Prepared for Takeoff

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Prepared for Takeoff

A big-time donor wants to pilot his own craft.

by Jeff Shear

#256 Alfred Checchi, 48, Beverly Hills, Calif. Party: Both. $112,000 total contributions.

View Checchi’s itemized contributions.

Alfred Checchi has wanted to graduate from donor to player for a long time. Last January, the co-chairman of Northwest Airlines and longtime Democratic fundraiser finally figured out how, plunking down $3 million in an opening bid to become California’s next governor. With a personal fortune estimated at $550 million, Checchi will be a major player between now and the June 1998 Democratic primary.

Checchi, whose trademarks are fitness (he’s run the New York City Marathon), family (he has three children), and hair transplants (he’s had two), became seriously involved in Democratic politics in the mid-1980s when he was working in Los Angeles as a financial strategist for the billionaire Bass brothers. While volunteering for Democrat Alan Cranston’s 1986 Senate campaign, Checchi sought the advice of former Rep. Tony L. Coelho, a California Democrat, about a candidacy of his own. “I told Al to get more gray hair,” says Coelho. “He was too young.”

Checchi’s role as a political fundraiser did, however, give him some clout in Washington. Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), who has received $18,750 from Northwest’s PAC since 1989, has, over the years, reportedly used his subcommittee chair to help out Checchi’s business interests. More recently, Northwest has led the charge against a federal tax on airline tickets, arguing instead for airport “user fees” — i.e., payments for each landing and takeoff — which would favor large airlines at the expense of lower-cost, short-haul carriers.

If Checchi continues with his gubernatorial bid, he could be on a collision course with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is also eyeing the governorship. Until now, Checchi and his wife, Kathryn, have been generous Feinstein supporters. Moreover, Feinstein’s husband, San Francisco financier Richard C. Blum, helped with Checchi’s Northwest takeover and sits on the company’s board.

There is some speculation that Checchi is merely acting as a placeholder for Feinstein: His money ties up her opponents, and, in return, Feinstein appoints Checchi to fill out the remainder of her Senate term. Feinstein media consultant Bill Carrick pooh-poohs this notion, however. “She was surprised that this guy announced out of the blue that he was considering a run for governor,” he says.

If that is the case, Feinstein could be in trouble. Checchi told a group of Santa Clara County business leaders he’s willing to spend $30 million for a ticket to Sacramento, and political consultant Joe Cerrell says Checchi’s budget could be as large as $42 million.

Ironically, California’s own campaign reform initiative, designed to declaw fat-cat donors, works to Checchi’s advantage: Potential candidates without the war chests of incumbency (such as former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta) are largely cut out unless they have a personal fortune.

Garry South, chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, another gubernatorial hopeful, dismisses Checchi’s chances, calling him “Al Checkbook.” South says, “[Big donors] get the sense that because they are courted by politicians, that by a process of osmosis, they are real political players.”

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