No one seems to recognize Ron Unz.
Perhaps they don’t expect the multimillionaire, who ran for governor in 1994 and dismantled bilingual education last year with his Proposition 227, to be making his own photocopies at a local Kinko’s Copies.
But there he is, a skinny guy in khaki shorts and a polo shirt, hunched over the clicking machine, as perfectly aligned pages destined for press packets stack up on the copier tray.
Sure, he could hire someone to do this, the 37-year-old bachelor says with a shrug. Or even buy his own machine. Except that he’d have to waste time making sure an assistant would line up the pages just so, or waiting for someone to show up at his messy house to clear paper jams.
It’s easier, says the meticulous man with a self-professed IQ of 214, to do it himself.
“If I ever need a job, I’d make a great secretary,” he says with a toothy grin.
Yet, for this theoretical physicist-turned-Silicon Valley millionaire-turned-political wunderkind, who can afford filet mignon but prefers Burger King, secretarial employment seems unlikely.
Try, instead, U.S. Senator or California Governor.
This singular Odd Couple—Felix Unger at work, Oscar Madison at home—who is just getting around to furnishing the dusty $1.5 million Palo Alto home he bought five or six years ago, is an enigmatic force to be reckoned with. He aspires to top-dog status in California’s government, but intends to accomplish this as a maverick, outside partisan political machines.
His current conquest: What some call the most progressive campaign finance reform initiative in the nation. His long-term goal: An as-yet-undetermined race for statewide office.
Critics call Unz a lobbyist who uses his wealth to manipulate public policy at his whim, as if it were a computer game—SimCalifornia, perhaps.
“Who would care what Ron Unz thinks if he had no money to buy himself a platform?,” asked Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation who resigned her associate editor’s job when the left leaning magazine published Unz’s opinions on public education. “He knows less about education than your average teacher—it’s just ideology and slogans and manipulated stats.”
Supporters call Unz a political Joe Friday—“Just the facts, ma’m”—who uses an exhaustive research dragnet and an e-mail and fax list of 1,400 pundits and media outlets to mold California’s public policies.
“I think he really defies stereotypes,” says Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause, a branch of the nation’s leading campaign reform group. “He’s very earnest, he’s a brilliant guy and he is—at the very basic core—a supreme policy wonk. He really is motivated by trying to formulate policy. He just really gets off on it.”
Unz is a political scientist, not a baby-kisser. He’s passionate without being sentimental. He’d rather spend months reading and talking to experts, academics and analysts than an hour in a bilingual classroom or chatting with community groups.
They might not recognize him at Kinko’s yet, but they are recognizing Unz in Sacramento’s halls of power, and in the pages of prominent journals across the nation.
Making Policy by Initiative
Seated way back by the kitchen door of a small and inexpensive Chinese restaurant just off tony University Avenue, Unz eyes his fortune cookie’s prophecy: “You will soon be honored by someone you respect.”
Already happened. His smiling face is on the cover of the late July issue of the New Republic — a liberal magazine Unz says he has read and admired for 15 years — with the headline, “This Man Controls California.”
Many, including a “Mr. Davis” of Sacramento, will dispute that, Unz suggests with a modest wave of his chop sticks. But Unz is someone who can’t be ignored, says Jim Schultz, author of “The Initiative Cookbook — Recipes and Stories from California’s Ballots Wars.”
“For two decades, policymaking in California has shifted steadily from the legislative process to the initiative,” he said. “Ron Unz has been able to take advantage of that power vacuum, first, because he has money.
“Second, he is smart,” Schultz continued. “He picks his targets well — bilingual education, campaign reform, etc. — where the Legislature has been unable to address issues that need attention.”
Unz acknowledges he “would tend to gravitate toward things nobody is working on. If a lot of other people are working on it, it seems a lot less necessary to get involved.”
And ultimately, it’s a heck of a lot more fun, he says.
As a child, Unz loved to play brainy games, said his aunt, Rivko Knox. Even then, they were games of strategy and domination, like the one he played with his cousin, searching for her battleships on a hidden grid, plotting to sink every last one.
He was the type of child that read all of Arnold Toynbee’s mind-numbing 10-volume history of the world by the age of 10, his aunt said.
“I knew he was brilliant. I knew he was an amazingly brilliant child,” Knox said. “I assumed he would do nice, important things.”
