In advance of the June 2 primary, the Los Angeles Business Journal interviewed the leading candidates for the Democratic and Republican nominations for governor on their reasons for running, their plans to promote California businesses and other issues. Businessman Al Checchi is the third candidate to appear in the series.
Question: Why are you running for governor?
Answer: I think public life is important. I was raised in a household at a time and place when it was considered the highest calling that you could have. My dad was a civil servant in the Food and Drug Administration and I was raised in Washington D.C. When I was 12, John Kennedy became president and it was a time of great civic activism.
I look at California today and I think it is at a crossroads. I believe we need a different kind of leader to take us into the next century.
Q: Your background is in running companies. Is that a good fit with government?
A: It depends on what you want the next governor to do. If you want somebody who is just going to preside over state government, you can get somebody off the street. California will still be here four years from now.
If you want to stay the course we have had for the last 25 years, then you shouldn’t select me. You should select one of my three competitors who have never changed anything in their professions.
I change large things. That is my profession.
As for the kinds of skills that requires, one can look at Northwest Airlines. It is a misconception that a chief executive just gives orders and people follow them. That has not been my experience. When I bought Northwest, I had to negotiate with the Department of Transportation. I personally had to testify before both houses of Congress. We had to go through an extensive audit by the Congressional Budget Office. Then, before closing the transaction although this was not required I went to the three major unions of Northwest Airlines and said, “We will not go forward with this transaction unless we have your active support.” I personally took a year to meet with 20,000 of the airline’s 38,000 employees around the world. It was like a political campaign. I listened to their concerns. We changed 250 of the top 300 people.
I’m the only candidate here who has ever negotiated a collective bargaining agreement. And, to the best of my knowledge, I’m the only candidate who has ever been associated with significant institutional change, first with Marriott, then with Disney and then with Northwest Airlines.
Q: Have you ever talked to Mayor Riordan about what the transition from business to government has been like for him?
A: Yes, I’ve met with him several times. But his background is much different than mine. As a businessman, his experience has been much more centered on being an investor. My experience has been in working in large institutions; a principal part of that business has been creating change. So, we have fairly different backgrounds.
Q: Do you envision overhauling state government in much the same way you did Northwest Airlines?
A: We have a very centralized government in Sacramento. All well-run organizations now are decentralized in their authority, responsibilities and their decision-making. They are decentralizing it geographically and they are pushing it down to its lowest elements. They are moving out layers of bureaucracy and empowering people to make decisions. It’s now time for California state government to do the things that other institutions have had to do to adapt to changes. It’s happened in the private sector and it’s happened in the non-profit sector. It’s now time for it to happen in government.
Q: That message about changing large organizations does not seem to have come out in the television ads and in the campaign.
A: You have to realize that this is a political campaign, not a business transaction. As a candidate, I don’t come to the political process with the same advantages that some of my competitors have. An example: If you are Gray Davis, you say “I’m a Democrat and I’ve been in government for 25 years.” If you are Jane Harman, you say “I’m a woman, I’m a Democrat, and I’m a Congressperson.” There are certain political associations that one has with these.
When you look at me, people see “Democrat and businessman.” As you know, most people think a businessman has to be a Republican. Thirdly, thanks to my friends in the press, the other thing people associate with me is great wealth. These things don’t exactly tell voters where I am on the issues. So I had to run a campaign that was very detailed and very specific. And I had to start early to educate people, so I started in early November.
Now what is happening is that people are starting to get an idea of where I am on the issues and on the political spectrum. The next challenge is to take things to the next level and say, directionally, “Here’s what I want to do with the government.”
Q: Things are going rather well right now in California. Do you think voters really want to hear a message of change?
A: I could not run for office or do anything unless I wanted to change things. I’m not interesting in simply possessing the office for the sake of possessing it. I’ve run my campaign according to my beliefs, which are that we are at a crossroads and we must make changes. My experience is that if I’m not very specific, then how am I going to create change? If I get elected and don’t explain my positions on the issues, how can I claim a mandate to change things? You are going to need that mandate to deal with that Legislature.
If the people of California put me into the governor’s office, they are making quite a statement. They are saying: “We had a choice of three political careerists, and we chose someone with a very different background which I have and a very different set of skills, who has been more specific than any candidate in recent memory about the kinds of changes that he wants to make.”
Q: Your disclosure last month that you wouldn’t send your children to public schools took a lot of people by surprise. It doesn’t seem to fit with your statements about the importance of public institutions.
A: I believe my statement was consistent. First of all, the question had to do with my personal decision as a father. Like any father, I make the decisions that are best for my children. I have three children. One is in college and one is due to go to college next year. I am delighted with the way they have turned out. My third child is going to follow in their footsteps.
