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Checking Out Al Checchi’s Political Pitch

His name is pronounced “check-ee.” And in my mind, I could see a campaign bumper strip or a tag line on a TV ad saying, “Al Checchi--check him out.”

So I and two dozen other reporters and about 700 curious citizens packed into a ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel on Tuesday to witness the political coming out of this new phenom.

Alfred A. Checchi, 48, co-chairman of Northwest Airlines, a Californian for about 11 years. Never ran for or served in public office before. Now wants to be governor.

Worth “in the ballpark,” he says, around $550 million. He’ll presumably spend whatever it takes of that to win--$20 million, $30 million. . . . This makes him somebody to check out.

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He already has written himself a check for $3 million. Al Checkbook, he’s being called.

Checchi has had a swift, impressive entry onto the political stage. For a novice, he has shown rare acumen. Again, it helps to be super rich.

He has hired a seasoned staff: campaign consultant Darry Sragow, TV adman Bob Shrum, press secretary Julie Buckner and presidential pollster Mark Penn. Until a few weeks ago, all were better known within political circles than Checchi.

He has invited reporters to his sumptuous Beverly Hills home for interviews and gotten great ink. Timing can be everything; the interviews and leaks dribbled out during a slow news period and received unusually good play.

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But the Checchi phenomenon cannot be explained completely by a checkbook and timing. People--of all walks and persuasions--are yearning for a new political leader. We Californians are looking for a second coming of an Earl Warren or a Pat Brown; Americans long for another FDR or--depending on their party--a John F. Kennedy or a Ronald Reagan.

Consequently, hundreds of opinion molders--civic leaders, business executives, pols--were lured to Tuesday’s Town Hall luncheon to hear Checchi’s first major political speech. And I suspect most left thinking they’d seen someone who was not a Warren or a Brown or a Reagan. Maybe somebody more akin to Mike Huffington.

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Huffington, at least, served one term in the U.S. House before trying to buy himself a Senate seat. Reagan had never held office before running for governor, but he had traveled the country for many years making political speeches. And he was a compelling speaker.

Checchi, a Democrat, could have begun his political career by aiming a little lower and running for, say, Los Angeles mayor. But he rejected that idea.

We heard the right words--Checchi used “leadership” or a derivative 18 times in his speech--but he has no political track record to show he can lead. He’s asking people to accept him on faith. And as any business exec-turned-politician can verify, there’s a world of difference between leading a corporate board and a legislature; between shepherding stockholders and voters.

For one thing, notes Ken Khachigian, Huffington’s campaign strategist: “He’ll probably not bend easily to kissing people’s butts, which you’ve got to do a lot of in politics.”

Listening to Checchi, it quickly became clear that he can’t rely on a spellbinding delivery of stirring rhetoric to get elected. Based on this speech, anyway. Perhaps he should have taken it on the road first, to Redlands and Fresno and Redding.

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There were a couple of post-speech comments from admittedly biased sources that nevertheless weren’t far off mark:

Former Gov. George Deukmejian, who quipped he was there as a “mole” for Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the probable GOP nominee--"It wasn’t particularly inspiring. It was a lot like speeches I used to give. Rather dull.”

Garry South, top aide to Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, who also covets the governorship--"He combined the earnest manner of a Lions Club breakfast speaker with the grandiosity of Newt Gingrich’s course on revitalizing American civilization.”

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Ok, enough of the negative.

True, the speech that Checchi wrote himself contained only vague generalities: His priorities are economic development, education, welfare reform, “family values,” and “breaking down the divisions among us.” But there’s time. It’s still early. More significantly for the public, his overall message is an important one to get out.

In a nutshell, it’s: “We’ve lost our shared sense of community. . . . Institutions have adjusted to change, but not government. . . . [Politics] has become a blood sport. . . . We are now reaping what we have sown. . . . We need leadership that we can respect and trust again.”

A good message for society, but probably not good enough for this so-so orator to get elected governor. On the other hand, he has that checkbook.

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