In TIME This Week:
Can't Buy Me Love?
Airline tycoon Al Checchi wants to be California's governor, and he's getting ready to spend his way there
By Cathy Booth/Los Angeles
(TIME, December 1) -- Al Checchi is good looking, in the John F. Kennedy mold. He's smart, Harvard M.B.A. smart. And he's rich, very rich, centimillionaire rich. He has a gated mansion in Beverly Hills, a beautiful lawyer wife, a California tan--and enough of a '60s sensibility to feel guilty about it all. After nearly three decades of making money with the Marriott Corp., the Walt Disney Co., the Bass brothers and Northwest Airlines, Checchi says it's time to give something back. At age 49, he's running for office for the first time in his life. He wants to be California's first Democratic Governor since Jerry Brown held the job back in the '70s.
If California's most popular politician, Senator Dianne Feinstein, decides to go for the same job, then Checchi (pronounced check-ee) will probably be remembered as just another unsuccessful millionaire-politician with an expensive taste for public service. But if she doesn't run, the Democractic nomination may be Checchi's to buy. That's because for the first time in its history, California's gubernatorial race will have two rules that favor a tycoon with no voter following. The first is an open primary, which means voters can cross party lines; the second is a $1,000-per-person limit on contributions to candidates, which means Checchi's $600 million personal fortune will come in handy when it comes time to pay for a statewide TV campaign.
Checchi has already started spending. Last week he bought $3.5 million worth of television time for ads that will run before the end of the year, the earliest ever for a gubernatorial race in California. After that, according to media buyers, Checchi will have to drop $1 million a week on TV ads to reach the state's 5 million primary voters. That could total $40 million, which would make the state's 1998 gubernatorial race the most expensive ever. Lieutenant Governor Gray Davis challenged Checchi this month to agree to the $6 million spending limit imposed by California's Proposition 208 on primary candidates who must seek donations. But Checchi, who plans to reach only into his own pockets, has rejected the idea. "I don't see anything dishonorable in putting yourself before your fellow citizens and asking if they agree," he says. "That's the beauty of democracy."
So while his opponents have been hitting up donors, the newcomer has been able to spend the past 10 months on the high road, talking issues to some 350 groups ranging from Republican-leaning CEOs in San Diego to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. His dollars have also allowed him to lock up some of the hottest political talent, including Clinton pollster Mark Penn, Ted Kennedy's veteran media consultant Robert Shrum and California operative Darry Sragow, who is credited with masterminding last year's return by Democrats to a majority in the state assembly.
Checchi's desire to run for office comes from his middle-class upbringing in the suburbs of Washington, where his father was the No. 3 man in the Food and Drug Administration from 1946 to 1960. Checchi says he has been thinking of running for office ever since age 12. "I was raised in a household where public service was valued," he says, recalling vividly that "[President] Kennedy died when I was 15. Bobby Kennedy died on my 20th birthday." Says author Scott Turow, Checchi's undergraduate roommate at Amherst College: "Al can rub people the wrong way, but he's always had a sense of personal destiny. He's always wanted to do good. He's a great idealist."
Yet it's his record as a "real world" businessman that he claims makes him appealing as a prospective Governor. Fresh from Harvard's M.B.A. program (where he sported hair down to his shoulders), the twentysomething Checchi rose quickly through the ranks at Marriott by arranging clever financing for hotel developments at home and abroad. Hired in his 30s by the secretive Bass brothers of Texas, he helped them acquire a 25% stake in then troubled Disney, pocketing a reported $50 million for himself in the process. His work with Disney helped him befriend Hollywood heavyweights like Michael Eisner and Michael Ovitz, and in 1994 he joined the Beverly Hills crowd by buying the old estate of actor Sidney Poitier. In 1989 he helped finance a $3.65 billion leveraged buyout of Minnesota-based Northwest Airlines, investing about $12 million of his own money. Today much of his fortune is based on the 11.4 million shares he holds in the company.
As Checchi knows, his years as co-chairman of Northwest are the ones his critics are most likely to use against him. When asked about his piloting of the airline, he gets a scowl on his face and pulls out two yellow, legal-size pages of scrunched-up notes to defend his record there from 1989 to 1993. Critics charge that he took the once profitable carrier, burdened by debt from the LBO, to the brink of bankruptcy. Checchi used his charisma to extract some $800 million in union concessions and an additional $837 million in state and local bonds, subsidies and tax credits--while earning $32 million in management and investment fees for his outside firm.
In his version, Checchi was the "white knight" who kept the company from being dismantled by asset strippers or from going down the tubes like Eastern Air Lines. He also gave Northwest employees stock that has tripled in value. "Look," he says, "we took one of the worst airlines in America and made it one of the most profitable." But Paul Omodt, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association for Northwest, says the LBO was "disastrous" for the employees, who ended up bailing out the company in return for stock and three directors' seats. As for the state's involvement, critics like Minneapolis' Federal Reserve Bank researcher Art Rolnick say what Checchi touts as a "partnership" of government and business was really a government subsidy in return for promises to build new facilities and create jobs. "The notion that he was a white knight is questionable," says Rolnick.
As a candidate, Checchi fits the mold of a new Democrat, or a William Weld-style Republican. Checchi is generally liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal ones. He favors investing more in education, using a 10% across-the-board cut in all state bureaucracies to pay for more teachers, more computers, more books, universal preschooling and after-school programs. But he's also prepared to take on the teachers' union with proposals to test teachers every five years and to expand charter schools. He was an opponent of Proposition 187, which cut benefits to illegal immigrants ("It's war on children," he says), but he would prosecute businesses that hire undocumented workers. His first ads call for extending the death penalty to cover serial rapists and repeat child molesters, but he would also spend money on drug programs for the state's prisoners, with release contingent on a drug-free record. Checchi's agenda, and his style, left conservative columnist George Will, who came to visit this fall, gushing about him as "sleek and trim and brimming with ideas." But to make believers of California voters, Checchi will have to prove he's more than Al Checkbook, multimillionaire with good intentions.
Signs of Wealth:
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