Wealth talks loudest in race for California governor

Tim Cornwell in Los Angeles on the rise of multi-millionaires in politics
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The Independent Online
NOT FOR nothing is Al Checchi, candidate for Governor of the seventh largest economy in the world, nicknamed Al Checkbook. A former chairman and part owner of a major US airline, he has pledged to spend a sizeable chunk of his half-billion dollar fortune to satisfy his appetite for high political office. "No one," observes his top political adviser, "can match Al Checchi's wallet."

California this year promises to be the scene of the most expensive state elections in American history. In the races for governor and a US Senate seat, which got underway in earnest this month, Mr Checchi has taken a leading role in what some are calling a "battle of the millionaires".

The governorship falls vacant this year with the forced retirement of Republican Pete Wilson, limited by law to two, four-year terms. Mr Checchi's multi-millions have already made him the man to beat, it is said, though he is a political novice who has admitted failing to vote in four elections since 1993.

The chief Republican challenger to the single Senate seat up for grabs, meanwhile, is a car alarm tycoon Darrell Issa. His business is worth a reported $70m (pounds 4.4m) a year, and he wants to abolish the US Internal Revenue Service, and has strong views on the use of ground troops against Iraq.

Since the advent of television, it has never been possible to run a cheap campaign in California. The state has 30 million people, with an estimated 20 million electorate, and 12 major media markets with their own television stations and newspapers.

But by British standards, the sums now washing around in California look like funny money. Combined spending by candidates in the governor's race alone could well run close to $100m.

Mr Checchi worked for the Disney company and a hotel chain, but claims chiefly to have turned Northwest Airlines around as its co-chairman. As a businessman turned politician, he fits the mould of Texan maverick Ross Perot, and Republican publisher Steve Forbes, who ran for the White House in 1996 and is planning a bid in 2000. These men claim their money gives them independence from other moneyed interests. "You don't have have to be a politician to succeed in government," says Mr Checchi. "And the truth is that for far too long, politicians leading our government have failed."

His money, however, has already helped see off several heavyweight Democrats - among them former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. The popular Feinstein led early polling. But she was badly mauled in 1994 by another wealthy first-timer, Michael Huffington, who spent $30m unleashing a savage advertising campaign. Mr Huffington's campaign ended in some ignomy, when he was caught hiring an illegal nanny.

Mr Checchi, largely a self-made man, has hired some top political talent, travelled the state widely and laid out positions on key issues like education standards. His Spanish-speaking wife has helped bring leading Latino politicians on board.

His chief opposition is seasoned - but poor. His main rival for the Democratic primary vote in June (the general election follows in November) is Gray Davis, the Lieutenant Governor. Mr Davis, a professional politician, has no money of his own; in two years of fund-raising, he has raised a respectable $5m, with major donors including actor Michael Douglas.

For Mr Checchi that is small change. He has already spent $9m, mostly on television commercials aimed at the 95 per cent of Californians who didn't know him from Adam. They mix hard-nosed proposals like the death penalty for child molesters with shots of Mr Checchi and family at the beach. Worth $550m, he is prepared to spend a tenth of that, he has said.

The other Democrat in the governor's race is a US Congresswoman, Jane Harman, a moderate centrist from Southern California. She may be a contender by virtue of a husband rumoured to be worth $100m or more.

"It becomes an arms race, that's the closest simile that one can use," said Herbert Alexander, a California political science professor and campaign finance expert. "This year will be an arms race, if Harman puts up a tough fight."

One of the biggest problems of modern US politics, he said, is wealthy individuals from the business world bumping veterans who've worked their way up. "You don't want a plutocracy running your government," he said.