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CAPITOL JOURNAL / GEORGE SKELTON

Outsider Tries to Turn Governor's Race Inside Out

September 29, 1997|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — I want our campaign to be a serious discussion of issues, not a series of political pep rallies.

--Al Checchi, announcing his candidacy for governor last week.

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When Al Checchi's campaign really gets rolling, we assuredly won't be seeing a series of pep rallies. That's old-fashioned politics--the kind that requires tedious organization and broad popular support. Rather, we'll be seeing a series of TV ads. And it will be unusual if they're about "a serious discussion of issues."

More likely, the TV spots mainly will be about Al Checchi. And that's to be expected. Hardly anybody has a clue who he is. In a recent California Field Poll, 95% of voters had no opinion of the mega-millionaire businessman, who never before has run for office, only has voted sporadically and now wants to be governor. He still needs to be introduced to Californians.

The best hint of what those TV ads will be about came early in Checchi's announcement speech to a Sacramento civic group. "Insiders say I shouldn't run--and can't win--because I come from outside the political establishment," he said, sounding like Ronald Reagan 31 years ago. "You don't have to be a politician to succeed in government. And the truth is that for too long, politicians leading our government have failed."

The unnamed "failed" politicians in Checchi's message, of course, include his one declared rival for the Democratic nomination, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, plus a potential opponent, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and the prospective Republican nominee, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren.

More subtle was a jab at Feinstein, the first major California politician to assail illegal immigration, although she ultimately opposed Proposition 187. Most people who heard Checchi's speech probably thought he was berating only Gov. Pete Wilson when he denounced "the strategy of wedge issues" and "bashing immigrants," asserting this has "given us scapegoats instead of solutions."

He packed three provocative buzzwords-- wedge, bash, scapegoat--into one tidy package for delivery to Latino voters, whose ranks are growing within the Democratic electorate. (At last count, 16%.) The Checchi camp quietly is passing them the word, fallaciously, that Feinstein is an "immigrant-basher" because she fought illegal immigration.

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But besides subtleties, there also was substance in Checchi's speech--some "serious discussion of issues."

"Rewrite California law to penalize corporations that hire illegal immigrants," he said. "Also crack down on sweatshops that exploit immigrant labor."

The frustration with "issues discussions" is that they often have the hollow ring of elevator music. Everything sounds the same, like it all was composed in the same focus group or by the same party pollster.

Also, as disillusioned voters have learned, politicians often say one thing and later do another. It's risky, however, to ignore these people because they do sometimes keep their promises.

In that vein, these were some of Checchi's more attention-getting ideas:

* Execute not just murderers but "serial rapists and repeat child molesters." This goes far beyond what any other California death penalty advocate has been proposing. Checchi believes it's constitutional because courts have upheld a Louisiana law that imposes capital punishment for the rape of a child under 12.

* "Get the guns out of the hands of criminals and off our streets." Details later. I look for licensing.

* Create a new "Cal Home" program to stimulate construction of affordable housing. This may involve state-guaranteed mortgages for buyers, and fee reductions and permit streamlining for builders; also, as an incentive for local governments, a bigger share of property tax revenues.

* "Cut the state bureaucracy by 10%." This is another old Reaganism. It worked politically but not practically.

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The proposed job downsizing, however, illustrates a further Checchi message: As a super-rich outsider who easily can finance his own campaign, he won't be beholden to the usual Democratic patrons--public employee and teacher unions.

"We [must] make state employees understand that they work for the people of California, not for any interest group or political party," he said.

As for teachers, he wants them to be retested for "competency" in their subject every five years. Now, they're tested just once: when they initially get their teaching credential. "Teachers shouldn't be grading a [student] test they can't pass," he noted.

Checchi could hit the chords that make for intriguing elevator music. Maybe even have an issues discussion that's both serious and interesting.

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