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.
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.“
It’s been very effective secretarial work, with a simple formula: a Pentium Pro with loads of memory, hooked up to blast faxes and mass e-mails for a circuit of 1,500 supporters and journalists who receive regular Ron Unz bulletins. Unz doesn‘t own a newspaper, but he’s bent new technology to his uses, creating a modern megaphone for his views.
Unz is driven — ”very focused“ is the phrase he uses as though it were a mantra. He‘s passed through a plethora of identities already: physics whiz, ancient-history scholar, high-tech entrepreneur, and only then conservative reformer. He’s given up his life as a businessman and a fortune of several million dollars to work at politics full time, animated by the somewhat naive belief that sheer braininess (his IQ was once tested at 214, he says) can solve intractable social problems.
He‘s profoundly conservative on taxes, crime and welfare, but also out of step with conservatives in manifold ways: He’s pro-immigrant but anti-multicultural; anti-voucher in pro-voucher times; anti-abortion but nondogmatic, framing his position as a ”personal view“; a free trader who is sanguine about China; an unreligious person among followers who root their politics in religious fervor; a right-wing activist driven only marginally by concern about gays and guns.
I asked two Republican Party strategists who have worked with Unz whether he has an identifiable base of political support — either in the party or outside of it. ”It‘s ethereal. It’s mystical. It really doesn‘t exist,“ one said. ”No, none at all,“ another replied, pausing. ”But, then, that probably doesn’t matter.“ Few statewide politicians in media-saturated California seem to believe in old-fashioned candidate-to-constituency base building anymore.
At 38, Unz is just getting started. After he finishes off bilingual education nationally and cleans up campaign funding in California, he‘s got a raft of other ideas for additional initiatives he’s been pondering — on tort reform, health care and taxes. He‘s shopping proposals around to see who will ”invest“ in his solutions and help him bankroll campaigns.
Unz’s success is a generational bellwether of fresh forms of activism amid shifting political identities. But if he is an avatar of political change in a virtual world, his own past and political awakening also pose a riddle about the nature of the ”diagonals“ he‘s come to represent.
When he arrives uncharacteristically late to Jim’s Coffee House one sunny afternoon, Unz is fidgety, suggesting this table, then that one over there out of the sun. He sits, holding himself stiffly as if determined to do his duty. ”These are not things that I really discuss very comfortably,“ he admits. ”I know when you‘re involved in public issues, your private life inevitably comes up.“
He has agreed today to discuss his past. This is the gist of what others have told me makes him so uneasy: When Ron Unz’s mother, a politically active left-wing schoolteacher from Los Angeles, was in her mid-20s, she met an older professor from the Midwest on a flight to Israel. He seemed odd, eccentric even, but clearly brilliant, too, and Esther-Laio Avrutin decided, after he‘d visited her several times when she’d returned to L.A., that she would a have a child with him. When Esther-Laio wrote to her lover to let him know about her pregnancy, the letter was opened by the professor‘s wife — the existence of this wife came as startling news to Esther-Laio — and that ended any possibility that, her sister says, they would be married. Esther-Laio’s decision as a single woman to bear Ron by a married man she‘d picked out largely for his brainpower rocked her own family. (Unz turned down repeated requests to interview his mother because of her health, and efforts to reach her directly were unsuccessful.)
After Ron was born in the fall of 1961, Esther-Laio moved back in with her parents and stopped working. During Ron’s infancy, his mother suffered a series of illnesses — colds and other viruses. Ron was a troubled baby, allergic, as it turned out, to his mother‘s milk. Esther-Laio grew depressed and had trouble sleeping. She worked only occasionally, and after her father fell ill too, she applied for welfare. Throughout Ron’s childhood, the family stayed afloat thanks to the safety net then provided by the welfare state.
Although it‘s all a little fuzzy — ”It was a long time ago,“ Unz says — he remembers his great shame about being different, especially about not having a father living at home. His mother, he recalls, was quite candid, open about the decisions she’d made and the reasons she‘d made them.
