Board of Equalization
Districts 2 - 40
Districts 1 - 20
Democrats: Al Checchi, Gray Davis, Jane Harman
all of Los Angeles, Pia Jensen of Cotati, Michael Plalitz of Newport Beach, Charles
Pineda Jr. of Sacramento. Republicans: James Crawford of Ventura, Dan Lungren
of Sacramento, Dennis Peron of San Francisco, Eduardo Rivera of Lomita, Jeff Williams
of California City. American Independent: Nathan Johnson of San Diego. Green:
Dan Hamburg of Oakland. Libertarian: Steve Kubby of Olympic Valley. Natural
Law: Harold Bloomfield of Del Mar. Peace and Freedom: Marsha Feinland
of Berkeley, Gloria La Riva of San Francisco.
Late last November, as Californians "couch potatoed"
their way through the Thanksgiving weekend picking through turkey bones and polishing
off pumpkin pie, some images began floating past them on television. A guy in a suit,
hanging with school children, then walking on the beach with his family. Somewhere
through the carbohydrate turpor the words "Checchi for governor" wafted
into their ears. Those who hadn't completely fallen into unconsciousness most likely
thought they might have slept through the rest of 1997 and most of 1998.
"Who? What? Governor? Is there an election? Is there more pie?"
Thanks to Al Checchi, the multimillionaire former co-chairman of Northwest Airlines,
Californians were treated to the earliest-starting gubernatorial election ever. At
a time when most of the pundit crew is still sorting through the "maybes,"
Checchi was already on television. His commercials were paid for out of a personal
fortune whose estimate ranges from $500 million to $800 million, depending on how
well the stock market is doing that week. Yet for all of his spending, which as of
early April had already approached $20 million, Checchi and his wealth remain only
one of many factors which will determine who will succeed the term-limited Pete Wilson
as the next governor of California.
Until January of this year, in fact, the central figure in the gubernatorial hunt
was someone who spends most of her time out of state - California's senior U.S. Senator
Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein had tried once before, in 1990, losing to narrowly to
then-Senator Pete Wilson. Since then, though, she'd won and defended her Senate seat,
had a battle-tested campaign team, and was considered by many on both sides of the
aisle as a clear favorite in any match-up with the presumptive Republican nominee,
Attorney General Dan Lungren.
But as time went on, it became clear that the Democratic waters would not part at
the mere mention of Feinstein's name. Lieutenant Governor Gray Davis, who had won
three of his previous four runs for statewide office, had already been hard at work
lining up support, and had banked about $3 million for his gubernatorial effort before
campaign finance restrictions took hold in December 1996. Davis, the one-time chief
of staff to Governor Jerry Brown, was the leader in most early polls which did not
include Feinstein, largely on the strength of name identification accumulated through
more than a decade in statewide office, as controller and lieutenant governor.
Checchi, meanwhile, dropped $2 million into an "exploratory committee"
- an unprecedented personal committment so early in the race - and hired veteran
Democratic consultant Darry Sragow, who had worked on Feinstein's 1990 gubernatorial
race. Checchi's business experience was largely wrapped up in making deals - he'd
worked for corporate takeover specialists Bass Brothers and his ascention to the
chairmanship of Northwest was the result of a leveraged buy out. His plan was to
tout his legacy at Northwest, which on his watch came back from near bankruptcy in
the early 1990s to become one of the nation's strongest carriers.
As time went on, both Checchi and Davis began to reveal weaknesses which continued
to spark interest in a Feinstein candidacy. Speaking to the Sacramento Press Club,
Checchi acknowledged he had missed some elections - he hadn't voted in any recent
primary elections and had missed the 1994 general election in California. His explanation
- "I was busy running a company" - fell flat with those covering the race.
The Davis campaign and some journalists, meanwhile, began poking holes in Checchi's
"legacy" at Northwest Airlines and his seemingly studied refusal to identify
himself as a Democrat on any of his campaign commercials.
With polls continuing to show her strong, Feinstein nonetheless continued to dither
on into 1998. Finally in February, less than two weeks before the filing deadline,
Feinstein dropped out, citing the dispiriting state of the electoral process in California.
