IN AN ARTICLE TUESDAY ON CALIFORNIA POLITICAL INITIATIVE, RON K. UNZ WAS QUOTED AS SAYING, "I CAN TASTE THE BLOOD OF REPUBLICANS IN MY MOUTH." UNZ, A REPUBLICAN, WAS NOT SPEAKING FOR HIMSELF, BUT QUOTING A DEMOCRAT. (PUBLISHED 06/04/99)
They call him Mister Mischief. They also call him an annoying gadfly, a wannabe governor, a meddling millionaire and a political terrorist. And this from his fellow Republicans.
Ron K. Unz says he does not care.
The Silicon Valley software impresario with a big bankroll and a Palm Pilot is a rogue Republican with a libertarian streak, who is playing a game of high-stakes "chicken" with the most powerful players in the GOP. And in his hands, he warns, may lie the future of the Republican Party in California, and maybe even Congress.
"I can taste the blood of Republicans in my mouth," he said, with odd glee, on a recent afternoon over colas and coffees at a diner in downtown Palo Alto that serves as his second office.
After successfully placing a statewide ballot initiative before voters last year to end bilingual education in the state where it began, Unz has now set his sights on campaign finance reform. But there is a twist.
He and a Democrat, former acting California secretary of state Tony Miller, have drafted a broad but complex ballot initiative that would set new contribution limits, bar corporate donations, provide public funding for campaigns and require immediate 24-hour Internet disclosure of all contributions of $1,000 or more.
But here is where it gets interesting. If leading Republicans in California and in Congress do not, within the next few days, pledge their support for his campaign finance reform package, which would be placed before voters next March, then Unz says he will withhold another part of his proposed initiative--a plan to take redistricting away from the state legislature and turn it over to a bipartisan panel of retired judges.
Democrats in California control the governor's office, the state Senate and the General Assembly. In the year 2001, the state's political boundaries are to be redrawn by the state legislature, and everyone knows what that will mean: Republicans are going to get the short end of the stick.
According to Unz, if Democrats redraw the lines, between five and 10 Republican seats in Congress could be placed in jeopardy. If those Republicans are defeated, the U.S. House of Representatives will again be controlled by Democrats. Unz almost cackles with the Machiavellian twists of his knife.
"A total redrawing of political lines will change electoral politics in California for decades to come," said Leslie Goodman, a Republican communications consultant. "If Democrats control the executive and legislative branches of government it will guarantee a jury-rigged process of line drawing. They can't help themselves. It's human nature. And the stakes are so high because Republican control of the Congress is going be decided in how California handles this."
Ken Khachigian, a veteran GOP strategist in California, is more blunt: "This is a life and death struggle for survival. It just gets ugly."
Unz is not a man to be trifled with. Where establishment Republicans might see a skinny nerd in a turtleneck and bluejeans, Unz, who unsuccessfully challenged then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) in 1994, has proven to be an artful orchestrator in California's newest form of realpolitik--the ballot initiative, which since the days of Proposition 13 keeps altering the political landscape in the Golden State.
Unz succeeded in ending bilingual education here, with a skeletal staff, his own money and a lot of fax machines. When editorial boards or radio call-in shows asked for comment, they did not get a spokesman. They got Unz calling back on his cellular phone--sometimes eerily within minutes of a voice-mail message. He put out $200,000 in radio advertisements. His opponents spent $6 million trying to salvage bilingual education, and lost by a landslide.
Unz concedes that his coupling of campaign finance reform and redistricting is something like blackmail.
He is miffed that when he first approached the California GOP delegation in Congress, he traveled to Washington but was rebuffed. In another visit last week, he did meet with the delegation. But it now seems almost certain that the delegation will not support Unz, though no formal decision was made.
Unz blames veteran Rep. Bill Thomas for holding his fellow Republican Californians captive. He is not alone. A senior GOP official in the California party, who did not want to be quoted by name, said that Thomas and his congressional colleagues had better focus--and focus soon--on a way to make Unz happy.
In an April letter to Rep. Jerry Lewis, dean of the Republican California delegation, state GOP Chairman John McGraw warned that a Democratic gerrymander of district lines in 2001 "could catastrophically affect our chances of retaining control of the House of Representatives" and that the delegation had better support the Unz initiative or some other proposition that could win.
McGraw wrote: "We are aware that the Unz initiative contains campaign reform proposals that are unpalatable and perhaps unconstitutional. On the other hand, Unz seems to have put together a coalition of supporters that could provide more 'nonpartisan' image to the voters. Other initiative proposals are untested or face the prospect as stand-alone redistricting proposals of becoming easy targets for Democrat opposition."
Thomas's chief of staff, Cathy Abernathy, said the California delegation never felt "threatened" by Unz. "We're not in a battle with him," Abernathy said. That is not the way Unz sees it. Abernathy said the delegation could not support the Unz proposal on campaign finance because it included items such as public funding of campaigns. And so, it looks like the California congressional Republicans will line up behind another proposal that tackles redistricting.
In addition to the Unz initiatives, another Republican, Ted Costa of Paul Gann's group People's Advocate, is working to place one of several possible propositions before the voters in March. One of the more likely is a proposal to slash salaries of state legislators combined with a redistricting plan that would take away line-drawing from the state legislature and turn it over to the state Supreme Court.
Unz, and most everyone else with experience in the California initiative process, understand that most voters hardly care about redistricting--it is inside baseball. Several attempts in the past to change redistricting by ballot initiative have failed, being seen as too partisan.
Unz said if he is rebuffed, he would probably support the Costa proposals. But as he says this, he faxes out a sheaf of papers describing all the reasons why he does not think the Costa initiative is any good--or more important, why he does not think it will succeed.
Any redistricting initiative must include what they call "a sweetener," something that voters might like. Costa proposes whacking legislators' salaries. Unz proposes campaign finance reform.
But this is the mountain that both Unz and Costa must climb, and that McGraw refers to in his letter: The Democrats in California will spend millions trying to defeat any attempt to take redistricting away from them. So the sweetener needs to be real honey from the bee. Several GOP officials in the state said they feared that Unz is the only one who could pass a redistricting initiative.
Unz says he will decide whether to include redistricting in his proposition in the next few days. He has printed up hundreds of thousands of petitions for either option--campaign finance alone or coupled with redistricting.
Unz's partner, Miller, said they are already circulating petitions that include only the campaign finance measures. The campaign finance proposition would require 420,000 signatures because it would be a statutory change, compared with the 671,000 signatures needed for a campaign finance and redistricting proposal, which would be an amendment to the state Constitution. It is estimated that each signature costs about a dollar to garner by professional signature harvesters.
"We're gathering signatures as we speak," Miller said. "It's fish or cut bait time."
CAPTION: Ron Unz, right, pushed through an initiative last year to overturn bilingual education. His latest may jeopardize the GOP's control in Congress.