Esther-Laio’s parents, working-class Jewish immigrants from Russia, were scandalized, though. ”There was massive turmoil“ at the time of Ron‘s birth, says Esther-Laio’s only sibling, Rivko Knox. ”My sister is very bright, very creatively bright, and she thinks of new ways to do things. Ours was a very Orthodox household, and she would get into big arguments with my parents. She would turn on the lights or the radio on the Sabbath, defy their rules. My sister detests rules.“
Both decisions — to have a child outside marriage and to go on welfare — were abominations to her parents, Ron and his aunt both remember. ”They thought that she had behaved very foolishly and improperly,“ Unz recalls. ”There was an awful lot of skirmishing.“ Some of the insults had to do with politics. Esther-Laio was pro–free speech, pro–civil rights and anti–Vietnam War. His grandfather ”came from a very politically liberal New Deal type of background — I imagine he never voted for a Republican in his life — but he and my mother clashed over political issues a lot during the 1960s, because he was very pro–Hubert Humphrey, pro–Lyndon Johnson, pro–Vietnam War, and she was on the other side.“
The sharpest, most sustained exchanges centered on Ron himself. ”The circumstances of my birth,“ Unz says coolly. ”That was the main thing they argued about.“ The conflicts raged loudly, constantly, in the tiny house on a ridge in working-class Tujunga. There were only two bedrooms, and the walls were paper-thin. ”Certainly it was never violence or anything like that,“ Unz adds. A moment later, he muses, as if to take the sting out: ”What people regard as standard in family life has changed in 30 years. When you watch some of the old TV shows from the 1960s . . . the ongoing level of bickering and quarreling was considered normal and standard.“
Unz met his father only twice while growing up, the first time at a playground when he was about 4. It was an unemotional, businesslike meeting. His father seemed ”tall and old.“ Between two brief childhood visits and his attendance at Ron Unz‘s graduation from Harvard College, he had no contact at all with his son. (The elder Unz declined to speak for this story. ”I don’t want to discuss it, and I don‘t want my name in the newspaper,“ he said.)
Raised in a household with strong-willed adults, Unz was pulled in contrary directions. His grandmother took him along to synagogue with her, and he even learned enough Hebrew to be bar-mitzvahed. But he never embraced religion and didn’t really identify with his Jewishness. He also went along with his mother — to demonstrations against the Vietnam War and precinct-walking for Democratic nominee George McGovern during the presidential campaign of 1972. ”It‘s all a little fuzzy, it was a long time ago,“ Unz says again. ”When my mother took me on those anti-war marches carrying a candle, it was just sort of ’I want you to come with me, because we‘re fighting the evil Vietnam War.’“
Unz sank into a vivid imaginary life. He learned to distance himself from adult passions, listening mutely as his mother and his grandparents argued. He became a secular person unattached to the fierce religious and political views of his parent and grandparents.
Instead, Unz found solace in science fiction, mostly Isaac Asimov, and he spent endless hours playing solitary games out in the expansive yard perched in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Unz‘s favorite was an elaborate board test of battleship strategy, which he eagerly mastered enough to trounce any child who could be talked into playing against him. Unz remained a loner through much of his childhood, never inviting playmates to his own home. His family was an embarrassment, his frayed clothes and small, dingy house reminders that he came from an unconventional background. ”These are not things that I really discuss very comfortably. The fact that I was raised on welfare, it’s something I find very uncomfortable to put out there,“ Unz says, shifting in his seat.
It‘s far easier sledding to recall the intellectual challenges he took up. He excelled as a student and remembers with notable precision individual papers he wrote in junior high school. As a teenager, he was selected for a special advanced-studies program at Walter Reed Junior High.
