It’s d?j? vu all over again.
At least that’s how it seems to Ron Unz, the 41-year-old California millionaire backing Amendment 31, a ballot initiative that would require English learners to be taught in English.
From the arguments against to the favorable polls, everything about 31 reminds Unz of the campaigns for similar measures he has backed in California, Massachusetts and Arizona.
But when it comes to the measure Coloradans will consider next month, there is one thing that stands out.
“I never expected a billionaire to write the largest donation check in Colorado history,” said Unz.
The billionaire in question? Medical equipment heiress Pat Stryker, whose daughter attends a Fort Collins dual language school where English speakers learn Spanish and Spanish speakers learn English. The donation to Unz’s opposition? It’s $3 million – an amount believed, indeed, to be the state’s biggest political contribution from an individual.
Unfortunately for Unz, a Palo Alto software developer who last publicly estimated his wealth three years ago at less than $10 million, that donation was unmatchable. Stryker’s wealth has been estimated at $960 million.
“Supporters of bilingual education are extraordinarily committed people,” said Unz. “I would argue bilingual education is the dog food dogs just don’t eat.”
A Silicon Valley businessman with no personal stake in educating immigrant children, Unz got seriously interested in disposing of what he views as “dog food” after reading a 1996 newspaper article about parents boycotting a Los Angeles school that refused to teach their children English.
From this boycott was born California Proposition 227, a measure nearly identical to Amendment 31. It passed in 1998.
Next Unz went to Arizona, where he funded a successful 2001 campaign for Proposition 203, which is nearly the same as 227 and 31.
This fall, voters in Colorado and Massachusetts will consider anti-bilingual initiatives funded by Unz.
Unz himself spearheaded the California campaign.
But in the three other states, Unz supplied the funding while local Hispanics ran the campaigns. In Denver, former Denver school board member Rita Montero is spearheading the effort.
In Massachusetts, Unz has teamed up with Lincoln Tamayo, a former high school principal. Results there show the initiative has a lead of 30 percentage points.
In Colorado, a major poll last summer showed a lead of more than 40 points. The latest poll, published in today’s Rocky Mountain News, shows a 12-point margin.
In a recent installment of his e-mail newsletter, Unz said the initiative’s chances of passing had been significantly hurt by recent opposition from Gov. Bill Owens and the editorial board of the News. But he said the impact of these factors was “completely dwarfed” by Strkyer’s donation and the TV ad campaign it has funded.
“The reason that campaigns spend a lot of money on advertising is that it works,” he said. “Our initiative is very popular and everything like that, but this is absolutely unprecedented.”
yettickh@RockyMountainNews .com or (303) 892-5082