Fleshing out his nascent campaign for governor, Democrat Al Checchi said he would oppose a proposed initiative to dismantle bilingual education and favors instead his own plan to make most schoolchildren fluent in English by first grade.
He also unveiled a multi-pronged plan to eradicate street gangs, whose elimination Checchi said is essential to further reductions in violent crime.
The 48-year-old former chairman of Northwest Airlines, in a Wednesday night interview with The Times, said he will finance most of his campaign out of his personal fortune, conservatively estimated at $550 million. Earlier, his campaign had held out the option of raising money from others.
Checchi is the first of the major candidates running or considering entering the 1998 governor’s race to take a position on the bilingual initiative, which is being financed largely by Silicon Valley computer magnate Ron Unz.
Checchi was careful to endorse the view of initiative supporters that bilingual education has failed California students. But rather than virtually ending bilingual education and immersing students in English, as the initiative would, Checchi said he favors intensive language schooling of 3- and 4-year-olds who do not speak English.
As they move from preschool to elementary school, students could spend a maximum of two years in transition to full English classes. Separate provisions would be made for students who are older when they arrive in California schools, he said.
“The objective, as clearly as possible, is to have every man, woman and child speak, read and understand English as soon as possible,” he said.
The other announced Democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, also spoke in an interview with The Times of his dissatisfaction with the bilingual education system but has not taken a formal position on the initiative, which backers are hoping to qualify for the June 1998 ballot. Davis said students should be moved into English-only classes within three years.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who some advisors believe is leaning toward a gubernatorial bid, has not taken a position on the bilingual initiative. Her spokeswoman, Susan Kennedy, said that Feinstein, too, believes that the system is failing and is looking at alternatives.
The only announced Republican candidate for governor, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, is also on the fence. Spokesman Dave Puglia said that Lungren is concerned that the initiative may not allow sufficient flexibility for local schools, but he also considers the current system a failure.
Checchi, who is making his first bid for public office, has registered at the bottom of voter preference polls. He is expected to soon begin running television ads that will introduce him to Californians and, he hopes, boost his public standing.
Aides to Davis have suggested that Checchi’s plan to spend freely for next June’s primary will backfire among voters tired of expensive and nasty campaigns. Checchi, however, tried to turn his bankroll into an advantage by asserting that his self-financed campaign will be incorruptible.
“I will conduct a campaign free of the entanglement of special interests,” he said.
Although he will undoubtedly exceed the $6-million voluntary spending cap set by the 1996 campaign reform initiative, Proposition 208–which is still being litigated–Checchi says he believes that voters will understand.
“What voters in California voted for was a curtailment of special interest money,” he said. “I don’t think Californians care a whit about someone spending his own money. I’m not going to corrupt myself.”
Checchi also vowed to steer clear of the mudslinging that has marked many California races, saying he will avoid “petty personal smears.” He has, however, promised to retaliate if any opponents attack him or his family in a fashion he sees as unfair.
His proposal to reduce street gangs is essentially an elaboration of his gubernatorial announcement speech in September, when he vowed to use anti-racketeering laws to help corral gang members.
In the interview, he said that he also wants to expand the use of injunctions to bar gang members from congregating in specific areas, as has been effective for some police departments.
He added that the state should help finance broad expansions of after-school and mentoring programs, early intervention teams, anti-truancy efforts and other tactics meant to keep children in school and away from the influence of gangs.
Those efforts, and his desires to improve the state’s schools, would undoubtedly cost large sums of money, Checchi acknowledged. He has yet to come up with specific price tags but said he can sell the proposals to Californians.
“I believe that these programs are massively effective, and I think I can make a persuasive argument that the long-term effect vastly exceeds the costs,” he said. “Happily, we are moving into a period of some surplus for the California economy . . . and there will be more money available for public purposes.”
Checchi also announced that he will be making a series of public policy addresses meant to form the backbone of his campaign. His first, a San Francisco address on education scheduled for Nov. 18, will follow speeches on the same subject in recent weeks by Davis and Feinstein.
Other Checchi addresses will follow on public safety and gun control, economic development, restructuring government and health care.