”He would be among the top few students I ever taught,“ says Bill Fitz-Gibbon, a mainstay of the accelerated program at Walter Reed and one of Unz’s main mentors in life. ”He had confidence, but not arrogance. He could go quite deeply into whatever would come up, but then explain it to other students without lording it over them.“
At North Hollywood High, Unz made a name for himself as a brilliant budding scientist and mathematician. He also pursued studies in ancient history, impressing his professors at UCLA, where he began taking college courses in his junior year of high school. ”When this guy talks, you can hear the tumblers turn. He‘s a genius,“ says Mortimer Chambers, a professor of ancient history at UCLA. ”I assumed that he would become a theoretical physicist and stay in that Einstein world. I thought he would win the Nobel Prize, honest to God.“
In his senior year, Unz won the prestigious Westinghouse Science Prize for a paper he’d written on black holes. The work, he says now, took only a couple of days, and he was surprised to beat out other high school students whose experiments took them months to accomplish. Unz ended up facing an unusual dilemma for a kid raised on welfare — whether to go to California Institute of Technology, Princeton or Harvard. He consulted his high school mentors and headed for Harvard.
At Harvard, he registered to vote for the first time, in the presidential election of 1980. He signed up as a Republican in order to vote for Congressman John Anderson, a moderate who had attacked Ronald Reagan‘s economic theories as ”smoke and mirrors.“ Unz doesn’t remember domestic policy interesting him much, but does remember despising Jimmy Carter, both for his sanctimonious moralizing style and for what he considered a disastrous foreign policy.
Ron Unz looks dolefully around at the ruins of lunch in the cavernous Marquis Ballroom at the Anaheim Marriott, where Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes has just delivered a stem-winder to the state Republican Convention. Forbes has swept out, with his large entourage, to a standing ovation from a crowd of lukewarm admirers. ”Look at all the money he‘s spending. He’s down at 5 percent after all that money,“ Unz marvels. ”Lots of money, but no movement. That lets you know the battle is not fought in paid media, it‘s fought in free media. After 1996, Forbes should have disappeared for a while. Disappeared.“
At the convention, its delegates still reeling from a political blowout by the Democrats in 1998, Unz trolls the hallways, playing no official role but sounding a few key people out about a possible Senate bid. Proposition 25 is not even discussed, because campaign finance is an anathema to party regulars, and he speaks on no panels. He seems remarkably unconnected to the most heated discussions taking place in convention meeting rooms, which center on President Clinton’s veto of the Republican tax cut and plans to make the party a kinder, gentler, warmer place for independent swing voters.
Unz‘s chief political and press adviser, Sheri Annis, does some trolling of her own. Annis is the largely unheralded secret of Unz’s success during, and since, the Proposition 227 campaign. Savvy and energetic, she runs Unz‘s English for the Children office in Los Angeles and serves as his key media strategist and sounding board. She’s as warm and personable as Unz is sometimes distant and cerebral. And she carves up some diagonal alliances of her own. Even though she works for Unz, she opposes Proposition 25 because it doesn‘t regulate indirect ”soft money“ contributions. She’s pro-choice, and she also opposes the conservative ”Definition of Marriage Initiative“ sponsored by state Senator Pete Knight (her boss has endorsed the initiative).
One place where convention buzz and Unz‘s concerns intersect is in the intensity of interest in finding a challenger to Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. So far on the Republican side, only San Diego Supervisor Bill Horn, state Senator Ray Haynes and Orange County businessman J.P. Gough have expressed any interest in the race, and they’re virtually unknown statewide. Several highly placed party officials have already urged Unz to consider the run. They want someone with both tenacity and deep pockets to take on Feinstein.
None of Unz‘s acquaintances from high school and college would have predicted a rough-and-tumble life in electoral politics for Ron Unz. ”He was too much of a geek,“ says one. ”There’s, like, this social gear missing in him, you know?“ Nor would anyone have predicted the antecedent, Unz‘s initial foray into business.