Unz was an only child, born in 1961 out of wedlock in Los Angeles, his father absent, save two childhood visits and an appearance at Unz’s 1983 Harvard University graduation. His mother was a liberal Democrat, a schoolteacher who dressed her son in a George McGovern T-shirt to canvass door-to-door in the 1972 presidential campaign.
Throughout his childhood, Unz’s mother brought home a welfare check to support her son, a piece of his personal history he likes to avoid.
“In a way, being on welfare for Ron, he was embarrassed by the stigma,” his aunt said. “I don’t know of any child who enjoys being different.”
Although Unz is arguably a public assistance success story, he now argues vehemently against welfare. He believes it is possible to subsist on the minimum wage, simply by pooling resources with others in the same situation — a logical, but perhaps unrealistic solution — his aunt said.
He attended a North Hollywood public high school emphasizing math and science, and won a first-place award in the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search. This, along with a perfect 1,600 SAT score and financial aid carried him to Harvard, and his academic excellence there carried him to Cambridge University in England to study quantum gravitation under famed physicist Stephen Hawking.
From there, he moved on to Stanford University to pursue a physics doctorate. But in 1987, his love of physics was eclipsed by his realization that money was on Wall Street, not in black holes, so he left academia and never looked back.
He moved to New York to work for First Boston Corp., where he wrote mortgage software — a new challenge for his scientifically ordered mind. That same year, he formed his own software company, which he later moved to the heart of Silicon Valley. Wall Street Analytics made Unz his millions, and although he’s still its chief executive officer, he no longer spends much time involved with the company.
In the early 1990s, Unz turned his energy and intellect toward politics, writing freelance academic articles on policy and social issues. Won over to the Republican camp during Ronald Reagan’s White House years in the 1980s, he was nonetheless frustrated with California’s Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, whom he blasted as an opportunistic traitor to his party.
At age 32, showing the first glimmer of his do-it-yourself politics, Unz ran for governor.
“The first time I ever ran for office was for governor of California. I never even ran for student body office,” Unz says. “I wouldn’t have run if I thought I had absolutely no chance of winning.”
The political unknown spent about $1 million from his own pocket and drew a respectable 34 percent of the GOP primary vote against incumbent Wilson. But the percentage wasn’t as important as his discovery that he enjoyed having a “bully pulpit” from which to shout his ideas for fixing what’s broken in California.
Unz now calls himself an “empirical libertarian,” which is not to say he’s a member of the Libertarian Party, or that he believes government controls are always bad. Rather, he believes smaller government, fewer taxes, fewer regulations and freer trade are more often right than wrong.
In short, his political philosophy is a hodgepodge of stances that dot the political spectrum.
He believes each state should decide the abortion issue for itself; he says gun control laws don’t lower crime, but there should be fewer guns in our society; he supports medical use of marijuana; and he favors campaign finance reform.
“I really look at things on a case-by-case basis,” he says — a mantra he peppers through any talk of his political ideology. “I sort of develop my own views.”
For example, Unz vehemently opposed Proposition 187, the ballot initiative to deny social services to California’s undocumented immigrants. He called voting for the conservative issue “a vote for fiscal and moral bankruptcy.”
Four years later, Unz cited that position as proof his proposal to abolish bilingual education was not immigrant-bashing, but rather a fight against a failed educational policy.
Proposition 227, the so-called “Unz Initiative,” cost him more than $1 million out of pocket. It also cost him alliances he had forged while marching against Proposition 187 years earlier, but Unz is not known for consensus-building.
His proposition passed with 61 percent of the vote and suddenly Unz was a political success story. At the time, Schultz accurately predicted: “This ain’t the last initiative Unz will bring to the ballot. He has had way too much fun.”
The latest crusade
It was the heavy spending by Proposition 227’s foes that inspired Unz to embark on his newest crusade: campaign finance reform.
In typical Unz fashion, he is burning bridges built in previous campaigns. Just as he abandoned left-leaning allies in moving from opposing Proposition 187 to authoring Proposition 227, he’s about to lose most of his conservative Proposition 227 supporters and gain a new team of progressive friends in pursuit of this newest initiative.
Sherri Annis, his single fulltime staffer from the Proposition 227 battle, said she won’t be tagging along for the campaign finance reform initiative because she doesn’t agree with Unz’s stance. Most Democrats opposed Proposition 227, but Democrat Tony Miller, a former Secretary of State candidate, coauthored the new initiative.
