Being Ron Unz 

The Genius Son of a Welfare Mother, He Made a Fortune in Computers. Now He's Spending it Trying to Reshape the World

Wednesday, Nov 24 1999


It’s late August and Ron Unz, the multimillionaire software entrepreneur and idiosyncratic conservative, is seated at a table for four at Jing Jing‘s. It’s his favorite Chinese restaurant, an inexpensive, worn place just off University Avenue in upscale Palo Alto, where he lives in graduate-student squalor.

Unz‘s jowly face inspires unhappy memories of Richard Nixon. Nixon was also up-from-the-bottom, scrappy, and he had similar sad and darting eyes, the same jaw jutting out there as if daring you to take a poke. When Unz’s face splits wide in a goofy, adolescent grin, it seems uncharitable to have made the connection.

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He‘s been dabbling lately around the edges of presidential campaigns and is secretly weighing a campaign himself for the U.S. Senate. The New Republic just put him on the cover with a headline reading ”This Man Controls California,“ but there’s no entourage and no one in the restaurant recognizes him as Unz picks at his beef over rice, talking nonstop between bites about his political passions.

Consider these just a few of the many scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Unz sleeps on a mattress on the floor in an undecorated, sparsely furnished $1.44 million home. Dressed in khakis and a cotton shirt, he could pass for the Stanford University Ph.D. candidate in physics he was in the early 1980s before wobbling into the business world to make millions in software. He spends almost everything he earns on political causes, regularly jarring the sensibilities of allies and enemies alike.

What inspires Unz‘s grin this afternoon is his breathless excitement about Proposition 25, the far-reaching campaign-finance-reform initiative he’s just finished drafting. He‘s on the verge of securing, with the expenditure of about $850,000 out of his own pocket, a ballot spot for the measure that he expects to clean up electoral politics. The initiative would impose campaign-contribution limits in California, a state that so far has none, provide for swift a Internet disclosure of contributions, ban corporate contributions to candidates, and provide publicly funded television and radio time to qualifying candidates. The measure would transform the rules of political campaigning in the state and -- in a year when the state Legislature and Congress once again failed to clean up campaign-finance rules -- allow Unz to triumph, as he has before, by taking his ideas straight to the people.

Current officeholders have set a nice backdrop for Unz. Political spending in California broke a kind of sound barrier during the last election cycle, in 1998, with $138 million lavished on campaigns that year. In the gubernatorial race alone, $72 million was spent, more than half of it by a single candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, businessman Al Checchi. ”The problem in California,“ Unz points out, ”is not what’s illegal. Very few people disobey the law. The problem is what‘s legal.“

Unz used California’s liberal initiative process once before, in 1998, when he invested $752,000 of his own money in a $1.2 million campaign to end bilingual education programs in California. Passage of Proposition 227, English for the Children, by 61 percent -- following a campaign in which both political parties and all candidates for governor opposed the initiative -- raised Unz‘s political profile considerably and solidified his reputation as a maverick and a bit of a braggart. ”Bilingual education has never worked in 30 years,“ he says evenly. ”If I hadn’t come along, it would still be there.“

Proposition 25 is partly motivated by Unz‘s experience in that campaign. In the final days before the election, Unz was nearly blindsided by a last-minute infusion of money used to flood the airwaves with hard-hitting television ads against his initiative. It wasn’t until after the election that he discovered the effort was underwritten by A. Jerrold Perenchio, the conservative owner of the Spanish-language Univision TV network.

Proposition 25 is vintage Ron Unz, an exercise in what he calls ”diagonal politics,“ by which he means cutting across the normal lines of alliance to achieve results on a popular, but previously mired, issue. ”Unexpected coalitions. That‘s my favorite thing,“ he exults. His co-sponsor for Proposition 25 is Tony Miller, a liberal, gay Democrat who once served as California’s secretary of state.

When Unz stands up after lunch, his craggy head teeters on his wiry frame as if the brain were waiting a little impatiently for the body to catch up, and he sets off on an odd tour, showing me the 1.5-mile route he walks each morning from home -- he won‘t let me in because he’s ”sensitive about how much of a mess it is“ -- to the Burger King where he typically buys a morning cup of coffee, the newsstand where he purchases three California newspapers each morning, the Kinko‘s where he does much of his copying. ”Much of what I do,“ he says proudly, ”is secretarial work.“

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