Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari made the most of a low-profile Sunday morning speaking slot at the party's state convention, delivering a spirited defense of a party he said cares most about poor people and minorities but has failed to convey its message.
"I'm running to reintroduce us to the people of California and the people of our country, because I am damn proud of who we are," Kashkari told about 450 delegates at a Los Angeles airport hotel Sunday morning.
The former U.S. Treasury official has sought to unify the party after a divisive primary and a weekend that highlighted dissension at the top of the ticket.
Gubernatorial candidates are typically regarded as the most visible part of a state party's roster in an election year and therefore usually get top billing during party conventions, but the party is focusing its resources on legislative contests this year. The race against incumbent Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is seen as a challenge for Republicans, and Kashkari's address was saved for the so-called "hangover slot" Sunday morning.
Friday night's keynote speaker, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who is running for state controller, distanced herself from the statewide ticket and said she's still considering voting for Brown in November.
Party Chairman Jim Brulte is recommending the GOP hold only one convention a year instead of two, giving fewer opportunities for negative stories about party infighting just weeks ahead of an election. California Democrats hold only one convention a year, in the spring.
And former party Chairman Ron Nehring, who is running for lieutenant governor, criticized Swearengin's prominent speaking slot and her message in an email sent to Brulte and campaign managers for Swearengin and Kashkari.
"I doubt Ashley was given the prominence of speaking Friday night (the ONLY statewide candidate to be given a speaking role other than Sunday morning ... ) as a platform to generate news by blowing off others on the statewide ticket," he wrote. "This does NOT help the party, and it distracts from the efforts made to convey a positive theme."
In public, both sides put a positive spin on Kashkari's speaking slot, saying Sunday offered the largest audience. Other Republican candidates for statewide office also spoke Sunday, except Swearengin, who sent a campaign video.
Kashkari bested a more conservative Republican, state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, in the June primary, and he offered reassurance to Republicans Sunday that he will expand the party without diluting its principles.
"When they say we don't care about the poor, when they say we don't care about minorities, they have no idea what they're talking about," he said. "Our party is the party of freedom, our party is the party of liberty. Our party is the party of civil rights. But the thing is, we don't just fight for our own civil rights. We fight for the civil rights of all Californians and all Americans and we should be damn proud of who we are."
Kashkari also bragged about his recent debate with Brown, saying "it's been 20 years since anybody held his feet to the fire." He called Brown "the coddled prince of Sacramento," and said he is out of touch with the struggles of working families.
Brown, 76, is well known to many Californians after spending a lifetime in politics. He has amassed nearly $23 million for his re-election bid from a wide array of donors, and polls show him with a lead of as much as 21 percentage points over Kashkari, 41.
Kashkari, a first-time candidate who helped lead the federal bank bailout, spent $4.4 million in the primary and has raised more than $950,000 more.
Dan Newman, a spokesman for Brown's campaign, said in an email that Kashkari is "at risk of changing from unknown to mocked, from afterthought to laughingstock."
"He was like the proverbial dog that finally caught the bus — after all his yapping for a debate, he just repeated the same empty rhetoric that has failed him for the past year. So when he woke up the next day kicking himself for the missed opportunity, he started begging for a do-over."
Republicans also took positions on several November ballot measures Sunday: They endorsed Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water infrastructure plan, Proposition 2, an expanded state rainy day fund, and opposed Proposition 45, giving the state insurance commissioner more authority to regulate health insurance rates, and Proposition 47, cutting prison sentences for some crimes.
The party also voted to remain neutral on Proposition 48, a referendum on tribal gaming pacts with the North Fork and Wiyot Tribes. The party already opposes Proposition 46, to raise the cap on medical malpractice damages and require random drug testing of doctors.
This story has been updated.