Checchi breaking spending records in bid for Calif. governorship


MONTEREY PARK, CALIF. — MONTEREY PARK, Calif.-- Al Checchi, the 49-year-old multimillionaire businessman who is on his way to shattering all campaign spending records in pursuit of the California governorship, was speaking at a Latino lawyers' dinner here the other night.

After 2 1/2 years of campaigning and "30 million dollars later," he said, drawing laughter, "I'm asking myself what was the value of all this. And you know something, irrespective of what happens on June 2 [the date of the gubernatorial primary], this has all been worth it."

Because of his own money he has spent on Spanish-speaking television, (several million dollars, according to aides), "I think we have contributed to producing something of enduring value," he said. "No candidate for statewide office or national office in California will ever again underestimate the value of the Latino vote. We hope by our small efforts that we've helped to mobilize the power of that vote."

The notion, however, that it will have taken Mr. Checchi's heavy personal spending in this area to make California politicians appreciate the importance of the Latino vote in a state bursting with growth in the Latino community was ludicrous on its face. So was the suggestion that Mr. Checchi would be satisfied laying out $30 million in losing the nomination just to achieve that end.

In an era marked by more and more rich Americans spending millions of their personal fortunes in the quest of high political office -- an era that has produced the presidential candidacies of Ross Perot and Steve Forbes -- Al Checchi is already in their class in what critics say is a blatant attempt to buy the governorship of California.

One of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a 23-year holder of elective state offices, has as his campaign slogan, "Experience money can't buy." But Mr. Checchi argues that Mr. Davis' brand of experience, as a member of the Democratic establishment dating to the days he was chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown, is what's wrong with the state government.

As the man who successfully reorganized the Marriott and Disney empires and Northwest Airlines, enriching himself in the process, Mr. Checchi says he has the know-how to get the state bureaucracy working efficiently for Californians. Seizing that challenge, not the job title, he says, is what he's after.

Mr. Checchi paints himself as a man driven by the idealism of FTC John and Robert Kennedy, and says he wants to reinstill in Californians the spirit of public service identified with them. But critics say there is little in his own personal record of that kind of service in his youth.

While other college kids quit classes to work in the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in 1968 in an effort to change the course on which the country had embarked in Vietnam and at home, Mr. Checchi continued his studies at Amherst College. His late-blooming involvement in politics comes without any notable service in the political trenches.

He is seeking to start at the top in California, he says, "because I'm not interested in holding public office for the sake of holding public office. I'm interested in creating change." To prepare himself, he says, "I took a year and did nothing but study this state and its prospects," with three questions in mind. Could he "develop a program or prognosis for the future?" Did the governorship "have the power to affect change?" and did he "have the stomach for this?" The answer to all three was yes.

"Next to the president of the United States," Mr. Checchi notes, "it's the greatest bully pulpit in the country. Your voice is heard if you are the governor. You do have an opportunity to lead and to mold public opinion to a fashion that is second only to the president. Second, it has great constitutional power. You make up to 2,400 appointments, which next to the president of the United States, is the greatest appointive power of any public official in America, and I have changed organizations. I know what you can do if you can bring in the right people and put them in the right slots."

Mr. Checchi knows well that success in Sacramento would inevitably generate talk about him for the No. 1 bully pulpit, in the White House. And so, while he is spending lavishly to sell himself to the voters of California, it seems obvious with his references to the presidency that the same thought must have already crossed his mind.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/01/98

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