Millions may not buy Calif. voters Backlash could foil former Marylander's bid for governorship

May 25, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LOS ANGELES -- For millionaire businessman Al Checchi, it has been a bumpy spring.

He's seen his stock in Northwest Airlines, the company he took over and revitalized, plunge $200 million in value. Even more worrisome for the financier is the trajectory of his latest investment -- in himself.

Checchi has injected a breathtaking $30 million of his own money into his first race for public office, the California governorship. His readiness to dip into a personal fortune valued at more than a half-billion dollars has turned the gubernatorial contest into a record-breaking spending chase.

But with just over a week left until the June 2 primary, Checchi's political stock is crashing. He has gone from first to last in the three-way Democratic race, largely because of a voter backlash against his negative campaign tactics.

"Checchi's money is working against him now," says David Doak, a strategist for Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a career politician who has seized the lead with the slogan "Experience money can't buy."

With the cost of campaigns continuing to rise, self-financed candidates have increasingly become a part of American politics. This year, millionaire businessmen who have never been elected to anything are running for major offices in Illinois, North Carolina, Georgia, Washington, Maryland and Kentucky.

But no one in a statewide race has ever spent money like Alfred A. Checchi of Beverly Hills and Washington (he owns a house in Georgetown, not far from the Maryland suburbs where he grew up). In fact, Checchi's expenditures exceed the total amount that presidential candidates were allowed to spend in all 50 states combined in the 1996 primaries.

To Checchi, sums that could finance an entire campaign in many places seem almost like a rounding error. In an interview, he concedes that, over the past six months, "Maybe you could have hived off a couple million bucks somewhere. But in the context of 30-plus [million dollars], I don't look and say, 'Well, we wasted money.' "

His wealth has freed him to spend more time pursuing votes than donations (he has not accepted any), but it also has prompted opponents to accuse him of trying to buy the governorship.

He is "attempting a corporate takeover of California," says Rep. Jane Harman, a rival candidate who is spending more than $11 million of her family's money on the race.

Doing 'anything he wants'

His checkbook allows Checchi to do things other candidates can't afford. Well before voters began paying attention to the race, he assigned a video camera operator to tail Harman. He struck pay dirt when, at a noncampaign event, she proclaimed herself to be "the best Republican in the Democratic Party."

Soon, Checchi was bombarding California voters with television ads featuring footage of the congresswoman's gaffe. At the time, she was little known outside her coastal district south of Los Angeles, and the ads knocked some of the air out of her candidacy.

"Checchi is spending a phenomenal amount of money. He can do anything he wants," says Kam Kuwata, Harman's campaign manager. Kuwata predicts "there will be more billionaires running" if Checchi wins.

In all, the three Democratic candidates have spent more than $50 million, according to finance reports filed last week, and the final tally for the primary is likely to exceed $60 million.

The previous record for a nonpresidential race, set in California's 1994 Senate contest, was just under $50 million and included the primary and general election campaigns.

Checchi has vowed to shake up the old order in California, and he is doing it in ways large and small.

He has raised a traditional political staple -- free food at campaign rallies -- to new heights. In what an aide called a routine event, he rented a top-floor hotel ballroom overlooking San Francisco Bay and treated 350 people to lunch. While his guests devoured Chardonnay chicken and strawberry shortcake, the 49-year-old candidate appealed for their support.

'They can't buy me'

"The reason there is so much opposition to my candidacy is because they can't buy me," he boasts. The other candidates are "all picking on me. I think they might be afraid of me."

That's hardly surprising, given the wattage of his million-dollar-a-week ad campaign over the past six months. His first commercials taught Californians how to pronounce Checchi CHECK-key); by now, even first-graders recognize the name.

"I do," says Belinda Sparks, 6, who crossed paths with the campaigning Checchi in San Francisco's old Italian neighborhood the other day. "My mom got a letter to vote for him, and I saw his picture on TV."

The grandson of Italian immigrants, Checchi grew up in Silver Spring and attended an all-male parochial high school, Good Counsel in Wheaton, on a scholarship. His father was a high-ranking civil servant at the Food and Drug Administration.

Checchi was a big-money donor before he became a candidate. He says he was inspired by Robert F. Kennedy years ago to try to make a difference.

Campaign setbacks

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