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Rich Question for Voters

April 12, 1998

Rich people always have run for public office, successfully and unsuccessfully. There are the Roosevelts, Rockefellers and Kennedys . . . and Ross Perot and Mike Huffington. But never has there been the sort of riches-to-politics phenomenon that California is experiencing in 1998.

Three candidates are spending millions from their own fortunes in seeking the state's two highest offices. Judging by movement in public opinion polls, the big money of Democratic gubernatorial candidates Al Checchi and Rep. Jane Harman and Republican Senate candidate Darrell Issa seems to be working. They have gone from total or relative obscurity in a short time to real prospects for victory in the June 2 primary.

The specter of personal wealth dominating California elections raises a number of issues. Can the money of someone with no previous political experience offset the traditional candidate's asset of years of service in government, such as that enjoyed by Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a non-wealthy Democratic candidate for governor?

Might a wealthy candidate such as businessman Checchi make promises that he can't fulfill because government has different processes and goals than business? Or is a fresh, corporate approach just what California needs? Los Angeles, of course, went headfirst for the business-is-good view in twice electing rich businessman Richard Riordan as mayor.

Is it better to have a rich candidate who boasts of being beholden to no one? Or might headstrong self-financed candidates feel no constraint in office because they paid for it on their own?

Some of those questions might be answered by the end of the year. Others are likely to be debated in California for years to come.

Checchi, Harman and Issa already have pumped a record $30 million or more into their efforts, most of it on television ads. Less than eight weeks before the primary, most of what Californians know about these candidates is what the campaigns themselves say in television ads. That is, only what the candidates want voters to hear.

Instant access to millions of dollars buys more than television time. Checchi's money was clearly a factor in Sen. Dianne Feinstein's decision not to seek the governorship this year, as badly as she wanted to. Feinstein has her own wealth, but nothing to match Checchi's.

Harman does have years of experience, including three terms in Congress, but only her own money allowed her to jump into the governor's race literally at the last moment after Feinstein backed out. Being able to spend $4 million on television commercials in just a few weeks not only made Harman a viable statewide candidate but an instant front-runner in some polls.

Issa's ability to pour the profits of his auto alarm business into a campaign undoubtedly influenced San Diego Mayor Susan Golding's decision not to run for the Senate, although she was seen as the GOP's strongest possibility.

If there is a perceived ill in having wealthy candidates, it cannot be solved by any of the campaign finance reform schemes that have been proposed on the state and federal levels. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a candidate's right to spend his or her personal fortune is inviolable under free speech provisions of the Constitution.

As with most issues, any question about whether unlimited personal campaign spending tilts the playing field will have to be resolved by voters on their own.

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