The dishevelled figure hauls his backpack through the streets of Fresno by day, seeking work, and by night camps out on benches, counting his last dollars, wondering about his next meal.
He encounters the kindness of strangers but otherwise experiences a bleak world of unemployment, poverty and struggle.
Meet Neel Kashkari, the Republican candidate for governor of California. The 41-year-old former investment banker announced on Thursday that he spent last week living rough to explore the underbelly of the state’s supposed economic comeback.
A 10-minute video, and an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal recounted his experiences that at first sight appeared closer in spirit to Occupy, or Michael Moore-style populism, than the GOP.
Kashkari caught a Greyhound bus to Fresno with just $40, and no credit card, to find a job and support himself for a week. Stores, restaurants and other businesses turned him away, citing hard times, leaving him homeless and destitute. Police and security guards moved him on from his improvised bed-downs.
“This has been one of the hardest weeks of my life,” a weary, stubbly Kashkari, wearing a baseball cap and sweatshirt, said into the camera at the end of his adventure. “I came to Fresno expecting to be able to find a job and take care of myself. But it’s been a week and I’ve found nothing.”
California’s drought yielded images of baked earth and out of work labourers but unlike John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath the GOP candidate ended up blaming the underclass’s plight on excessive government intervention.
“California’s record poverty is man-made: over-regulation and over-taxation that drive jobs out of state, failing schools and misguided water policies, to name a few. We have the power to tackle poverty if we implement smart, pro-growth economic policies as many other states have done.”
In a solid blue state where governor Jerry Brown leads in polls by almost 20%, and enjoys an ever bigger advantage in fundraising, the odds of Kashkari winning in November remain small.
But the stunt drew copious media coverage – vital for his relatively shoestring campaign – and reinforced his message that he is a different type of Republican who cares about poverty and jobs.
“Kashkari has cleverly made a virtue of necessity. He has very little campaign money in comparison with Brown, so he’s finding other ways of getting attention,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna college.
“When voters hear the term ‘Republican candidate’ they probably think of somebody like Mitt Romney or Daddy Warbucks. They probably don’t think of a young, single Indian American who spends a week on the streets.”
Kashkari, a millionaire who ran the federal government’s bank bailout, came from behind to beat a Tea Party rival, Tim Donnelly, for the GOP nomination.
With the state enjoying an economic rebound and fiscal stability Brown, a canny centrist, has run a low-key campaign for what would be a record fourth term.
Kashkari has hosted radio talk-shows, marched in San Diego’s LGBT Pride parade and demanded televised debates in efforts to gain the initiative. A Public Policy Institute of California poll of likely voters last week showed him trailing the incumbent 52% to 33%.
The state’s strikingly high poverty rate of 24% gave him an opening for a John Edwards-style “two Americas” focus on haves and have-nots.
The video, accompanied by a solemn soundtrack, shows derelict buildings, “closing down” signs and humble people doing their best to get by. “If the economy’s getting better, it’s getting better for the people at the top end,” one man tells him.
As a former Goldman Sachs banker who served the Bush and Obama administrations during the financial crisis, and who lives in a $10m house at Newport Beach, there was a hint of Trading Places, the Eddie Murphy role reversal film, as Kashkari tramped around Fresno, ate in Subway and hunkered in a laundromat, fretting that he was down to $11. Meanwhile Brown, famously frugal, was in Mexico City with a delegation of business leaders.
California’s unemployment rate has fallen to 7.4%. It gained 24,000 jobs in June, and more than 356,000 during the past year, one of the country’s fastest employment growth rates.
However the relocation of some big companies like Toyota to lower-tax states, notably Texas, and California’s stubbornly high poverty rates, gave Kashkari’s film its theme.
He visited dozens of businesses offering to wash dishes, sweep floors, pack boxes, cook meals, anything.
“I didn’t see a single ‘help wanted’ sign but I did see plenty of signs that fast food outlets now accept food stamps … Five days into my search, hungry, tired and hot, I asked myself: what would solve my problems? Food stamps? Welfare? An increased minimum wage? No. I needed a job. Period.”
Critics said the confessional-style dispatches to camera did not sound natural or spontaneous.
Unlike George Orwell, who chronicled his own destitution in Down and Out in Paris and London, California’s would-be governor was accompanied by at least one person – the camera operator, requiring explanations that they were making a documentary.
It remained unclear whether those they encountered realised who he was.
Kashkari donated $500 to Poverello House, a homeless centre which fed and sheltered him, said Mary Sarah-Kinner, his director of communications.