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California and the West

Checchi, Davis Square Off in Heated Debate

Campaign: Gubernatorial candidates define differences before responsive crowd of about 5,000 union and Latino activists.

April 12, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

The campaign for California's governorship leaped out of the television set and into the boxing ring Saturday as Democratic contenders Al Checchi and Gray Davis sparred over their rhetoric and their records before one of the largest crowds at a gubernatorial campaign event in recent memory.

About 5,000 union and Latino activists, gathered at East Los Angeles College despite a chilly downpour and a holiday weekend, turned a get-out-the-vote rally into a rump convention as they cheered and booed the candidates with abandon. Checchi and Davis responded by transforming a planned question-and-answer session into an ad hoc debate.

Although disputes on policy matters were few, the men forcefully defined the stylistic differences that will color the campaign for governor in the seven weeks before election day.

Checchi, a businessman making his first bid for public office, sought to portray Davis as part-and-parcel of a political establishment that has seen California plummet from its glory days to its current difficulties with education and infrastructure. Davis, offering reminders of his decades of public service, taunted Checchi as an outsider who didn't bother to vote in 1994, when Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative that helped mobilize many in the audience, was on the ballot.

The Democrats' third gubernatorial candidate, U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, and the putative Republican nominee, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, did not attend. Both cited scheduling conflicts due to Passover and Easter, respectively. The excuses did not shield them from boos when their absences were announced.

The gathering was part of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor's effort to mobilize voters to defeat two propositions on the June ballot--226, which would strip unions of the power to automatically donate member dues to political causes, and 227, which would all but eliminate bilingual education.

The turnout was a testimony to the growing potency of the Latino vote, particularly in Southern California, and the desperation of labor forces whose political strength would be severely diminished if Proposition 226 is approved by voters.

But the gathering was also reminiscent of the raucous political affairs in states where politics has a stronger hold on the public. Saturday's event was larger than recent state party conventions and harkened to the days when campaigns were spent pressing flesh rather than shooting television ads.

"I feel like East Los Angeles has become New Hampshire," labor organizer Rick Icaza said from the podium.

Checchi, a major Northwest Airlines stockholder who has spent more than $20 million of his own money in his quest for the Democratic nomination, and Davis, who has spent more than two decades pushing toward the governorship, wasted no time taking each other on.

Davis offered a genteel barb in his opening remarks. "For the past 2 1/2 decades, some of my opponents have been out becoming wealthy," he remarked, drawing the audience's applause as Checchi, barely an arms' distance away, grinned. "It's great that you can do that in America. But I've been working for you for 25 years."

Checchi returned the favor a few minutes later, as he included Davis in the category of politicians who, he implied, had watched as California's public schools foundered.

"Twenty-five years ago we had unquestionably the finest public school system in the nation," he said. "Where were our leaders when it went down to where it is now?"

Checchi repeated his pledge to--once elected--ask voters to repeal 1996's Proposition 209, which outlawed race and gender preferences in state schools, employment and contracting. Davis has not gone that far, saying that he would consider launching a repeal movement only if all other end-runs were exhausted.

"You aren't a leader just because you are elected to political office," Checchi said.

The business-experience-versus-government-tenure debate threaded through Davis' and Checchi's remarks while they shared the stage. Davis answered all eight questions from a labor panel with variations on the same theme: "Here again, I have a record by which you can judge my pledge," he said before both men agreed to appoint women and minorities to their administrations.

Davis struck perhaps his most forceful blow at Checchi when attention turned to efforts on the part of some politicians to limit the government services allotted to immigrants. Inevitably, the lieutenant governor seized on Proposition 187, the illegal immigration initiative.

"I am the only person standing on this stage who took the trouble to go to the polls and vote against 187," Davis said. "It's all very nice to have high-minded rhetoric, but in the end, the way a citizen can effectuate policy is by finding the time in their day to go to the polls. If Mr. Checchi didn't vote in that election . . . then he cannot possibly fulfill his obligation as a citizen."

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