”I would have been less surprised with Ron getting the Nobel Prize than Ron going into business,“ says his Harvard dorm mate Robert Dujarric. Eric Reyburn, another classmate at Harvard who hung out in a loose circle around Unz, adds: ”He didn’t want to have anything to do with [political] parties. It was a total shock to me when he got involved in party politics.“
Unz‘s life-changing stint in business occurred almost by chance. He’d just finished the second year of a Ph.D. program in physics at Stanford University in the a summer of 1985 — tired, one friend says, of ”the mental masturbation“ involved in higher-order physics — when his former dorm mate Dujarric suggested that he try out a summer internship with the First Boston Corporation in New York.
Unz felt stifled, frustrated most of all by his failed effort to establish a magnet program — he called his proposal a ”School of Advanced Studies“ — in the junior high school he‘d attended. Working around the clock in a way that seems familiar to him now, Unz had succeeded in raising promises of funding, had gotten the Los Angeles Times to pay attention to his idea, but then ran headlong into the opposition of the school board.
”That really made me angry,“ Unz recalls, a rare expression of emotional heat. ”I’d spent all that time and effort, done all these amazingly improbable things. That was the whole reason I went to work on Wall Street. I said to myself, the next time I try to do something in public policy, I‘ll make sure that I have some money to do so. I’ll have some flexibility in my life or credibility or leverage to get things done.“
Unz‘s business career has been reported, typically, as a kind of slicked rail: a summer at First Boston, followed swiftly by the founding of a spectacularly successful software company, steady and secure growth of the company and then a remarkably lucrative payoff launching his political career. But the real story reveals a far more turbulent trajectory and also demonstrates Unz’s propensity for high-stakes gambling.
Unz was actually fired that first summer from First Boston. He‘d worked solo on a computer program to automate the analysis of complex mortgage securities. ”It was really my best invention,“ Unz says now. ”But I did it secretly. It caused a lot of friction, because part of the group worked in the program that I’d made obsolete. And since I‘d been the one who had done it against orders, they said, ’We think you should resign.‘“
Only after being forced out of his job did he go off on his own to develop the idea further and produce new software programs useful to large banks and brokerage firms that trade in bonds. He founded a company that fall with a former First Boston colleague. ”I really didn’t like working in a big organization,“ Unz says. ”Instead of doing what is the most efficient thing, or the most productive thing, or the most successful thing, you have to go through all these channels. I work much more effectively independently, with a broader mandate.“
What followed, as he and his partner went to work on the new company, were 15-hour workdays, with his credit cards maxed out and his future on the line. His friend Larry Penn remembers Unz ”working so hard on his programs for a stretch of a few months that he never left his neighborhood.“
Within a year, Unz had an acrimonious falling-out with his partner. Unz was thrown back on a total reliance upon himself. He became Wall Street Analytics, a corporation of one. All along the way, Unz flogged himself with the idea of an eventual reward — the resources to get involved in politics. ”If somebody had told me I‘d spend the rest of my life in software, I’d have just hanged myself,“ he says. Sleepless nights and punishing days of writing code finally paid off. Sales of his software programs boomed in the late 1980s, and Unz was suddenly flush.
As money came in, Unz almost immediately began spending nearly all he had on acquiring political influence. He plunked $50,000 down on the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York, and Linda Chavez‘s offshoot, the Center for Equal Opportunity. During this formative stage of Unz’s political involvement, immigration was the primary issue that animated him. Living in Jackson Heights, he was surrounded by neighbors from Central America, Puerto Rico and Mexico. In his neighborhood, Unz remembers, elderly people thought nothing of leaving their windows open in the summertime; it was a safe and clean place where people worked hard. But in Manhattan, crime soared and the fabric of the city frayed. ”Just reading about it, all those killings!“ he says. ”One day there were 20 people killed.“ Living in New York ”made me more conservative, no question,“ Unz recalls. ”New York City under David Dinkins was such a disaster!“
This dual vision — of an ideology that merged pro-immigrant sentiment with entrepreneurial anti-welfare conservatism — was reinforced by the intense independent study in contemporary politics he assigned himself. One day Unz stumbled across Commentary, the neoconservative journal, and he promptly bought a complete set of 15 years of issues to educate himself, he says, about how the country had veered into such terrible trouble. When he finished reading, Unz began hectoring his friends with dire predictions that a nativist backlash was brewing. With frustration rising over crime, welfare and economic stagnation, he felt that immigrants would become primary targets of turbulent times. ”I wanted to set things in motion,“ Unz remembers, ”to counter that before it happened.“
Shortly after Unz moved Wall Street Analytics Inc. back to California in 1992, settling in Palo Alto, his worst fears played out. The state was in a deep recession, and Republican Governor Pete Wilson, along with a host of Democratic Party leaders, including Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, began to talk tough about the costs of new immigrants. When no other candidate stepped forward, Unz took a leave from his business and placed $2 million a of his own money into a kamikaze candidacy against the incumbent governor.
