Sobered but still eager, Checchi kept exploring the possibilities through the fall campaign. The usual route into politics for people with money is money--giving it and raising it--and the Democratic fund-raising establishment sniffed out Checchi almost as soon as he poked his head out of Fort Worth. In late 1985, while accompanying Willie Brown to a fund-raiser for Gov. Mario M. Cuomo in New York, Checchi met Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco activist who was the chief fund-raiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the last election. Pelosi invited Checchi to mingle with others of means at big-donor events, and eventually he made a $15,000 contribution to the committee. Then, last October, he hosted a cocktail party for the committee's big givers at his home in Beverly Hills.
As the campaign ran out, Checchi was swimming with big fish, but he was still swimming in circles. He volunteered to help Alan Cranston's campaign, but he never found a significant role and had only mixed success at the job they assigned him of organizing business supporters for the senator. "In some ways," one campaign aide says, "they were looking for something for him to do."
Lots of people were happy to keep Checchi busy raising money. But the more he saw of Los Angeles' campaign cocktail circuit, the less it attracted him. For national Democratic politicians, Los Angeles serves a single function: They come here to collect as much money as they can, as quickly as they can. The city's political culture revolves around fund raising, and anyone in Los Angeles who plays a significant role in national politics raises money.
But Checchi didn't like raising money, and he wasn't eager to play host again. What he wanted, almost peevishly, was politicians to want him even if they couldn't have any of his money. "I don't look at myself as a dollar sign," he says, and he didn't want politicians to see him that way either.
In refusing a finance role, Checchi was walking a narrow line. He wasn't naive enough to think that prominent politicians would be so interested in him if he couldn't write large checks. But he had, shrewdly, come to understand that money was a political ghetto. The dark secret of political money is not how much influence most fund-raisers have over policy but how little. In a politician's mind, a good fund-raiser's fingers are best employed dialing the phone, not tapping out papers on the future of floating exchange rates that no one has time to read.
As the invitations to fund-raising events filtered in throughout the fall, Checchi found himself contemplating almost enviously the unaffluent 30-year-olds grinding out policy papers on Capitol Hill and in Washington think tanks, freed by their meager resources from any responsibility to feed the insatiable campaign treasuries. "In some ways," Checchi says, "I came to think that because I had achieved comparative affluence it was going to be harder to be viewed as someone who could participate on the policy level."
In fact, as the campaign season ended, Checchi faced a complex situation: If a man of his wealth persistently refused to contribute, he'd be seen as a dilettante and a flake, no matter what else he had to offer; but if he became defined primarily as a fund-raiser, he'd find it difficult to ever crawl out of that hole.
CHECCHI BEGAN formulating his solution to the conundrum --or at least, a temporary solution--on a January afternoon after having had tea in New York with William Paley, the patriarch of CBS. A friend on whose board of directors Paley sat made the introduction, and Checchi was enthralled as Paley explained how he had built CBS.
"I looked at this man and thought: This guy made an industry, he had a profound impact on society, and he never served formally in the government," Checchi said a week later, walking back and forth across the sleek white library of his Beverly Hills home. "Then I started thinking about Ralph Nader. If Ralph Nader had joined the Department of Transportation, he would have accomplished virtually nothing. Or Martin Luther King Jr.--if he had joined the Office of Economic Opportunity we never would have heard of him, and he never would have accomplished what he did."
The answer, Checchi thought, was to find a way to move in and out of government--and to help other people of like mind move in and out, taking on jobs that fit their skills and then getting on with their lives, entering the system but maintaining their independence from it. What was needed, he decided, was a forum for young entrepreneurs to interact with politicians, to allow both sides to scout for opportunities and talent. And he thought he knew how to provide the opportunity: by organizing an elite club, an exclusive national organization that would recruit several dozen of the wealthiest and most talented of his generation and present them to the Democratic Party like a crack Marine unit, ready to be deployed.