What I said was, “I wouldn’t sacrifice my children to my political career.” I have been consistent in saying that public education should be our highest priority. I was the only candidate who was willing to take a pledge that would get us up to the national average in per-pupil spending within five years. I believe I am being consistent in saying as a parent what I would do with my children and what I would do as governor.
Q: Proposition 227, the initiative that would eliminate bilingual education programs, has overwhelming support. Yet you are opposed. Why?
A: Bilingual education as it exists right now is a failure. That said, I oppose Proposition 227. I don’t think it’s going to work. Giving students one year of bilingual education might seem to some people better than a system that seems to be leading to nowhere.
I have put forward my own proposal that says that one of our highest priorities is to get children to read, write and speak English. We need to get to children early in this process with extra education, get them at the age of 4 and 5. We should do nothing but get them to speak, read and write English. It should not be a bilingual program, where they are concurrently trying to learn math and other subjects. We should give total immersion to those students who are limited English speaking. Most children at the end of two years should be ready for all-English classes and ready to rejoin their classmates.
Q: You say you want to bring some business perspective to California government. Yet you are also opposed to Proposition 226, the so-called “paycheck protection” initiative, which is supported by many businesses. These two seem to be at odds. How do you resolve this?
A: Proposition 226 is not being sponsored by the business community; it is being sponsored by the governor for political purposes. Its whole design is to limit political speech on the part of trade unions, because the governor recognizes that the bulk of union contributions go to a different party than his own. At the present time, business interests outspend union interests 11 to 1 on political speech. I do not see in the business establishment broad-based support for this.
Most business people I know would like to see this initiative just go away, because they are trying to harmonize relations between labor and management, not drive a wedge between them.
If this initiative passes, you will see a spate of initiatives in a couple of years aimed at corporate donations as retaliation. Mark my words on this.
Q: What’s your take on the state’s business climate now?
A: Right now, the business climate and by that I mean the relationship between the private sector and government is less than optimal. We have a succession of governors who believe in laissez-faire, and I believe that we are competing with one arm tied behind out backs. There is no state in the union that spends less per capita on economic development. We have slipped in per-capita income from first 25 years ago to 13th today. That is a rather large slip. We are now declining in terms of our share of exports and of job creation.
Q: What’s your agenda for pushing the state’s economy forward?
A: I believe if you stand astride a trillion-dollar economy as the governor does, you should conduct yourself as a head of state in economic affairs. Our governor, in seven years, has been out of the country four times: twice to Asia, once to Mexico and once to London. I believe state government should be on the forefront to attract foreign investment to California. There is no better place to invest.
We should also assist California businesses more in exporting. Most of our businesses have 100 people or less. They tend to be provincial. They need information about how to export.
Q: How about on the domestic front?
A: We need to be far more aggressive at attracting domestic business to locate to California. I have lived all over this country. I have never been to a place that has less public support for attracting industry than California.
We should also look at our regulatory apparatus. It is now very tortuous for business in California. This has nothing to do with protecting our environment. We should go through and reduce regulations and make sure they are more business-friendly. We need less of an adversarial relationship between business and government and more of a partnership model that most of our competitors use.
Q: There has been considerable press coverage on your personal wealth and the fact that this is turning out to be the most expensive gubernatorial campaign to date. What are your thoughts on that?
A: First of all, I was not raised wealthy. My dad was a civil servant. I went to high school on an academic scholarship. When it came time to send me to college, my dad switched jobs so he could afford to help me with the cost. With his help and some scholarships, I was able to go to some very good schools.
I’ve had a 25-year career. Before I got into this political race, nobody talked about my wealth. They talked about the things that I achieved and the places that I went.
Frankly, whether I am a man of wealth or a man without wealth isn’t going to help me one way or another to be a good chief executive of the state of California.
Of greater interest, I think, would be: “What are his attainments? What are his skills? What are his experiences that he would bring to this task?”
Q: Nonetheless, without your fortune, you probably wouldn’t be considered a serious contender for governor.
A: Had I not come along and been in a position to fund my own candidacy, there would be just one less choice for the people of California. My candidacy represents at least one other alternative that would otherwise not have been there.
Q: There have been a lot of numbers thrown out about how much you plan to spend in this primary. Can you set us straight?
A: I didn’t go into the primaries planning to spend X amount. I don’t know how much I’m going to spend. One of the things the media does is quote only half of your sentences. I had said that I would spend what it took to inform the public. That got truncated to “I will spend what it takes,” which is a very different meaning.
Frankly, it is expensive for anyone coming from outside the system. As I described earlier, no one has a context in which to judge you. They had no prior experience with me. When I started, I was an asterisk. More than half of the people had never even heard of me.
I’m in the process of educating people and it is an extensive process.