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  •   California's Battle of the Bankbooks

    By David S. Broder

    Sunday, December 21, 1997; Page C07

    One receives interviewers at an elegant estate behind the famous Beverly Hills Hotel, the other, at a warehouse building in an industrial park north of San Diego. One is a polished veteran of three Fortune 500 companies, the other a rough-hewn military man and manufacturer of auto safety systems.

    If their 1998 political dreams are realized, one would be the most progressive governor of California since Jerry Brown, the other one of the most conservative Republican senators. The latter provided critical financial support for Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative, and praises other voter initiatives that impose strict term limits on officials and ban benefits for children of illegal immigrants. The former opposes all of those – and favors a moratorium on legislation by referendum.

    But for all their differences, Al Checchi, the Democratic gubernatorial aspirant, and Darrell Issa, the Republican Senate hopeful, have much in common. Both have amassed fortunes while still in their forties and have the brimming self-assurance that comes from living the American dream. Checchi's grandparents came over from Italy; Issa is a Lebanese American Cleveland high school dropout. Both became Californians only a decade ago and both are ready to use millions of their own money – and little or nothing from others – to win high office.

    Millionaire candidates are nothing new in California, of course. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her 1994 opponent, former representative Michael Huffington, both relied heavily on family funds in their first statewide races. But both had held public office previously.

    Checchi and Issa have no records in elected or appointed office. Neither's name was known by even one percent of the California voters at the time he decided to run. But two circumstances make them – and their bankbooks – serious threats to the established politicians who are their rivals.

    Californians decided by initiative last year to create a "blanket primary" in which all candidates of all parties are on the same ballot, requiring aspirants to run what amount to two general-election campaigns. Another initiative, under challenge in the courts, limits contributions to gubernatorial candidates to a maximum of $1,000. Federal limits for Senate candidates are twice as high – but both exempt self-financed candidates like Checchi and Issa.

    They have lost no time putting their money to work. Darry Sragow, Checchi's manager, told me he will have spent $6 million by the end of this year – two-thirds of it on TV ads that began a month ago. His main declared opponent for the nomination, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, may not have more than that to spend in all the weeks leading up to the June primary. Checchi will steadily increase his TV buy plus "whatever we need for targeted mailings and phone calls" to reach the 2 million unaffiliated voters who will be able to vote in the primary for the first time.

    Issa has similar plans for the Republican Senate primary against state Treasurer Matt Fong and San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, both struggling for money to go up against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. His manager, Scott Taylor, says Issa has spent $2.7 million so far and expects to drop five times that much next year.

    Both men have compelling stories to tell. Checchi, a federal bureaucrat's son, went from Harvard Business School to Marriott, Disney and then ran Northwest Airlines. He quit in 1995, spent a year "reading up on California history and politics," and this year has held hundreds of small group meetings around the state. Like other "New Democrats," he promises to combine smart management with liberal social values.

    Issa, who entered the Army at 17, left it a decade later with computer skills that helped him found a successful car-alarm company. He was spurred to political action by his outrage at President Bush's "broken promise" on taxes, and began making big contributions after Bush's defeat. At a critical moment, a $100,000 Issa check kept the petition drive for anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 alive. "Appalled" by the budget deal congressional Republicans signed with President Clinton this year, he told me, "It's going to take more Darrell Issas there to keep America from turning into another France."

    Neither man's ideas are exceptional. What makes them serious candidates is simply their willingness to spend big from their own wallets. Both campaigns have tested the reaction to millionaire candidates with polls and focus groups. They find, as Taylor put it, "that as long as it's money he made himself, people are fine with his spending it. They think at least if he's paying his own way, he's probably saying what he really thinks."

    That is a measure of where politics stands in our biggest state.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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