Feinstein's departure brought sighs of relief for the rest of the major candidates
in the race, including Lungren. But that relief lasted only a few days. On the last
day before the end of filing, Representative Jane Harman (D-Venice) tossed her hat
into the ring, via press release.
Harman, a three-term Democrat, admitted she hadn't even considered running for the
state's highest office until Feinstein dropped out, and was little known outside
of the coastal Los Angeles County district she represents. But Harman - who served
in the Carter administration and was a lawyer/lobbyist in Washington - was still
a factor from the get go for one simple reason: She and her husband have money, too.
Lots of it. Harman spent more than $2 million to win her seat in 1992, and has chipped
in personal resources in subsequent races to hold the seat.
Despite securing the services of Feinstein's campaign "A-team," including
consultants Bill Carrick and Kam Kuwata, Harman's early foray into the race was unsteady
- during the exploratory phase she drew criticisim for refusing to answer any questions
about California issues. But not long after her formal announcement, Harman also
began showing up on television screens, in appealing commercials showing her looking
directly at the camera. Within six weeks of entering the race, Harman had zoomed
from virtual anonymity in statewide polls to a statistical dead heat with Checchi,
who had overtaken Davis in the wake of Feinstein's departure from the race.
Checchi's response to the poll results was immediate and blistering - a $200,000
advertising blitz attacking Harman for being a "career" politician. Subsequent
spots assailed Harman's voting record in Congress, accusing her of supporting the
controversial government shut down and backing cuts in Medicare and Social Security.
Harman denounced the ads as being untrue, but fair or not, they were clearly negative
in tone - an abrogation of Checchi's earlier vow not to resort to negative campaigning.
But Harman didn't just get mad - she got even, with a response spot that many voters
remembered better than the attacks which precipitated it. Harman's front-runner status
among Democrats brought out more dirty laundry, including a rehashed attack from
her congressional campaigns about lobbying connections with the People's Republic
As the campaign heads into the home stretch, it seems clear that most of the media
spotlight will continue to shine on Harman and Checchi, the two millionaires engaged
in the spending war. Harman appears to be the stronger of the two on television -
her direct eye contact with the camera comes across with more warmth than the diffident
Checchi. But Checchi does have that bottomless checkbook, and with his "no negatives"
promise now in the dust, he can be as aggressive as he wants to be, possibly forcing
Harman on the defensive.
What about Gray Davis? Well, as anyone who has followed his career knows, Gray Davis
never goes away, and he never makes any "no negative campaigning" promises.
Davis has continued to gather endorsements from traditional Democratic constituent
groups, and is touting himself as the "real Democrat" in the race. While
his early advertising was limited to a somewhat uninspired radio ad, Davis has squirreled
away enough nuts to keep himself in the television game at the finish. His final
push figures to center around his two rivals, in hopes he can poke holes in their
While the Democrats run up the total price tag on the race, Lungren watches with
interest from the sidelines. The only primary rival of his who has gotten any attention
at all is Dennis Peron, the owner of the San Francisco Cannibus Buyer's Club. Lungren,
an ardent opponent of 1996's Proposition 20? legalizing medicinal marijuana use,
has prosecuted Peron's club for selling pot. His low-financed effort is largely viewed
as a grudge match. But while Peron may not pose much of a threat, the sidelines is
not quite as comfortable a place for the two-term attorney general looking to move
up. Like all candidates, Lungren will be running in an open primary, and most of
the statewide polling has involved all candidates. The most recent statewide Field
Poll showed Lungren ahead of all three Democrats, but with only 24 percent of the
vote. Perhaps more worrisome, Lungren was below 50% among Republican voters. Lungren
also didn't help himself in the early going - at his campaign kickoff this past spring,
the Notre Dame-educated Lungren called for a dialog on religion, a potential campaign
irritant in a state know for its secularism.
Most analysts believe Lungren will have to spend some of his campaign resources in
the primary to keep his numbers from dropping too low in the primary. But for the
most part, the race to the finish in the primary will be dominated by all those Democrats
and all that money.
-- Article by Steve Scott