Al Checchi Wants To Make California Fly Right

He cleaned up his mess at Northwest. Why not try fixing a state?

It is scarcely 8 a.m. on Jan. 20, and Al Checchi is on a roll. Jumping from the chair in the study of his gated Beverly Hills home, the co-chairman of Northwest Airlines paces before bookcases that brim with biographies of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and other leaders. In minutes, the suit coat comes off. And with the same intensity that the ex-Bass Brothers lieutenant once reserved for LBOs and turnarounds, Checchi talks about politics and civic responsibility.

Almost four years after the turnaround of a nearly bankrupt Northwest--an airline that he and partner Gary L. Wilson had loaded with debt in a 1989 takeover--Alfred A. Checchi, 48, is contemplating the repair of a much larger and more dysfunctional animal: California. With a small band of Democratic political consultants, Checchi is pondering a 1998 gubernatorial bid. In a race soon to be teeming with superstar candidates, his odds are decidedly long. But with a fortune estimated at more than $500 million, no one's counting him out. "Anyone with that much money and the itch for politics has to be considered a player," says Sacramento attorney and Republican consultant Steven A. Merksamer, former Governor George Deukmejian's chief of staff.

HISTORY BUFF. Still, even the wealthiest candidates need messages, and Checchi is working on his. Stressing that California's government has grown so unresponsive that its citizens lard the ballots with initiatives to change laws, Checchi would winnow the bureaucracy to protect civil rights, fight crime, and enforce environmental and other regulations. Armed with tax credits, the private sector would be freed to create jobs that would lessen crime, welfare, and immigration concerns. Then he would overhaul government, bringing in like-minded executives for the 2,400-odd appointments the governor makes. "At Northwest, we turned around an airline by replacing 250 of the top 300 jobs," he says. "With 2,400 new people, we can change the world."

Checchi plans to spend $3 million and travel the state for six months to see if the message resonates. He may find that voters increasingly are worried about social issues, and Checchi, who is pro-choice and favors the death penalty, could see his agenda brushed aside. "What's he gonna do when he wants to talk the economy and the first question they ask is his stand on abortion?" asks GOP consultant Ken Khachigian, Bob Dole's statewide campaign manager in 1996.

A history buff who cites political leaders who have come from business, Checchi terms his effort a civic duty. But calls to duty bring scrutiny. Critics flayed him and Wilson for taking management fees from a money-losing Northwest. Their rescue plan was controversial for the 3,000 layoffs and the $740 million in loans and other benefits that Checchi was seen as pressuring the state of Minnesota to grant. "He made his enemies," concedes Northwest board member Marvin L. Griswold, a former director of the Teamsters' Airline Div. "You wonder where they are, now that the airline is running so well."

Checchi is banking on two just-passed initiatives that limit campaign contributions and require an open primary in 1998. The first gives millionaires who fund their races an advantage. The second could allow Checchi to lure independents frustrated with professional pols. But both are likely to see court challenges. And the field, which already includes a Democratic front-runner in Lieutenant Governor Gray Davis, may be enlarged by the entry of either Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, Leon E. Panetta, or Senator Dianne Feinstein, who narrowly lost a 1990 gubernatorial race.

Money hasn't always worked wonders in California. In 1994, oil scion Michael Huffington lost a tight Senate race after spending more than $28 million of his own money. Still, Checchi seems willing to spend the $25 million or more it would take. And he has lured some big names to his exploratory effort, including Clinton pollster Mark Penn, Kennedy strategist Bob Shrum, and Darry Sragow, who managed Feinstein's 1990 campaign.

Can a multimillionaire pro-business Democrat with no political resume find a place on the California political scene? Checchi intends to find out. The answer could make turning around an ailing airline look simple.

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