Unz ran in opposition to Proposition 187, the Wilson-supported initiative to deny medical care and education to the children of illegal immigrants. But he ran to Wilson‘s right on the environment, taxes, crime and other issues, winning the support of the right-wing California Republican Assembly. ”What I was really doing was highlighting the internal contradiction — in classic Marxian sense — between the extensive social-welfare state and an openness to immigration,“ Unz says now. ”If people think illegal immigrants are coming here because they need work and they’ll go home again, that‘s one thing. But if they feel they are coming here and getting all these government goodies paid for by your tax dollars, that makes them very upset.“
At the end of a short primary challenge, Unz got 34 percent of the vote, a credible showing. But he left a raft of disappointed allies in the campaign’s wake. His campaign strategist, Arnold Steinberg, acknowledges that the campaign ”collapsed after about three weeks,“ largely because there was no money to keep television advertisements on the air. According to others active in the campaign, few if any of the staff members who worked on that first campaign still support Unz, because he didn‘t know how to build good working relationships.
In any case, the post-election situation in 1994 was deeply depressing for Unz. ”Proposition 187 won in a landslide and Pete Wilson won in a landslide, and immigration became the really hot-button national issue,“ Unz recalls. ”That was the primary reason I’d run against Wilson, and for all my effort — or perhaps because of my effort — suddenly immigration seemed to be moving in the opposite direction.“ Depleted both psychologically and financially, Unz went back to work in his business, writing new software code, and he stayed involved only tangentially in politics by cooperating with a network of pro-immigrant activists to oppose new restrictions proposed on immigration by the Clinton administration and the Republican-controlled Congress.
Unz‘s re-entry into politics came a year and a half later, in 1996, when he seized on the highly publicized boycott by parents of students at Ninth Street Elementary School over bilingual programs in the school. He proceeded to draft and campaign for a ban on traditional bilingual programs in California schools. To mount the campaign, Unz executed another one of his ”diagonals.“ He allied himself not with the already existing anti-immigrant English advocates, but with a left-wing Episcopal priest, Alice Callaghan, who runs social-services programs for garment workers and their children in Los Angeles.
