probation for trying to bring a loaded handgun through airport security.) But Donnelly never took the bait, dismissing Kashkari’s challenges with quips and campaign talking points.

The crowd in the ballroom cheered him on, but more and more Republican leaders are raising concerns about the repercussions of a fall Donnelly candidacy. Earlier Thursday, former Gov. Pete Wilson released a statement saying that “keeping public focus on the real and important issues facing California will require a candidate who does not have to defend Tim Donnelly’s bizarre votes and statements or his irresponsible personal behavior. Donnelly’s record … would inescapably become the focus of the Donnelly campaign.”

Poll after poll has shown Donnelly with a commanding lead over Kashkari (a seven-point lead in the latest Public Policy Institute of California poll; 15 points in the last Field survey). The fact the debate even took place shows how concerned the Kashkari campaign is with its poll numbers. Kashkari waved off Donnelly’s calls for a debate at the March Republican Convention. But here Kashkari was in a rowdy Anaheim hotel ballroom, fielding questions from talk radio shock jocks, sitting near a skeleton standing in for Brown.

But while Donnelly’s campaign remains strapped for cash, Kashkari has pumped $1 million of his own money into his campaign in recent weeks. That money has allowed him to run a limited television advertising campaign, but is far short of the millions of dollars needed to air sustained advertising to boost his name recognition.


Scott Detrow

Sacramento bureau chief Scott Detrow covers state government, politics and policy for KQED News and its statewide news program, The California Report.

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