I first heard about Ron Unz the way most people in California did. Pete Wilson, the incumbent governor at the time, appeared to be well on his way to an uncontested Republican nomination. Wilson’s poll numbers leading up to the Republican primary were beginning to ramp up as he gave a strong endorsement to the immigrant-bashing Proposition 187.
Seemingly out of the blue, with a few weeks left before the primary, Unz blanketed the state with a $2 million self-funded radio ad campaign strongly denouncing Wilson’s nativist sentiments and fiscal policies (Wilson had raised taxes to cover a budget shortfall, a big no-no to true-blue conservatives). Unz broke ranks with the Republican Party by adopting an unequivocally pro-immigrant stance, organizing prominent Republicans like Jack Kemp and William Bennett to oppose Prop. 187. In one short month, Unz managed to capture slightly over a third of the primary vote, vaulting himself into the public consciousness.
History, of course, is full of candidates. Even elected officials, who receive their 15 minutes of fame, often fade back into obscurity. In Unz’s case, that would have been especially easy. Part of his appeal, I suspect, lay in the fact that he was so clearly not part of the party establishment at a time when anti-incumbent sentiment was building.
Unlike the majority of serial politicians, Unz had a real job as the head of a small but high-powered Silicon Valley software company, Wall Street Analytics, which he founded after spending a few years on Wall Street. He could have easily gone back to his business after his one little foray into the world of politics, written off as just another rich guy indulging a whim.
Today, Unz has caught the attention of national policymakers and the imaginations of the mass media. He is acknowledged as the master of the initiative process, with the proven ability to accurately gauge public sentiment to propose and enact public policy reforms over partisan bickering, bureaucratic inertia and special interest opposition. Publications on the left and right are beginning to recognize him as a serious player in California, and by extension, national politics because Unz has demonstrated the uncanny ability to pick the ?right? side of the major policy debates of the decade. The latest issue of The New Republics features a full-length photo of Unz with the caption: ?This Man Controls California.? Heady praise indeed, and in my opinion, well-deserved.
In 1994, he opposed Prop. 187, ignoring populist sentiment because he could see, as other politicians obviously could not, that immigrants added far more to our society than they took. He also knew that any party that scapegoated immigrants would have hell to pay as immigrant communities, particularly Hispanics, began to flex their political muscle.
Republican leaders ignored Unz in 1994, and to this day, are still desperately trying to reverse the party’s anti-minority image. Unfortunately, that has often meant either pandering to so-called minority leaders or refusing to take a principled stand against racial preferences on a national level, despite repeated polls showing Americans of every community strongly opposing preferences.
In 1996, Unz backed Prop. 209, which amended the California Constitution to end the use of racial preference in public school admissions, contracting and employment. After a feeble court challenge, Prop. 209 was accepted as the governing law of California, and three years after enactment, the Ku Klux Klan hasn’t taken control of California, and members of minority groups are getting into colleges and universities in record numbers.
Unz’s most recent high-profile victory came with an issue that he almost single-handedly brought to the national consciousness. Disgusted with the inefficiency and waste — of money and children’s futures — of California’s bilingual education program, Unz did some research and discovered absolutely no legal basis for mandating native language instruction. He then drafted a challenge-proof initiative and gathered an unlikely coalition of allies — from self-avowed leftists to strident libertarians — to gather signatures and campaign to end bilingual education as it then existed.
Prop. 227 supporters included prominent Latino educators and activists like Jaime Escalante and Gloria Matta Tuchman, to well-know Los Angeles social activist Alice Callaghan.
>From the get-go, Prop. 227 had overwhelming support in all communities, including the bellwether Latino community. The only people not on board were a few diehard native-language instruction ideologues — the direct financial beneficiaries of programs that kept children from learning English, including A. Jerrold Perenchio, the head of the Spanish-language network Univision, as well as both political parties, which were either beholden to the special interests or afraid to be painted as anti-minority. The pro-227 campaign was outspent — by some estimates, 5 or 10 to 1 — and Perenchio, a billionaire, turned out to be one of the leading donors to both political parties in that election cycle. He should have saved his money, since the initiative passed with 61 percent of the vote in 1998, at a time when the Republican Party lost almost every statewide elective office.
Nearly a year later, the first results of Prop. 227 are starting to trickle in. While the final testing results are not yet available due to an error with the test administration company, certain districts that fully implemented Prop. 227’s mandate to immerse immigrant children in English language classes are reporting dramatic gains in both reading and math scores. Initial results in Oceanside, a predominantly poor, heavily minority community near San Diego, ranged from an increase of 120 percent in math to over 180 percent in reading.
Of course, many districts have refused to implement English immersion programs or have crafted their own programs and provided misleading information in such a way that large numbers of limited English students are still being taught predominantly in their mother tongues. As evidence of 227 ‘s success continues to pile up, those districts and their administrators should expect to be personally sued by aggrieved parents under a clause in Prop. 227 permitting such suits. I can’t wait.
Unz’s latest brainchild, while not as far-sweeping due to partisan politicking, will fundamentally reform campaign finance regulations in California. The California Bill of Rights provides for, among other things, voluntary spending limits, a ban on corporate giving, sensible limits on contributions ($5,000 on statewide races), partial public funding and 24-hour Internet contribution disclosure.
Already, fat-cat campaign consultants and politicians from both parties have lined up to denounce the proposed initiative, which is presently in the signature-gathering phase. They have raised the typical panoply of arguments against campaign finance reforms, such as the fact that spending limits inherently violate the constitutional right to free speech. Unfortunately for them, the initiative has already been extensively vetted by a team of top constitutional law scholars, and I predict that any subsequent legal challenge will only make certain lawyers wealthier.
Shortly after the 1994 campaign, I met Unz for the first time as the Prop. 209 campaign was starting to heat up. I was impressed by his sincerity and obvious intelligence — this was a man used to thinking of solutions to highly complex problems — and was struck by the strength of his convictions. At the same time, his willingness to meet and chat with myself — a mere law student who expressed an interest in his ideas — indicated to me that this was not a man obsessed with his accomplishments and successes.
Over the years, I have kept in touch with Unz, and once in a while, I grab a quick lunch or dinner with him. He’s harder to get a hold of now, but fundamentally, his personality and his values have remained the same. I’m pretty sure his latest initiative will succeed because he has given such careful thought to — and at a basic level, seems to understand better — the needs and values of society.
Coming from a disadvantaged childhood, he knows the value of merit and hard work. From his work on Wall Street and business experience, he undoubtedly has learned the need to promote practical solutions. In addition, his innate intelligence (apparently, his IQ was once measured at 214 at a time when the world record was reportedly 200) has given him the ability to come up with novel solutions to complex societal problems. He has also has demonstrated that he recognizes what the people of California, and the United States at large, really care about: good education for their children, clean government and the right to be treated equally under the law. Even more important, Unz has had the ability and courage to make things happen.
For much of this decade, Californians have benefited from Unz’s willingness to devote his time, talents and financial resources to various causes that others deemed too daunting. I’m looking forward to more great things from his direction. Keep your eye on this rising star.
Lee Cheng is a corporate lawyer practicing in the Peninsula.