A Star Is Stillborn

It seemed like a strange choice: the earnest but jowly — almost Nixonesque — mug of Ron Unz as the public face of Proposition 25, as the guy standing before the cameras in a last-minute television advertising blitz for the failed campaign-reform initiative. In fact, it wasn‘t supposed to be that way.

The commercials were supposed to have had a real star — Warren Beatty — who agreed to do the spots, then backed out.

Beatty had been set to record ads endorsing Proposition 25, the campaign-finance reform initiative that went down to defeat Tuesday night. He had gone over the script meticulously with Unz, the initiative’s sponsor, who had hired a film crew. In fact, Unz had spoken with Beatty for hours over several days, at least once deep into the night. But then Beatty got cold feet. On shoot day, with the meter running on the camera crew, Unz felt he had no alternative but to record the spot himself.

Unz bears no hard feelings. In fact, rather than discussing the incident — which was confirmed by other sources — he chose instead to heap praise on Beatty. It was Beatty who opened up an 11th-hour channel from Republican Unz to progressive consumer-advocate Ralph Nader — who then endorsed Proposition 25. And it also was Beatty who set up last-minute meetings with influential liberals Stanley K. Sheinbaum and Max Palevsky. Sheinbaum offered an endorsement; Palevsky kicked in $1 million, which made the TV and radio campaign possible.

If Unz had beaten the bushes for such supporters sooner, would it have made a difference — Beatty or no? And how much potential support was there for the initiative, which got hammered by some 30 percentage points?

All along, Unz‘s attempts to cobble together a winning alliance simply fell short. Early on, he tried to win Republican Party backing by tacking on a Republican-friendly legislative reapportionment. Although the add-on was eventually abandoned, the overture served to put off potential backers such as Ralph Nader–confidant Harvey Rosenfield, who has organized several consumer-oriented initiative campaigns. Rosenfield eventually supported the final version of Unz’s initiative, but not soon enough to make a difference for Unz‘s campaign.

Another complication was the presence of Unz himself — a newcomer to campaign reform who was viewed with distrust by the progressive Democrats who’d spearheaded past campaign-reform efforts. Even without Unz, campaign-reform advocates have often divided against themselves, as they did when competing groups of reformers touted rival measures in the 1996 elections.

In addition, Unz had counted on support — which never came — from the League of Women Voters. He considers his inability to unite reform groups behind him to be ”one of the two or three crucial strategic turning points“ that led to defeat. Nor did he get an endorsement from the L.A. Times, which offered curiously specious reasoning for rejecting the measure. Of course, the major moneyed opponents were the Democratic Party and Governor Gray Davis; neither, presumably, wants to upset a spoils system in which they have flourished.

”One thing we have achieved is smoking out the Democratic Party on this issue,“ said Unz. ”Effectively all the money against the initiative has come from the Democrats. The Republicans opposed it too, but they‘re broke.“

That much opposition would have been a lot for even Bulworth to overcome. But still, what happened to the man who brought Dick Tracy and Ishtar to the silver screen? Beatty could not be reached for comment, but his friend Max Palevsky offered his own theory for Beatty’s indecision:

”Being a movie star for 40 years is not what we were genetically produced to do, and consequently Warren has concerns and issues that ordinary human beings don‘t have. And Warren tends, whenever there is an issue like this, to call this vast group of people he has gotten to know and trust over the years for ad vice. And if you ask that many people, some will say yes and some will say no.“

Republicans for Sale

Speaking of the broke (not to mention broken) Republican Party: Is it possible that the GOP took a dive on Proposition 26 in exchange for cash? It looks that way, given a contribution of $50,000 that the party accepted from Yes on 26, backers of the narrowly defeated proposition that would have eased the rules for passing school bonds.

In early February, the Republican Party made clear its opposition to Proposition 26, yet the party’s position was specifically omitted from an endorsement mailer sent to the state‘s Republicans advising them how to vote on a number of issues. Curious Republicans were simply advised to access a Web site.

Was this $50,000 contribution, made on February 16, a blatant bid to buy the party’s silence — hush money, as it were?

”There‘s no other reason they would have given the money,“ said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which led the comparatively low-budget fight against 26. Given the tightness of the race, ”It would have been wonderful to disseminate the official position of the Republican Party.“

Party officials ultimately returned the money. ”It was a mistake on our part to accept the cash,“ communications director Stuart DeVeaux told the Sacramento Bee, which broke the story. DeVeaux characterized the episode as a ”staff-level miscommunication,“ but neither he nor Yes on 26 clarified the intent of the contribution. A notation on the disclosure document includes the words ”slate mailer payment.“

Given this sort of checkbook politicking, should the Jarvis association have supported the spending curbs embodied in Unz’s failed Proposition 25? ”We‘re not in favor of that kind of government intrusion in campaigning,“ said Coupal. He was nonetheless flabbergasted at the incident: ”Limitation on taxes is a core Republican tenet, and if they can’t agree on that, why be Republican?“

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