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STAKES ARE HIGH FOR MILLIONAIRE CHECCHI

Al Checchi, sleek and trim and brimming with ideas, fresh from a run and radiating the nimbus of confidence characteristic of those nimble at the rough-and-tumble of the high-stakes dealings of great corporations, has in mind his next management challenge. He wants to prepare California for the projected addition of 18 million people -- think of pumping New York's population into the largest state -- in the next 25 years.

Checchi opposed last year's California Civil Rights Initiative banning racial preferences by government, but he also opposes the 10 percent set-aside for minority contractors in the federal highway program. He supports NAFTA and "fast track" authority for the president. He favors school choice programs within the public system, and when asked if he would favor extending choice beyond the public system, he says "we can't afford it" now, but "I'd like to see it someday." He regrets that California, which has about 8,000 schools for grades K-12, has just 115 charter schools, and he thinks some single-sex charter schools would be beneficial. He favors testing teachers every five years.

None of these ideas is exotic. However, each is problematic for some portion of the Democratic nominating electorate that next year will dispense what Checchi seeks, the party's gubernatorial nomination. Within the next 13 months he could make a large splash in California's, and hence the nation's, politics.

Born in 1948 and raised in a Washington suburb (his father worked for the Food and Drug Administration), Checchi says he has always planned to run for office. However, he could not always have planned to possess what enables him to attempt a jump from corporate life to the nation's second most important elective office. He has half a billion dollars from successes with Marriott, Disney and, most important, the bruising turnaround of Northwest Airlines.

Perhaps a Democrat can get away with making aristocratic arguments for the social utility of wealth in a democracy: "I'm not dependent on a political career to make a living or advance in this society." "I don't have to spend 70 to 80 percent of my time raising money. I wouldn't do it." (That is what less-than-very-rich candidates must do, because of "reforms" severely limiting campaign contributions.)

He can exacerbate Republican problems with California's large and growing Hispanic vote because he speaks with biting concision in favor of immigrants: "They do not come here for the sun or because we are so welcoming. They come here to work." Society's energy, he says, usually "comes from below" because "as people get comfortable, they tend to lose their edge."

Checchi's rhetoric from a podium is less than celestial, but he will improve with practice. Besides, 99.9 percent of those who will hear him will do so through polished television commercials. He has just 1 percent support in the most recent Los Angeles Times statewide poll, but that may not matter unless Sen. Dianne Feinstein decides to run.

She has 36 percent support in the Times poll (which is not all that impressive, with the presumptive Republican nominee, Attorney General Dan Lungren, at 31 percent). However, she has run three statewide races since 1990 (losing a gubernatorial race against Pete Wilson, then winning the two-year remainder of Wilson's Senate term in 1992 and a full term in 1994), and has the correct chromosomal composition for exploiting this dominating fact of California's Democratic politics: 57 percent of registered Democrats are women.

Checchi will have to prevail in California's new "jungle primary," in which all candidates for both parties appear on a single ballot, with the top Democrat and Republican competing in the general election. This system will favor candidates who can draw from beyond their parties' bases -- conceivably a candidate like Checchi, who is but lightly attached to the party.

John Fremont, the first Republican presidential nominee in 1856, was the first Californian on a national ticket. Although Herbert Hoover's connection to California was by then weak, he was counted as a Californian when he was the Republican presidential nominee in 1928 and 1932. Gov. Earl Warren, the 1948 Republican vice presidential nominee, was the next Californian on one of the two major parties' national tickets. Since then, there have been Californians on seven of the 12 Republican tickets (Nixon five times, Reagan twice). There never has been a Californian on a Democratic ticket. California's 54 electoral votes are 20 percent of the 270 needed to win.

So if Checchi becomes governor, he will be on any Democratic presidential nominee's short list for the vice presidential nomination. The odds against his gubernatorial campaign are long, but the potential stakes are high.

Washington Post Writers Group

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