Feinstein gets a challenger

Political gadfly Ron Unz jumps into the ring for the U.S. Senate race in California.

Published October 5, 1999 9:00AM (EDT)

Ron Unz, California's high-profile, eccentric initiative warrior, entered the race Tuesday for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Dianne Feinstein. During his announcement in Sacramento, Unz said his campaign will "raise those important issues which nearly all politicians of both parties have ignored."

Unz, a 38-year old former software maker, ran for governor against incumbent Republican Pete Wilson in 1994, pouring close to $2 million of his own money into his campaign. He is best known as the chief spokesman for Proposition 227, a measure that essentially eliminated bilingual education in California public schools. The measure passed with more than 60 percent of the vote in June 1998.

Unz has lately reemerged as a champion of campaign-finance reform, spearheading an initiative drive, along with Democrat Tony Miller, for the March 2000 ballot. Republican presidential candidate John McCain has endorsed the proposition.

Unz's announcement adds a drop of intrigue to a race that was without a serious Republican challenger. While many people dismiss Unz as a curiosity and a publicity hound, Miller allowed, "Hey, anything could happen. Lightning could strike and Ron Unz could be the next U.S. senator from California."

Unz joins a shallow Republican field in which two fairly obscure conservatives have declared their intention to run. But the GOP is still waiting on an announcement from Rep. Tom Campbell, one of the most liberal Republican members of Congress. Campbell is expected to make his decision on whether to join the race "within a couple of weeks," according to his congressional press secretary, Suhail Khan.

Campbell campaign manager Kevin Spillane said he was not surprised by Unz's announcement Tuesday, and hinted at a likely campaign strategy for his client if he does enter the race. "I don't think it changes anything, except now you've got three pro-life, conservative white males in the race," he said. "They're just going to split the right wing of the party."

"It's pretty obvious that [the three Republican candidates] are just doing it to raise their name I.D. for future races," Spillane said. When asked if that meant Feinstein was unbeatable, he quickly added, "No. I just don't think that these three guys are the strongest candidates to take her on."

That sentiment was echoed by Feinstein campaign manager Kam Kuwata, who added Campbell to the list of candidates who don't have a prayer against the California senator. "Tom Campbell has the same problem he's always had," Kuwata said. "He's too liberal to get his party's nomination."

But even if he does survive the primary, Kuwata said Campbell will be no match for Feinstein in the fall. "I'm not even sure he'd be the first choice of a lot of people in his own party," he said. Feinstein received 22 percent of GOP support in an Aug. 31 Field Poll. That same poll showed her far outdistancing the other two declared Republican challengers in head-to-head match-ups.

Campbell has until Dec. 10 to make his decision. While most sources close to the congressman say his entrie into the race is a foregone conclusion, Spillane warned, "You never know with him. I think he's thinking it over and that he'll make his decision on his own time, at his own pace."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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