Their evaluations of the alliance they struck are a study in contrasts. ”Proposition 227 went remarkably well,“ Unz recalls. ”I worked out a plan, and the plan almost completely ended up working.“ Unz, the former historian, juts his chin out and makes a sweeping claim: ”Future historians will have a chapter called ’Proposition 187 and Its Aftermath.‘ Proposition 227 will take up a big part of that chapter.“
But for Callaghan, it’s precisely that kind of hubris which puts her teeth on edge: ”That notion that he nurtures, of doing the whole campaign himself with a fax machine and so on, is false.“ From the beginning, Callaghan explains one afternoon in the spare Skid Row after-school center on Seventh Street, the boycott was not just an effort to eliminate bilingual programs — but rather to replace them with structured English-immersion teaching. ”We haven‘t changed the situation much,“ Callaghan says. ”I had a fifth-grader in here yesterday who is reading at the first-grade level. This kid was born here!“ Callaghan says her relationship with Unz soured during the campaign, and she’s grown increasingly troubled by his portrayal of a political battle won, after all, by an enormous grassroots effort. ”He‘s very smart, but he’s also enormously shallow,“ Callaghan says, punctuating her remark with an upraised finger. ”Because he has no deep beliefs on issues, he can‘t understand people who won’t just move to the middle.“
At his Sacramento press conference to announce that he‘s running to unseat Dianne Feinstein, Unz does his best to look like a real candidate. But in a white mock turtleneck and a tweed sports coat, he looks a little like a doctoral student ready to present for orals. He stands behind the podium diffidently, as if preparing to give a lecture, calling Feinstein the ”800-pound gorilla of California politics.“ But he says it evenly, almost apologetically, and then compliments her on her history of support for campaign-finance-reform measures. In a press release (which he’s copied himself at Kinko‘s), he calls himself a ”maverick“ whose ”campaign will go where politicians fear to tread.“
Around the room sits the first caucus Unz has to impress before he meets his potential voters — the press caucus. George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times, Dan Walters and Stephen Green of the Sacramento Bee, Doug Willis of the Associated Press, all look a little dubious, but then, that’s their job. When Unz runs on overlong in an answer about bilingual education, one reporter snaps, ”You‘re not running for the state Senate, you’re running for U.S. Senate. Can you give us some positions on issues appropriate for that?“
That question releases a logjam. And so it goes through a series of tussles in which Unz begins nearly each answer by saying, ”Now, that‘s a good point . . .“ even if he doesn’t think so, and sketches out his diagonal agenda. Unz makes it hard to draw a bead during the ritual dance of Q and A. Does he think abortion should be outlawed except in cases of rape and incest? Yes, that‘s his personal view. But his more complicated policy analysis is that the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision, which found a constitutional basis for choice, should be overturned; the net effect would be to leave abortion policy up to the states — which means, if you catch this curve, that abortion would undoubtedly remain legal in the state of California. Is he in favor of the assault-weapons ban, one of Feinstein‘s trademark legislative successes? No, because they’re not effective.
When the questioning turns acidly personal, Unz just juts his chin out a little farther. Is it true, as a laudatory New Republic profile reported, that he ”eschewed girls“ in school? ”Well, I tend to be a very focused person,“ Unz replies. Finally comes this cutting question: Isn‘t his own history, as a child born out of wedlock to a mother who was on welfare most of her adult life, at odds with his conservative position on welfare reform? No, because his mother, he explains evenly, had made ”only one a mistake“ and most women on welfare make many ”more than one mistake.“ Nobody seems startled by Unz’s reference to himself, even in this context, as a ”mistake,“ but then, the circuitous answers are getting denser and the reporters are understandably looking for leads.
Unz simply hunkers in, talking policy, policy, policy until Dan Walters — the Sacramento Bee columnist and Dean of the Bad Boys among Capitol reporters — holds up his file folder and says, ”Thank you all for coming,“ effectively ending the press conference for a candidate the reporters think has overstayed his welcome. The performance was, as one of the reporters says, ”not ready for prime time.“
Over lunch on the patio downstairs, Unz sighs and settles into a cast-iron chair. He‘s buzzed, overamped, eager to get on the phone and do some more interviews, inexplicably thrilled at what has just happened. How did he think it all went? ”Good, really good!“ he exclaims, looking for support to his chief political adviser, Sheri Annis, who only smiles and glances down at her menu. ”Well,“ Unz says. ”It’s a start.“
Nearly everyone he‘s consulted has advised against the race. Party officials who first urged Unz to run have reversed course and asked him to abandon the idea. They’ve decided that Representative Tom Campbell — who is liberal on social issues, conservative on economics — is their best bet for winning the seat away from the Democrats.
Unz‘s allies in the campaign-finance-reform initiative campaign are also wary. Tony Miller, his initiative co-author, and campaign-finance specialist Bob Stern, who helped draft Proposition 25, advised him not to jump in. They worried that the initiative will be seen only as an adjunct to the Senate campaign. Until this turn — when his personal political ambitions suddenly crossed wires with the goals of his ”unexpected coalition“ — there’d been a kind of rhetorical love fest across ideological lines. ”We need a lot more Ron Unzes on the right and the left,“ Stern had said.
