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California and the West

Checchi's Wish List: Can It Be Filled?

Campaign: Ambitious proposals offer critics juicy targets, and some items are short on details. But aides for gubernatorial candidate say he seeks to spark debate and specifics can emerge during legislative process.


SACRAMENTO — If he is elected governor, millionaire Democrat Al Checchi says, he will put 10,000 more cops on the street, cut taxes, raise teacher salaries, bail out struggling cities and apply the death penalty to more crimes.

By any measure, the former chief of Northwest Airlines has proffered an ambitious wish list for state government. And there is plenty more--there are far more ideas, in fact, than those submitted by his rivals in the governor's race or, for that matter, by almost any traditional candidate for statewide office.

Aides say this political newcomer is committed to showing voters that he is not just another rich guy trying to buy an office. But they also warn that he may be handing critics a target-rich agenda of costly and often controversial promises.

Several of Checchi's proposals are short on details, go beyond the authority of a governor or leave the candidate at odds with some government experts.

"Those of us in the campaign who are professional consultants have warned Al that . . . he is inviting criticism," said Darry Sragow, Checchi's lead strategist. "His response to us is very simple: . . . 'I want people to know what I am going to do.'

"It is not the way you run an ordinary campaign," Sragow acknowledged. "But this is not an ordinary candidate."

No, he's not. Checchi is a confident--critics say arrogant--corporate freelancer who parachuted into three major U.S. companies, ordered top-to-bottom overhauls, then walked away with the compliments of Wall Street. Now he wants something similar for California.

Admittedly, this is new to him. So more than a year ago he began a self-guided crash course in government. Then he hired a staff of 29 full- and part-timers to research issues and provide advice for major speeches that have outlined dozens of public policy ideas.

"It's real simple," Checchi said. "We are going to be as specific as humanly possible. I am not afraid to lose. And I don't mind if my fellow citizens look at these issues and say this is not what I want."

But candidates have to do more than tell voters what they want to hear--as Sragow knows. Checchi's opponents already complain that he is simply reciting issues that score well in opinion polls.

Sragow said Checchi will also have to convince voters that he can do what he promises if he wins.

Checchi's death penalty proposal constitutes one case in which the outcome would be beyond his control. He has broadcast television commercials about his plan for executing serial rapists even though he knows the idea probably conflicts with a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. He said in an interview that the makeup of the court has changed since that decision and that he believes the new justices will think differently.

But Dane Gillette, a deputy prosecutor in the state attorney general's office who has coordinated death penalty litigation under Democratic and Republican bosses, said it is unlikely the court will reverse itself.

"Our view is that the death penalty applies only to cases where there is a death and it should be so limited," Gillette said.

The court ruled that a death sentence for rape is cruel and unusual punishment. Under Checchi's plan, rapists and child molesters could be executed on their second conviction.

Checchi has also drawn skeptics from some of the intended beneficiaries of his ideas.

He has pledged to put 10,000 more law enforcement officers on city streets over four years. His staff estimates the cost to the state of such a move at about $1 billion, but it has not indicated where the money would come from or how it would be distributed.

City leaders say they approach such promises with concern. The reason is that state funding is notoriously unreliable because it has to be approved year by year. Many municipalities have opted against President Clinton's program to add 100,000 police nationwide because the federal funding is only temporary--as they fear Checchi's would be.

"It will be there for a while and then go away," said Dwight Stenbakken, legislative director for the League of California Cities. "In the meantime, commitments are made and the local government ends up with the bill anyway."

Checchi has also unveiled an expansive housing program intended to solve two problems--give more money to local governments and boost an anemic housing industry. The candidate would do that partly by letting cities keep the property tax revenue generated by some of the homes built in them.

One problem is the high cost. When cities talk about shifting property tax, they have targeted about $3 billion.

Another complication is that the state's housing crisis is largely in urban areas, where there is little undeveloped land that might be eligible for such a program. Meanwhile, rural areas with plenty of undeveloped land are already creating urban sprawl.

Checchi aides acknowledged such concerns. They said details of how the program would work--and its cost--have not been decided.

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