Checchi's Wish List: Can It Be Filled?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If he is elected governor, millionaire Democrat Al Checchi says, he will put 10,000 more cops on the street, cut taxes, raise teacher salaries, bail out struggling cities and apply the death penalty to more crimes.

By any measure, the former chief of Northwest Airlines has proffered an ambitious wish list for state government. And there is plenty more--there are far more ideas, in fact, than those submitted by his rivals in the governor's race or, for that matter, by almost any traditional candidate for statewide office.

Aides say this political newcomer is committed to showing voters that he is not just another rich guy trying to buy an office. But they also warn that he may be handing critics a target-rich agenda of costly and often controversial promises.

Several of Checchi's proposals are short on details, go beyond the authority of a governor or leave the candidate at odds with some government experts.

"Those of us in the campaign who are professional consultants have warned Al that . . . he is inviting criticism," said Darry Sragow, Checchi's lead strategist. "His response to us is very simple: . . . 'I want people to know what I am going to do.'

"It is not the way you run an ordinary campaign," Sragow acknowledged. "But this is not an ordinary candidate."

No, he's not. Checchi is a confident--critics say arrogant--corporate freelancer who parachuted into three major U.S. companies, ordered top-to-bottom overhauls, then walked away with the compliments of Wall Street. Now he wants something similar for California.

Admittedly, this is new to him. So more than a year ago he began a self-guided crash course in government. Then he hired a staff of 29 full- and part-timers to research issues and provide advice for major speeches that have outlined dozens of public policy ideas.

"It's real simple," Checchi said. "We are going to be as specific as humanly possible. I am not afraid to lose. And I don't mind if my fellow citizens look at these issues and say this is not what I want."

But candidates have to do more than tell voters what they want to hear--as Sragow knows. Checchi's opponents already complain that he is simply reciting issues that score well in opinion polls.

Sragow said Checchi will also have to convince voters that he can do what he promises if he wins.

Checchi's death penalty proposal constitutes one case in which the outcome would be beyond his control. He has broadcast television commercials about his plan for executing serial rapists even though he knows the idea probably conflicts with a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. He said in an interview that the makeup of the court has changed since that decision and that he believes the new justices will think differently.

But Dane Gillette, a deputy prosecutor in the state attorney general's office who has coordinated death penalty litigation under Democratic and Republican bosses, said it is unlikely the court will reverse itself.

"Our view is that the death penalty applies only to cases where there is a death and it should be so limited," Gillette said.

The court ruled that a death sentence for rape is cruel and unusual punishment. Under Checchi's plan, rapists and child molesters could be executed on their second conviction.

Checchi has also drawn skeptics from some of the intended beneficiaries of his ideas.

He has pledged to put 10,000 more law enforcement officers on city streets over four years. His staff estimates the cost to the state of such a move at about $1 billion, but it has not indicated where the money would come from or how it would be distributed.

City leaders say they approach such promises with concern. The reason is that state funding is notoriously unreliable because it has to be approved year by year. Many municipalities have opted against President Clinton's program to add 100,000 police nationwide because the federal funding is only temporary--as they fear Checchi's would be.

"It will be there for a while and then go away," said Dwight Stenbakken, legislative director for the League of California Cities. "In the meantime, commitments are made and the local government ends up with the bill anyway."

Checchi has also unveiled an expansive housing program intended to solve two problems--give more money to local governments and boost an anemic housing industry. The candidate would do that partly by letting cities keep the property tax revenue generated by some of the homes built in them.

One problem is the high cost. When cities talk about shifting property tax, they have targeted about $3 billion.

Another complication is that the state's housing crisis is largely in urban areas, where there is little undeveloped land that might be eligible for such a program. Meanwhile, rural areas with plenty of undeveloped land are already creating urban sprawl.

Checchi aides acknowledged such concerns. They said details of how the program would work--and its cost--have not been decided.

"He can't do it, and he won't do it," grumbled Assemblyman Dick Floyd (D-Wilmington), a Checchi critic. "These are motherhood issues that don't mean anything."

Checchi said he knows that his ideas are provocative--if not threatening--to the Sacramento establishment. But he said he wants to be a catalyst for a statewide policy debate that goes beyond the hardened cynicism of career politicians and even some of the electorate.

Aides say that means some of his ideas are abstracts, intended to spark discussion but not to make his campaign responsible for the details. That could be left to the legislative process, they say.

"Let's be very candid and practical. . . . Is it going to happen in exactly the way I talked about in those speeches? No," Checchi said. "Will every [idea] go through a [legislative] process where hopefully it will get made better? Yes."

One example is Checchi's idea that the state might lure major companies to California by underwriting loans for them. At a news conference after offering that proposal, he told reporters:

"I was merely . . . using that as an example of one of the things we would have in our arsenal if we got serious about attracting high-paying jobs and industry to California."

The vision of new possibilities is contagious among members of Checchi's issues team. The unit is headed by Morgan St. John, a Harvard-taught former investment banker who said he dropped out of the "rat race" to help his longtime friend pursue a noble challenge.

St. John has six researchers in the campaign office, most of whom are recent alumni of public policy graduate schools. Their work is supplemented by 22 consultants recruited from think tanks, government agencies and special interest groups in California and elsewhere.

In their yearlong review, they have found no shortage of problems. Now, one of the biggest questions is how they would pay for the solutions.

Even Ron Unz, sponsor of a June ballot initiative to essentially end bilingual education, says Checchi's idea on the issue is better than his measure. But Unz said the candidate's hope of intensive language study for 3- and 4-year-old preschoolers is a multibillion-dollar suggestion that is unrealistic.

"The only problem with his idea is that it probably wouldn't happen," Unz said.

Checchi has bucked the experts in Sacramento by insisting that the state has far more capacity for bonded debt than government analysts consider prudent.

State officials have identified more than $80 billion in construction needs over the next 10 years. But they say California's debt is already approaching a "danger zone."

Checchi tells reporters, however, that the major growth projected for the state is a sure sign that there is "very significant unused bonding capacity." On that assumption, he often discusses the need for a construction boom in schools, roads and other projects that he compares to the glory days of government spending under Gov. Pat Brown.

The candidate also wants about $1 billion for the 10,000 cops and at least $450 million in tax credits, offers a $3-billion to $5-billion plan to provide universal preschool and proposes a host of other ideas with prices well above $100 million.

Checchi has identified funding sources for some of his proposals. He would squeeze about $500 million out of state government by cutting the size of its bureaucracy about 10%. All of that savings would be directed toward education.

He also identified $1 billion that he would redistribute to help pay for his plans to expand the housing industry. Half would come from redevelopment agencies around the state, and the other half from the California Housing Finance Agency. Those responsible for that housing money, however, dispute Checchi's claim that the funds are surplus.

"They are already pledged to bonds," said Bill Cranham, director of the Housing Finance Agency.

Gary Squier, a Los Angeles consultant who wrote Checchi's housing plan, was not surprised at the agency's response and did not offer specific evidence to the contrary.

Checchi said he will identify more funding in a speech that will outline a major overhaul of state government. But he also said he will leave many details about how he would pay for each proposal until he is governor.

"I am explaining to people what I think the priorities are and where I would throw the darts," he said. "If you are asking, 'Are we going to put together a strategic plan?' the answer is no. We, as a society, will have to determine some things."

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