But over the weekend, Stern has admitted to deep qualms about how the partisan Senate bid might affect the cross-partisan initiative they‘d spent so many hours laboring over. In a long telephone conversation, he had told Unz so. Despite these warnings, Unz had gone to work by himself in his Palo Alto home, assembling press packets and formulating an announcement. ”I’m not like an ocean liner, I can turn pretty swiftly,“ Unz had said on Monday morning as he collated the materials.
Ron Unz sounds uncharacteristically rattled, tattered around the edges. This is Ron Unz?, he says on the telephone, a tentative uptick as if he‘s asking rather than telling. He wants to meet. ”Could we get together again?“ he asks. ”In person?“ The next morning over breakfast, he’s wearing an old, worn, faded blue shirt with button-down collar tips that flap, unbuttoned, when his head lumbers up and down.
Though he doesn‘t want to talk about it, it’s clear that the air has leaked out of his balloon. He has to really work to seem perky. Poll results on the campaign-finance initiative show that it‘s leading by a mere 1 percent margin, 42 percent to 41 percent. This will be no slam dunk. The $40 million the initiative provides for publicly funded media credits will be an especially vulnerable feature of the measure.
”We have a lot of work to do,“ Miller, the initiative’s co-author, has warned already. ”We have to make sure that people don‘t confuse the message with the messenger. Among other things, I think Ron is buying a ticket on the Titanic. I think Dianne Feinstein wins, and wins big.“
Initial polling has shown Unz far behind Dianne Feinstein, and significantly behind Tom Campbell as well. He’s committed himself to helping fund an anti–bilingual education initiative in the state of Arizona, and he wants to file one in New York City, too, to galvanize media interest in ”the media capital“ and provide ”cover for efforts in all the other states.“ Congressional Republicans are hammering him to pony up with a contribution to their redistricting initiative, too, something they claim he previously promised. Overextended is a word that might apply here.
Campbell, meanwhile, is running all-out. He‘s got more than $1.2 million in a campaign treasury already, and has garnered even the support of key conservatives in the state party apparatus. Unz’s own effort to hire staff for his Senate candidacy, particularly to bring in a skilled fund-raiser, hasn‘t been successful yet. And his own hours on the telephone, and in private meetings, have been dispiriting. One poignant irony: Unz’s underdog quest will be all the tougher to fund because he‘s pledged to abide by the terms of Proposition 25 (and the media credits offered under it, of course, do not yet apply).
Commentary is out, with a long essay by him laying out his nuanced views about immigration and chronicling his version of the history of Propositions 187, 209 and 227. But a primary campaign against Campbell would almost certainly center on social issues where they differ — Unz opposes abortion, Campbell is pro-choice; Unz supports the Knight initiative while Campbell doesn’t — not on affirmative action, ethnicity, bilingual education.
In some senses, Unz has just closed a circle. The publication so instrumental in forming his own political views has just published his deepest think piece yet. He‘d like to be discussing the ideas in that piece. He fantasizes about posing a pro-immigrant conservative challenge to the more liberal Feinstein. But he needs at least $4 million to mount a credible race.
Unlike in his previous efforts, Unz can’t just plunk down the money he needs. The history of self-funded candidates in the state — Michael Huffington for Senate, Al Checchi for governor, Clint Reilly for mayor of San Francisco — advises against it. Besides, Unz simply doesn‘t have that kind of money. He lives on very little, purchasing enormous influence for relatively small expenditures. (Clint Reilly spent more in a local campaign, in a matter of months, than Unz has contributed to politics since 1992.)
Unz knows that a serious campaign for the Senate will inevitably lead to more coverage of his early life, perhaps focusing even more attention on his parents’ relationship or his mother‘s history, the glare of the spotlight on questions of personality. He’s been surprised to hear so many questions from reporters about his social life and is determined to resist the pressure to talk about the women he‘s dated.