Politics makes strange bedfellows, and Unz sleeps around.
The GOP has some serious problems with Unz’s new initiative — particularly the fact that it would basically ban corporate contributions to candidates. The party will consider Unz’s measure this fall, but it will be an uphill battle, predicts Jon Fleischman, the executive director of the California Republican Party.
Unz might be “going down a path that has the potential to completely divide him from his base, to the extent that his base is the Republicans who supported him for governor.”
Fleischman says both he and California GOP Chairman John McGraw count Unz as a personal friend.
“Friendship is great, and Ron will always be a friend, but he might … have to agree to disagree with his friends. Ron has a huge sell to try to convince the Republican party that his campaign reform initiative is worthy of passage.”
So be it, Unz says.
“I don’t go out of my way to rebel, I don’t go out of my way to cause trouble,” he insists. “One advantage about not taking the party line on these issues … at least when you say something they agree with, they know you probably mean it.”
A self-defeating style?
There are those who say Unz has the money to get his own way, but it is not necessarily the best way for California.
“His personal wealth affords him the luxury of being able to approach these issues unilaterally, which is great for him but I’m not sure it’s always the best way policy is made,” says Knox, at Common Cause.
“A group like us, we have to form coalitions and hammer out consensus. He can formulate his own policy and force you to take it or leave it, and that’s a downside of … the initiative process as practiced by a single wealthy individual.”
Even those who have worked directly with him believe his style ultimately could be self-defeating.
“He’s a bit of a Lone Ranger. That doesn’t serve him well,” said Alice Callaghan, who actively supported Proposition 227 and directs Las Familias del Pueblo, a Los Angeles community center for garment workers and their children.
A Proposition 227 activist speaking on condition of anonymity says Unz is “a control freak” who likes to appear as an independent maverick, but may simply be a fluke who picked one good issue and won.
“There’s been one successful initiative, one,” this person says. “It seems to be a huge leap going from that to controlling California.”
James Crawford, an independent writer on language policy who debated Unz during the Proposition 227 campaign, says Unz sees politics as an intellectual game played with fax machines and oversimplified statistics.
“Unz reminds me of a young Richard Nixon — you know, ‘Tricky Dick,’ ‘ Crawford said. “I think he lacks the warmth of Ronald Reagan.”
The Nation’s Pollitt emphasizes that Unz has never been elected to any office, has no actual public policy experience and never even entered a classroom to research Proposition 227.
“Letting Ron Unz have a powerful say on educational policy is like having Donald Trump design the health care system,” she says.
Unz notes Proposition 227’s foes outspent him 5-to-1, so he rejects the notion that his personal fortune gives him an unfair advantage.
“What you could say I have is influence,” he says. “All I’m doing is putting ideas out there, with some money to start things off.”
Unconcerned about home decor
All this from a guy who sleeps on a mattress on the floor and has a room full of fine art he can’t find time to hang. He says he’s too busy making copies and changing the face of California to worry about home decor.
“He can work a 22-hour stretch. He doesn’t understand there are some people who can’t do that,” his aunt said. “I think he would be horribly bored if he went on vacation and sat on the beach.”
Unz claims to be happy with his lifestyle.
“I live a relatively normal life for someone who works as many hours as I do. It’s a stressful type of enjoyment,” he says, adding that it’s nice being his own boss. “The one thing about working in your pajamas, you can doze off when you want to.”
Family and friends prod him to clean the house for media interviews, eat more vegetables, get a life.
“I just don’t think he’s really had the time to focus on a longterm relationship with some body that will lead to marriage,” his aunt said. “Ron is so bright … the (dating) pool is smaller.”
She inquires whether a re porter knows anyone “to throw in his path.”
Right now, Unz says he doesn’t have time.
“When I’m focused on one thing, it’s a lot harder to focus on something else,” he says.
Back at Kinko’s, there’s a beatific smile on Unz’s face as he focuses on his words filling sheet after sheet, each one with the potential to win another mind over to his point of view, an other vote for his cause.
To him, Kinko’s self-service symbolizes his vision of grass roots politics as Everyman’s tool: “I don’t have any power, anyone can come here and do Xeroxing.”
This copier is the only political machine Unz needs.
“This is how laws change,” he says, grinning.