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Controversial English-only crusader sets his sights on California's Senate race

Controversial English-only crusader sets his sights on California's Senate race
RepublicanRon Unz is running for the U.S. Senate. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Ron Unz has a knack for wading into controversy. In the 1990s he fathered the English-only campaign for California’s public schools. This year, Unz launched a racially charged crusade to upend Harvard University’s admission and tuition policies.

Now, Unz’s last-minute entry into California’s U.S. Senate race in March has sent a midwattage jolt through what has been a largely lifeless campaign. His bid has not threatened front-running Democrat state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, but could cause discomfort to the field of candidates.

Just three weeks after the Silicon Valley multimillionaire jumped into the race, an April 9 Field Poll put Unz in third place -- far behind Harris and Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez and a mere 1% ahead of GOP rival Tom Del Beccaro -- among Californians expected to vote in the June primary. That performance was enough to earn him an invitation to the first Senate debate on Monday at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.

With electoral pandemonium consuming the Republican presidential race -- churned up by Donald Trump's campaign that is now on its way to the California primary -- an unorthodox candidate such as Unz may have an outside chance to catch on, said Lori Cox Han, a political scientist at Chapman University in Orange.

"If someone like Ron Unz, with a conservative message, can tap into some of the voter angst that certainly the Trump campaign has been able to tap into, then I think it's possible for him to gain traction," she said.

Unz, who made millions as a business software developer, said his odds to be elected California's next U.S. senator are slim, a fate faced by any Republican running for statewide office in this West Coast Democratic stronghold.

But he said he believes he has a shot at finishing in second place in June. Under California's "jungle" primary system, that would be enough to knock off Sanchez and advance to the November ballot. In California, the first- and second-place finishers in the primary, regardless of party, face off in the general election.

To do so, Unz needs to outduel GOP rivals Del Beccaro and George "Duf" Sundheim, both former chairmen of the California Republican Party, and find a way to get Republicans and right-leaning independents to coalesce behind him.

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Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said he believes Unz's entry into the Senate race could splinter the Republican vote and provide an opening for Sanchez to squeak out a second-place finish in June.

"The presence of a third active Republican candidate makes it much more likely that the runoff for the general election will be between two Democrats," Schnur said.

Given Unz's eclectic political views, it's difficult to predict how voters will perceive him.

Although Unz championed Proposition 227, the 1998 initiative to limit bilingual education, he also is unapologetically pro-immigration and criticizes those who demonize immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. In 2014, Unz also led a short-lived initiative campaign to raise the minimum wage in California to $12 an hour, and in 1994 he mounted an unsuccessful challenge against Gov. Pete Wilson in the Republican primary.

Unz also currently supports Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, saying he disagrees with the self-described democratic socialist on many issues but supports his “opposition to Wall Street.” Unz donated $2,000 to the Sanders campaign. 

"There's certainly no way to pigeonhole him in terms of what kind of Republican he is," said Jon Fleischman, publisher of the conservative news site Flash Report. "In some areas he is a conservative Republican. In some areas he's a libertarian. And in some ways he's a liberal."

Though he has ample personal wealth, Unz said he will probably limit the amount he spends on the Senate campaign to $100,000 and also limit individual donations to $99. That won't help his efforts to reintroduce himself to California voters. Unz, 54, readily admits that, despite his forays into politics many years ago, his name recognition has mostly "vanished."

Fleischman worked for Unz on the successful Proposition 227 campaign, which altered California schools by mostly ending bilingual education and mainstreaming Spanish-speaking students, and said it's an issue that Unz still holds dear.

One of the primary reasons Unz jumped into the Senate race was because the Democratically-controlled state Legislature placed a measure on the November ballot to repeal the remaining provisions of the bilingual initiative and promote the teaching of two languages in dual-immersion classes.

Unz said that the measure is an insult to California voters and that Proposition 227 already allows students to enroll in dual-immersion classes if their parents sign an annual waiver.

"If Latino families want their children taught English, and refuse to sign the waiver, I think their rights should be protected," Unz said.

The California Senate race isn't the only campaign Unz has disrupted. At Harvard University, his alma mater, his insurgent bid for the Harvard Board of Overseers turned the normally staid selection process into a roiling controversy.

Joined by Ralph Nader and other candidates, Unz is pushing to make Harvard tuition-free for undergraduates and is demanding the university reveal how it uses race in its admissions process.

Unz argues that Harvard's endowment, which he pegs at $38 billion, provides more than enough investment income to eliminate the need for tuition. Doing so, he argues, will force other Ivy League schools to follow suit, and also pressure public universities to reduce tuition.

But it's Unz's views on race-based admissions policies that have caused the most controversy. In 2012, Unz published a lengthy essay, "The Myth of American Meritocracy," accusing Harvard and other Ivy League schools of favoring Jewish students over more academically qualified Asian American and non-Jewish white students. He said the "massive apparent bias" could be attributed to top administrators at those schools who are Jewish.

The Anti-Defamation League said that essay has been seized upon by anti-Semites such as David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader. The organization also has criticized a website published by Unz, the Unz Review, labeling it a safe haven for writers perceived as anti-Israel, anti-immigrant and sympathetic to white supremacist views.

"I haven't seen Ron Unz write anything anti-Semitic himself, but he really gives a platform to anti-Semites," said Marilyn Mayo, a research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League.

Mayo and opponents of Unz’s “Free Harvard/Fair Harvard” campaign have also criticized him for using his foundations to provide financial support for some of these controversial writers and researchers. That includes a $600,000 grant he gave to University of Utah professor Gregory Cochran, who has embraced a theory that homosexuality may be caused by a “gay germ.”

Unz calls these allegations preposterous. He said he has long supported thought-provoking alternative writers, both on the left and the right, to provide views that readers won't find in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times or other mainstream publications.

"Just because I read an article by somebody or publish someone on a website or give them money, that doesn't mean I support everything they say," Unz said.

Unz said he disagrees with Cochran on "a lot of stuff," including his claim about homosexuality. He said he provided Cochran with a $600,000 grant, however, because of his groundbreaking research in evolutionary biology.

He dismissed the allegations of anti-Semitism by noting that he is Jewish.

Unz, who was educated at Harvard, Cambridge and Stanford universities, is a prolific writer and has published a collection of his articles in a 665-page book. He said that because he spends so much time writing and on other ventures, he devotes only a few hours a week to his website, mostly posting articles that have already been published.

"To be honest, I don't even read most of the articles I publish, and I certainly don't edit them," Unz said. "I'm busy."

Follow @philwillon on Twitter for the latest news on California politics.

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