The diagonal strategy simply isn’t working out. Running a campaign to Tom Campbell‘s right would mean duking it out over issues he cares less about — abortion, gay rights, the environment. If he got into a general-election campaign with Dianne Feinstein, Unz could scramble then and score her for anti-immigrant bias. But the primary campaign would be driven by a hard-right attack on Campbell on the basis of social issues. He might damage Campbell, or even wrest the nomination from him in such a campaign, but he’d also leave himself vulnerable in the general election to voters who have not looked kindly on anti-choice, pro-gun, anti-gay conservatives.
The other, lesser-known candidates have made it clear that they will go after Unz for his zigzagging politics. San Diego Supervisor Bill Horn‘s campaign manager, Scott Taylor, refers to Unz as the ”Uncle Fester“ of Republican politics. That comment is a signal that a turbulent ride awaits him. ”The guy is a flake,“ says Ed Costa of People’s Advocates, a conservative public-policy group in Sacramento. ”He is the Republican version of Jerry Brown.“
”I operate much more like a journalist than the typical campaign consultant or politician,“ Unz said when I first met him in August. Now his close identification with the press, his exulting over all the ”free media“ he‘s won, his proffering of newspaper clippings as if they were irrefutable Exhibit A, documented proof that he is a force to be reckoned with, seems a little inadequate.
”Look at what I’m faced with,“ Unz says sadly. ”I‘ve made a commitment to the people in Arizona to provide a couple of hundred thousand dollars for an initiative against bilingual education there. I’ve got the campaign-financing initiative. I want to put something on the ballot in New York. And on top of that, I‘m a candidate for the Senate with a credible opponent.“
Unz clicks off these challenges as though it has come as a surprise to find that a major candidacy might be a burdensome, time-consuming, gut-wrenching event. His cheerful sense of abandon, of manifold political possibilities, which I’d encountered in meeting him in August, has virtually vanished. ”I‘ll admit that I feel the pressure,“ Unz says. ”Any person who was doing even half of what I’ve done would be lying if they said they didn‘t feel it . . . And it doesn’t feel very good.“
Unz‘s dilemma — as he’s poised to send out 200,000 pieces of direct mail attacking Tom Campbell as a liberal hostile to core Republican views — reminds me of a discussion we had a few months earlier about Pat Buchanan. Unz at the time parsed Buchanan‘s decision to bolt the Republican Party and run for president in the Reform Party of Ross Perot. ”Remember,“ Unz recalled then, ”Buchanan started out as a pro-immigrant free trader and ended up the most anti-immigration protectionist.“ How did it happen? I asked. Unz put forward his theory: Buchanan had gone out campaigning in New Hampshire when he challenged then–President George Bush in 1992, ”and he felt sorry for those people“ who had lost their manufacturing jobs. The circumstances of the campaign, Unz surmised, thoroughly altered the shape of Buchanan’s political views.
Unz suddenly seems wary of having something similar happen to him — of becoming a shuttlecock in a game that is far more complex, as it turns out, than he understands yet. He could tank as a candidate, placing at risk eight years of relentless effort and making a waste of his investment of much of his fortune. Without a role in politics, Ron Unz would be thrown back to a business that doesn‘t interest him and a life organized almost entirely, for the past 15 years, as an effort to create a place for himself in the country’s public sphere.
Unz is trapped in a conundrum of his own making. Does he go ahead with the anti-Campbell mailing? Could he re-craft the message of the letter to encapsulate the issues he‘d rather address — affirmative action, multiculturalism, immigration? Can he drop out of the race, and shore up his efforts on the campaign-reform measure in a way that isn’t humiliating and politically damaging?
Strategy games can‘t tell him. The former allies left behind can’t be consulted, and the new allies can‘t be expected to understand his larger political goals. He’s a resolute individualist, so no organization, or constituency, can help him decide. Diagonals don‘t often intersect neatly, the way a social reformer might wish. Ron Unz has to figure out, all on his own, which of the jigsaw pieces matter most to him now.