Forty million of his own dollars, a bruised ego and a lot of road miles notwithstanding, Al Checchi says his unsuccessful campaign for governor was worth it.
And don't be surprised if the businessman, who set an American record for spending in a nonpresidential race, someday tries it again.
In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday, the first time he has spoken at length since his defeat by fellow Democrat Gray Davis on June 2, Checchi said he realized weeks before the election that he would lose--a circumstance he blames on the state's burgeoning economy and a related boost in voter optimism toward veteran politicians.
As his 2 1/2-year quest for the nomination wore on, Checchi said, he could see voters become more attracted to longtime politicians like Lt. Gov. Davis--and thus less attracted to risky propositions like himself.
"I think the voters made a pretty definitive statement about what they wanted," Checchi said. "It was consistent up and down the ballot--everybody who was kind of coming from the outside lost."
Publicly upbeat and joking, Checchi added: "If times had been bad, it would have been, 'Gray Davis? I know that name. Throw the bum out!' "
Checchi said he does not accept the notion advanced by analysts throughout the state that his candidacy fell from the weight of stinging advertisements that he aired against the lieutenant governor and the third major Democratic candidate, U.S. Rep. Jane Harman of Torrance. He defended those ads as a necessary comparison among candidates.
Rather, he said his support declined precipitously because Davis and Harman jointly leveled their own $8-million combined barrage of ads against him between mid-April and mid-May.
Whatever the reason, however, Checchi said he believed that the time was simply not right for a political neophyte.
"I could have talked in a turtleneck; I could have been in a swimsuit. . . . It wasn't going to matter," said Checchi, referring jokingly to suggestions during the campaign that he loosen up his starched and ubiquitous campaign ads.
"This was not a referendum on ads. It wasn't a referendum on wealth. I believe that people clearly got the impression that I was going to change things. . . . In the exit polls, voters 2 to 1 said we don't want change. How the hell do you overcome that?"
Checchi was generally buoyant during the interview, which took place on the sun-drenched patio of his Beverly Hills mansion. But he continues to resent one element of the campaign: He believes reporters demonized him with negative references--like "gazillionaire"--to his wealth.
"What if they had said self-made businessman?" said Checchi, the son of a government bureaucrat. "What if they had said he borrowed his way through school?"
Checchi pledged on election night to do whatever he could to help Davis in the general election. He said Wednesday that the two have not yet met to discuss specifics, although they are trying to arrange a meeting.
As for his future, Checchi said that since election day he has received inquiries about becoming a university president or head of a Fortune 500 company. He would not identify the specific positions. But he more than left the door open for another political bid.
There was a big caveat: Voters, he said, would have to abandon their current "stay the course" mentality and embrace the sorts of massive governmental shake-ups that he advocated during the campaign.
"I have had an incredible number of people saying, 'You've got to do this again,' " he said, " . . . and everybody is saying you always lose the first time and now you've built a base."
"It would depend upon the circumstances," he added. "I'm not sitting here contemplating another race."
He did, however, strongly indicate that he wants to be a player on state issues, particularly education and crime prevention, on which he staked his campaign. He said he would lie low until the November election, so as not to "compete" with Davis.
Afterward, Checchi will press his case to Davis or, if Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren is elected, through allies in the Legislature.