PALO ALTO, Calif.—It was April Fool’s Day, but high-tech entrepreneur Ron K. Unz was entirely serious. He was explaining why this week he’ll begin a surprise, lightning bid to deny the Republican renomination to Gov. Pete Wilson, arguably the second most powerful elected official in the land.
Politics has been Mr. Unz’s intellectual hobby—funding think tanks or the electoral ambitions of others. “Suddenly,” he said, the moment was his to seize. “Faced with a situation where you have an incredibly unpopular governor of California, unpopular in his own party and unpopular in the state, with no [GOP] challenger facing him, and with polling data indicating that someone of my background and my views would have a very reasonable chance of winning, it’s really the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Such is the brashness of Silicon Valley, where Mr. Unz moved his software firm, Wall Street Analytics, from New York two years ago. It sells to investment banks and brokerage houses a tool for designing and pricing Remics, the mortgage instrument that exploded in the 1980s. For Mr. Unz’s company, that means yearly profits “in the seven figures,” and for him the ability to sink $1 million-plus into media over the next few weeks to build credibility for a primary election just two months away,
It’s a long shot, “but more a roll of the dice rather than one in a million or one in a hundred,” he said. The Perot phenomenon and the collapse of ruling parties in Canada and Italy embolden Mr. Unz. His effort is a potential disaster for Mr. Wilson, who was counting his GOP chickens in preparation for the fall leg of a storybook comeback. Turns out his administration never got square with the Reaganite movement in the party.
For months, activists on the right sought recognizable figures to lead a challenge to the governor, whose hard-line rhetoric against street crime and illegal immigration has not redeemed him for raising taxes and otherwise facilitating big government. Even as their efforts appeared to fail, Mr. Unz was plotting an ambush with Arnold Steinberg, a Republican pollster and strategist going back to James Buckley’s 1970 Senate victory on the Conservative line in New York.
Lorelei Kinder, national political coordinator for Reagan-Bush in 1980, formally heads Mr. Unz’s drive. But with few prominent Republicans likely to risk the ire of a still-powerful governor, the campaign’s essence will be TV and radio spots highlighting Mr. Unz’s own persona and views. The initial “buy” matches Michael Huffington’s introduction of his U.S. Senate bid during the Winter Olympics.
The aim is to project seriousness, to contrast a candidate sincere about ideas with a governor who is reactive, opportunistic and ultimately ineffectual. Also, the project pits a schoolteacher’s son from the San Fernando Valley who achieved stunning business success against a prep-schooler (though later a Marine) who’s been in government for nearly 30 years.
Who, then, is this guy Unz and what does he believe? His basic profile–32 years old, single and Jewish–isn’t tailor-made for a GOP primary. Neither, perhaps, is the Harvard-Cambridge-Stanford route he was taking in theoretical physics until a summer at First Boston persuaded him to abandon a Ph.D. in favor of computerized finance. With three fellow “rocket scientists” (two of them actually worked at NASA), he has the company in orbit just six years after blastoff.
Wall Street Analytics epitomizes the “virtual” corporation. Its address is a mail drop; the principals work from their homes in Silicon Valley. (The Unz campaign, bowing to tradition, has set up headquarters in Burbank.)
Mr. Unz’s large new house in expensive Palo Alto is his only apparent accommodation to wealth. Its primary furnishings are computers and telephone equipment. He drives a small car and chose a basic pasta place for a dinner chat.
What he obviously will spend money on is public policy. Starting in the 1980s, he read Thomas Sowell and drew from neoliberalism in the New Republic, neoconservatism in Commentary and functional libertarianism in the Economist. Today he backs Linda Chavez’s work for the Manhattan Institute and David Horowitz’s cultural criticism out of Los Angeles. Thus it’s no surprise that, after economic growth, his platform stresses changing social-welfare policy and fighting institutionalized bilingualism, multiculturalism and quotas.
His fiscal recipe, not yet specific, is to lance the spending boil by offering “massive tax cuts” in return for modest reductions in what most people get from the public sector. Vouchers and competitive contracting would minimize cuts in services by boosting productivity. Schools are at the top of the list. Unz campaigners are bitter at Gov. Wilson’s opposition to the school-choice initiative last November and other assuaging of the biggest bully of state politics, the teachers’ unions.
Where heightened crime fears lead Mr. Wilson to demand a wider death penalty and expensive prison beds, Mr. Unz’s own law-‘n’-order stance keeps one eye on pathologies bred by handouts. He fears American society’s loss of moorings is overwhelming the promise offered by its technology. Unlike the governor, who early in his term proposed new “preventative” programs to deal with antisocial youth, Mr. Unz wants to reduce panoply of benefits.
“That’s why the immigration issue is in some ways so useful,” he said, broaching a red-hot topic. “It forces people to come to terms with the consequences of the social welfare state in a way that they might otherwise have been reluctant to do.” Gov. Wilson cites demand on the public sector as a reason for attacking undocumented entries, while Mr. Unz turns that around, using the newcomer load as a reason to question overall largess. Tax-paid beneficence, he said, threatens the historic openness and opportunity of California.
Formative for Mr. Unz were the five years he lived in Jackson Heights, Queens. This immigrant bastion, though witness to violence over criminalized drugs, had a “social fabric” that is a model for urban America.
Immigration also calls attention to ethnic separatism. Mr. Unz said continued Balkanization of the U.S. and the extension of preferential treatment will encourage spoils politics that feeds on division. If assimilated, he said, Asian and Hispanic cultures are “natural constituencies” for the GOP’s free-market conservatism.
Election campaigns involve more than ideas, of course, and this is a highly speculative one—Mr. Unz hasn’t given a political speech since high school. But if his effort doesn’t simply blame every ill of California on Pete Wilson and instead forces the governor and his party to engage on the essential questions, then this “roll of the dice” can have a real payoff.