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California and the West

Hooked on Politics

Savoring Victory, Prop. 227 Author Ponders New Efforts

July 16, 1998|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALO ALTO — He bounded onto the political stage four years ago, a megabucks techno-nerd making a no-hope run for California governor. After he lost, most pundits figured Ron Unz would simply sulk a bit, then go away.

But this year the Silicon Valley entrepreneur proved them wrong--in a big way. With little more than a fax machine, two paid helpers and a chunk of his own fortune, Unz pushed through an initiative that essentially kills bilingual education in California and that endowed him with some serious political muscle on the statewide scene.

Now Unz is back home in Palo Alto, sifting through clutter from the Proposition 227 campaign. His software company awaits him, but Unz--a self-made multimillionaire--couldn't care less. Politics has gripped his soul, and he's not about to quit.

"It's very enjoyable," he mused recently, sitting near a shriveled potted fern on his backyard patio. "Studying the public policy, coming up with strategies for a winning campaign--it's really quite a lot of fun."

Unz is clearly savoring victory like a chess prodigy who just won his first big tournament, but he is not one to waste time studying moves from a past match. Already, the 36-year-old Republican is pushing his bilingual education gospel on new frontiers, both in Congress and among sympathizers who may sponsor copycat initiatives in several other states.

But he is more interested in remaining a marquee player in California, most likely through a second ballot measure. Among potential targets of a future Unz initiative: state tax policy, campaign finance law and tort reform. But he's coy about specifics.

Unz may also make another run for governor one day, though he disdains the monotony of the candidate's life: "Going to endless dinners to shake hands and line up contributions," he explained, "just isn't a very interesting way to spend one's time."

The initiative process is far more inviting for an introverted yet opinionated sort like Unz. Although no referendum is a sure thing, he has proved that a smart guy with good timing, determination, an appealing idea and a few bucks can make a lasting mark.

"Look at the $40-million bonfire--Al Checchi--and then look at what Ron Unz did," said Sacramento political consultant Wayne Johnson. "He proved that he has the ability to conceptualize, organize, put something on the ballot and win."

Indeed, though controversial in many quarters, Proposition 227 turned out to be one of the most popular contested initiatives in state history, passing with 61% of the vote. The measure survived its first legal challenge Wednesday, when a federal judge cleared the way for its implementation.

As a result, California's system of teaching children in their native languages will virtually end. Instead, students who are not fluent will be placed in intensive English classes for one year, then moved into regular courses.

Critics Lambaste Audacious Egghead

Critics say it's an outrage that someone like Unz--who is childless and had never set foot in a bilingual classroom until recently--could manage to level an educational system that had been in place for 30 years.

How dare this audacious egghead, this theoretical physicist with no background in education, presume that he knows what's best for the 1.4 million California schoolchildren with limited English skills--and then spend $700,000 of his own money to get his way?

Cynics suspect there is an ulterior motive, that Unz used the initiative to raise his personal profile and build a launch pad for a future run for office.

"It seems to me he definitely does have an interest in continuing in the political arena," said Silvina Rubinstein, executive director of the California Assn. for Bilingual Education. "I find it very disturbing that he is using the youth of California--experimenting with their lives--to further his career."

Friends insist that the truth is far less sinister. They say Unz, who was educated at Harvard, Cambridge and Stanford and wields an IQ he once claimed to be 214, is a genuine policy wonk who wants to use his intellect and wealth for the public good--and believes it's his civic duty to do so.

"He's a nerdy guy who lives and breathes policy and politics," said Robert Poole, president of the Reason Foundation, a think tank to which Unz contributes.

"He's a passionate intellectual, a missionary," added conservative author and activist David Horowitz. "Even if this guy had no money, he'd be in a one-room apartment, spending all his time writing letters to the editor."

It's true that Unz has all the markings of a monomaniacal political junkie. Upon discovering Commentary magazine some time ago, he ordered 15 years of back issues and read them all.

He attends public policy seminars for fun, and, Poole says, "has a tendency to become very animated and monopolize the conversation."

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