Tycoon Gives $1.5 Million to Measure's Opponents

Univision TV chief's donation will fuel bilingual education ad campaign. Rival accuses him of trying to preserve his Spanish-language audience.

The head of Univision Communications, one of the most prominent Spanish-language media companies in the United States, has given a whopping $1.5 million from his own pocket to fight California’s anti-bilingual education initiative, a campaign finance statement filed Thursday shows.

The contribution by A. Jerrold Perenchio, which is among the largest personal donations in the history of state initiative politics, enables anti-Proposition 227 forces to air a significant amount of English-language television advertising in the final weeks of its underdog effort to defeat the June 2 ballot measure.

The $1.5 million is about twice what Ron K. Unz, a millionaire software businessman from Palo Alto, says he has spent from his own funds in favor of the initiative.

“Obviously what [Perenchio] has done is, he’s given our campaign its only hope of being able to talk to voters,” said Richie Ross, a political consultant for Citizens for an Educated America. The campaign debuted an English-language TV commercial statewide last week that attacks Proposition 227 as costly for taxpayers and bad education policy.

Perenchio, 67, who lives in Bel-Air, has been listed among the nation’s richest people for more than a decade. Forbes magazine estimated his net worth at $1.5 billion in October. Perenchio, the chairman and chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based Univision, has also been a major donor to Gov. Pete Wilson, who on Monday endorsed Proposition 227.

The initiative would end most bilingual education programs in California public schools, prescribing instead English-intensive instruction for about 1.4 million students with limited English skills. It also would allocate $50 million a year for 10 years to literacy programs for adults who pledge to teach English to children.

In addition to the Perenchio donation, the anti-Proposition 227 campaign is benefiting from a barrage of editorials against the initiative televised by Univision stations throughout the state–on average, four times a day. The network, which reaches more than 1 million households in California, is not required to give the pro-Proposition 227 campaign equal time.

A spokeswoman said Perenchio would not comment. Anne Corley, Univision vice president of public relations, said the company’s position is that Proposition 227 is “a simplistic answer to a very complex issue that ends up being bad public policy.”

Corley said the initiative would foist a state mandate on local school officials for “an untested teaching method.”

Unz, whose campaign is named English for the Children, suggested that the company’s, and Perenchio’s, motives are more cynical: to preserve the Spanish-speaking market.

“Look, whose financial interests are served if Latinos don’t learn English in California?” Unz said. “We’re talking about someone whose net worth . . . is based on people watching Spanish-language TV.”

Unz said he plans to launch his own English-language TV commercial by today in the Los Angeles area, a spot that will depict the initiative as an effort to give the children of immigrants more opportunities in life.

The anti-Proposition 227 campaign had collected about $3.3 million in donations from March 18 to Saturday. Perenchio’s was the largest single cash contribution. Unz said his campaign has raised “a couple hundred thousand” dollars recently in addition to nearly $750,000 that he has contributed.

Steven A. Merksamer, a Sacramento lawyer and expert on initiative politics, called Perenchio’s donation an “extraordinary amount of money,” particularly from an individual, in an initiative campaign.

Also Thursday, one of the sponsors of Proposition 223, which would limit spending on school district administration, announced plans to launch a television advertising campaign Monday.

Opponents of the “95-5” initiative–so named because it seeks to allocate at least 95 cents of every dollar in the public education budget to direct school spending–have already begun at least two TV commercials. One features a state PTA spokesman denouncing the measure as bad school policy; another alleges that the measure would benefit Los Angeles schools more than schools elsewhere in the state.

The anti-Proposition 223 campaign reported raising and spending more than $2 million this year as of Saturday. Most of the money came from groups representing school administrators and school employees other than teachers, according to a spokeswoman. The pro-Proposition 223 campaign reported collecting more than $860,000 for the year up to Saturday. Included in that sum was a $50,000 donation from Perenchio.

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