The vast majority of California voters still have no idea who Al Checchi is; indeed, some reporters felt the need to supply a phonetic spelling of his last name -- "check-ee" -- in their announcement stories.
But nine months after he started his exploratory committee, Al Checchi is a very familiar face to the top state political writers. Checchi has submitted to interviews with the state's most influential political commentators, two or three times in many cases, and sometimes lasting hours. While it is always incumbent on political novices to reach out to the press, Checchi's courtship is unheard of for its thoroughness, reporters on the beat say; he's also chatted up most of the top policy-makers, lobbyists, and other non-elected intermediaries the press use as secondary sources.
As the second millionaire parvenu in as many statewide election cycles, Checchi naturally inspired skepticism among reporters. They had been primed by the performance of Michael Huffington, the Southern California congressman who spent millions of his own money giving incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein a close call in 1994.
The Checchi campaign to meet the press has been an orchestrated one, devised by a pricey team of consultants led by Darry Sragow. Sragow (who for the record is a cousin of SF Weekly's Michael Sragow) managed former state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi's losing campaign for the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial nomination; he's also credited with helping spearhead the Democratic victory in the 1996 state elections.
Although Sragow has up to $30 million of Checchi's half-billion or so fortune at his disposal for paid political advertising, he has so far concentrated on "free media," as straight news stories are termed in consultant-speak.
The success of his strategy so far shows that the press is still a vital ingredient to making a candidacy. It also illustrates the ease with which a candidate with at least some seeming intelligence can ingratiate himself with the campaign press corps. They are so jaded and so starved for candidates of substance that the simple act of engaging in a dialogue is noteworthy.
Checchi's candidacy was scoffed at nine months ago; now, reporters are scrambling for boasting rights to having written the first story saying Checchi has to be taken seriously.
That's a remarkable feat considering the other strikes against Checchi: He's been so detached from the politics of the state he didn't even vote in the last gubernatorial election; he's never been elected to or run for office; and by choosing the governorship as his first electoral goal, he has set his sights presumptuously high.
Like Checchi, Huffington hired a high-priced brain trust. But they kept their candidate away from reporters, choosing to go over the press' head by investing heavily in paid media.
One anecdote shows how badly the sequestration policy backfired. Word that Huffington had set up a question-and-answer session with a handful of carefully selected political reporters caused a near-riot among a campaign press corps starved for access. Instead of the four or five reporters who had been formally invited to ask him questions, 25 or so showed up -- and Huffington's campaign managers panicked and barred the doors.
But Checchi's openness has not been unguarded.
Gambling that they would have a short half-life, Sragow tried to dispose of Checchi's negatives early on, observers say. In the first round of news stories and profiles about Checchi, he was portrayed as a wheeler-dealer who was accustomed to throwing his weight around.
Stories appeared about how he was used to writing big checks to favored politicos and even donating money in his children's names. At the same time, it was revealed that Checchi hadn't managed to find the time to actually cast a vote in several recent California elections. In another instance, Checchi stumbled on a key campaign issue by equivocating mildly on his commitment to preserving the pro-choice protections established by Roe vs. Wade.
But the raft of Checchi announcement stories last week, and the sporadic stories leading up to them over the summer, has painted a new picture of Checchi: a diligent student of the state, a listener. He is still dogged by references to his novice status and his wealth. And his experiences as one of the architects of the publicly financed bailout of Northwest Airlines in Minnesota is likely to draw some scrutinizing stories before long.
But Checchi has convinced the press that he has a story to tell and that they should at the very least give it a hearing.
Today, the care and feeding of the press is metaphorical; the days when favorable coverage could be purchased with Christmas baskets of cheer are long past. The press does respond to attention, but the stroking works best when it is subtle and humorous.
To that end, Sragow has devised "Checchi-Mail" (as in "the check's in the ..."), a sophisticated exercise in keeping his candidate's message before the eyes of the press -- but without shoving it down their throats.
Nearly every morning, that day's Checchi-Mail comes humming out of the fax machines of the state's top political writers and operatives.
"To: Politically Active Californians," it begins. "CC: All of your friends." Although that sounds inclusive and democratic, Checchi-Mail is laced with jokes and references aimed at the most inside of the state's politi-cal insiders.
While campaigns routinely send daily faxes to the press corps, the missives tend to stick to the mundane. Checchi-Mail is much more than a routine listing of that day's talking points.
Checchi-Mail's lineage is obvious to veteran political observers. It is a direct descendant of the "Otto-Graph," which was the creation of the late Otto Bos, the longtime confidant and communications director for Gov. Pete Wilson. (Bos died in 1991.)
Before dawn each day, Bos would cull the state's newspapers for stories and factual tidbits that he thought reporters might find useful when writing about Wilson. It was a must-read for those who needed to track Wilson.
In Wilson's 1994 campaign, Republican political consultant Dan Schnur took the Otto-Graph a significant step further, by adding humor and allusion to the just-the-facts formula. He named his creation "Schnur-Shots," and it, too, became required reading for the state's political cognoscenti. (Sragow played the game, too, with "Garamendi-Grams.")
"There was time when all the reporters and campaign staffers would gather at the bar after work and trade stories and gossip and pass on information," says Schnur, who is now working for the state Republican Party. "But [modern] California politics doesn't allow for that, so we tried to put together a regular fax that passed on relevant information but in a less serious way.
"Instead of just putting out talking points or the schedules or arguments for or against something, we tried to adopt a conversational tone such as reporters would engage in if they had a bar to gather around. The idea wasn't to directly suggest a story or line of questions but to raise an issue at least."
Most of the state's political junkies at least glance at the day's Checchi-Mail -- if for no other reason than to see if they are mentioned. There's no pretense that items in each day's Checchi-Mail are not unvarnished Checchi spin; but as Schnur notes, they can be used to color a story at some point or tilt a reporter's angle a bit. Otherwise, the exercise would be an entire waste of time.
In the Sept. 25 Checchi-Mail, Sragow slipped in some digs about Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, Checchi's lone declared Democratic opponent, and Davis' campaign director, whom Sragow calls "Garry ('he'll rise again') South." Wilson also got an elbow nudge for choosing to announce his presidential aspirations for 2000 the same day Checchi declared his candidacy.
On a more serious note, Sragow planted the thought that Checchi isn't the only candidate with numerous paid consultants by listing the number of opponents' advisers at Checchi's announcement. (There were two each for Davis, Democratic State Controller Kathleen Connell, and Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren, and three for Checchi.)
"That's a perfect example," Schnur said. "You can't put out a press release on that but if you're at the bar, you can make a joke about it ... If Al Checchi stood up and made a press statement, 'Did you see all the operatives at my event?' the reporters would roll their eyes."
In another item, Sragow gave his candidate -- and himself -- a backhanded compliment on how well the campaign to meet the press was working. Under the headline "Don't Believe Anything He Says," Sragow wrote:
"Number of big city daily newspapers Darry Sragow predicted would carry the news of [Checchi's] announcement on the front page: 0
"Number of big city daily newspapers that carried the news of Al's announcement on the front page: 2.
"Sragow blames it on a slow news day. The candidate believes otherwise."
The candidate is probably right -- if for the wrong reasons.
Phyllis Orrick can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 185 Berry, Lobby 4, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: 536-8139; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.