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Ron Unz

A Free-Spending Crusader's New Cause: Ending Money's Rule Over State Politics

May 30, 1999|Scott Holleran | Scott Holleran has written about politics and health care for the Miami Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer

Software entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who led the successful campaign to end bilingual education in California's public schools last July, has a new crusade: campaign-finance reform. While campaigning for the anti-bilingual initiative, Proposition 227, Unz says he was shocked by what he calls California's "wild, wild West" electoral system. Though the initiative passed with 61% of the vote, Unz found his own $750,000 contribution to "English for the Children" exceeded by a $1.5-million donation from Spanish-language network owner A. Jerrold Perenchio to defeat the proposition. Unz contends that Proposition 227 was also stung by statewide slate mailers, official-looking mock ballots, that solicited paid endorsements from the anti-227 campaign.

Teaming with Democrat Tony Miller, former acting secretary of state, Unz has proposed a complicated series of the most sweeping state campaign laws in years. The bipartisanship of the Unz-Miller plan reflects the growing national consensus on the need for campaign reform, punctuated by the defection last week of five Republican members of the House of Representatives from party leaders in an attempt to force a vote on a long-stalled measure. Unz's proposals, which he calls the "California Voters Bill of Rights," would limit individual contributions, subsidize direct-mail advertising and regulate advertising on the Internet, radio, television and newspapers. The Unz-Miller proposal would also provide campaign matching funds, increase disclosure requirements, ban corporate donations and establish voluntary spending limits--$6 million for initiatives and $16 million for gubernatorial campaigns, including primaries and the general election.

That's not all: The founder, president and CEO of a Palo Alto-based financial services software company (he no longer oversees daily operations) seeks to establish a new method of redistricting, overseen by a commission of nine appointed retired judges. There's also a requirement that candidates liquidate campaign funds after each election and give 50% of the money to the state's general fund. The Unz-Miller initiative, which now exists as four separate potential ballot items, needs 670,000 signatures to put the "California Voters Bill of Rights" on the March 2000 primary ballot.

The political maverick first captured attention when he ran a surprisingly strong primary campaign against then-incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994. Unz also irked GOP leaders that year when he publicly opposed the successful anti-illegal immigration initiative, Proposition 187.

Having returned from meetings with key GOP leaders in Washington, where he pitched campaign-finance reform to wary Republicans, Unz is exhausted. Sinking into a chair at a Glendale coffee shop, the unmarried, 37-year-old theoretical physicist with degrees from Harvard, Cambridge and Stanford universities has come fully prepared. His responses are rapid and he delivers them as if their rightness is self-evident. The political father of Proposition 227 has returned with a new quest: the most sweeping regulation of California's elections in years.


Question: Do your initiative's proposals violate an individual's free speech by restricting the right to spend money?

Answer: Individual rights have been violated on the federal level for 25 years.


Q: Does that justify violating rights on the state level?

A: It depends on whether it's really a violation of rights. If you're talking pure individual rights, why not allow someone to give a million dollars in exchange for the elected official doing what the donor wants? In some sense, that is a violation of individual rights. What we have now is, more or less, bribery under a different name.

Here's an example: A corporation has a fiduciary responsibility [to make] profits. If a corporation gives tens of thousands of dollars to an individual candidate, the executives, if they're acting lawfully, have to be getting something in return. It's their fiduciary responsibility to get something in return.

We should try to set up a system that, as much as possible, produces a reasonable political playing field, where different candidates and their ideas can compete for votes. The larger and more comprehensive government is, the more it controls the goods in society, the more it decides which company wins and which company loses, which Indian casino exists and which Indian casino gets closed down, the more people have an incentive, either directly or indirectly, to influence government policy. It would be better to shrink the size of government and decrease their leverage over the economy.


Q: Many states already have campaign-finance laws. Where's the evidence that these laws result in less corruption?

A: It's more evidence in the other direction. California's one of the very few states that [does not prohibit] unlimited contributions, and there's a lot of evidence that government policy is affected.

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