Contra Costa Times
Sunday, May 10, 1998
Unz Uses Initiative for Impact
Backers call it "English for the Children." Opponents call it the Unz Initiative.
Just as Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann were indelibly linked to property tax reduction, Ron Unz's name has become synonymous with the ballot crusade against bilingual education.
With a $655,000 investment, the 36-year-old computer software writer -- who has never been in a bilingual class in his life -- is trying to almost single-handedly change the way 1.4 million schoolchildren can learn English in the nation's largest state.
"We're on the verge of getting rid of bilingual education," he says with a wide, beaming smile. "If we win here, it will soon be gone across the nation."
The latest polls show that between 63 percent and 76 percent of voters support the initiative he wrote, Proposition 227, which is on the June 2 ballot.
For Unz, this is only the beginning. "I guess you could say I'm going to try to fix broken things in California," he says.
Next project: tort reform or perhaps revamping tax policy. And, although he dropped $2.3 million on his unsuccessful 1994 gubernatorial bid, Unz still harbors ideas of running for governor again, or perhaps U.S. Senate.
Almost no one had heard of Unz before his attack-ad campaign against Gov. Pete Wilson in the Republican primary four years ago. Few remember that failed effort now.
But, with the help of opponents of his bilingual education initiative who portray him as a right-wing zealot and then brand the ballot measure with his name, Unz is quickly gaining statewide recognition.
As initiative expert Jim Shultz, an opponent of Prop. 227, recently told him, "You're getting far more name ID out of this than you did running for office."
The son of a liberal schoolteacher, Unz became a self-described Ronald Reagan Republican.
Raised on welfare, he says the system does more harm than good.
A man who touts his scientific training as a physicist and claims to have a genius-level IQ, Unz butchers state statistics to bolster his case for abolishing bilingual education.
Quick to dismiss his opponents' arguments as "ridiculous" and present himself as a self-taught authority on language education, Unz last month turned down a teacher's offer to make his first visit to a bilingual classroom.
Worth millions of dollars -- he won't say exactly how much, and information on his privately held company is not publicly available -- he drives a 5-year-old Nissan compact and carries piles of his campaign literature bulging from a canvas briefcase slung over his shoulder.
And, one day last month, wearing a watch set half an hour ahead, Unz nevertheless arrived 52 minutes late to speak to a political science class at UC-Berkeley.
Bounding down the stairs of the lecture hall dressed in faded jeans, a baggy sweater and worn running shoes, he blamed traffic for his tardiness and then launched into his stump speech for the initiative.
Unz is crusading for a cause he says has roots in his family history.
"I come from a little bit of an immigrant background myself," he told the students.
His mother was born in Los Angeles and grew up speaking Yiddish until a year before she started school, Unz says. As she got ready for kindergarten, her parents started teaching her a little bit of English.
Then, "once she started kindergarten, she picked up English very quickly and easily. And for that reason, I've never really understood why bilingual education and native language instruction was either necessary or a good idea."
He makes the leap from the my-mother-didn't-need-it argument to questioning an entire language education system with little hesitation.
The story serves his purposes well -- even if it might be wrong.
Unz's aunt, Rivko Knox, says her older sister didn't learn her English in kindergarten. It's true their parents started speaking English when her sister was 4.
But "by the time she started kindergarten," says Knox, "she spoke fluent English."
Although Esther Unz used the name of the father of her child, the couple never married nor, according to her sister, ever lived together.
Hilel Unz, an Israeli who settled in the United States, had little contact with his son. The boy was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother, an orthodox Jew who had emigrated from Russia after World War I.
Unz now shields his mother from the media and refers reporters to Knox when they want to learn about his childhood.
"(Ron) was not only the only child," she says. "He was the only child with a doting grandmother."
It was his grandmother who brought religion to his life. She made sure he had a bar mitzvah. But to this day, he isn't very religious and attends temple only when he is with relatives.
Ron, his mother and his grandmother lived in the same two-bedroom house in the northeastern corner of the San Fernando Valley where Esther Unz and Rivko Knox had been raised.
His mother, who had been a schoolteacher before her son was born, had to give it up when Ron was very young. She had gone back to work after his birth, but would constantly wind up sick.
The family received Supplemental Security Income and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Esther Unz told a reporter during her son's gubernatorial campaign that the aid was essential.
Unz seems ambivalent about his welfare experience. "I don't think it made a tremendous amount of difference," he said in one recent interview.
Without welfare, he said in another, "it would have been very difficult."
But his experience is not important, he insists. "My views on social policies, including welfare, don't directly flow out of my personal background."
A 'gifted young man'
When he reached high school, his extended family moved to North Hollywood to make it easier for Unz to attend a special school program for bright children.
On his SAT exam for college entrance, he says, he scored a perfect 1,600.
While at Harvard, where he received a bachelor's degree in physics and ancient history, Unz often took graduate-level classes and published articles in the same journals as his professors.
"He remains in my mind chiefly as an academically brilliant student," says Ernst Badian, a professor emeritus of history at Harvard who advised Unz on his senior thesis, "The Spartan Naval Empire, 412-394 B.C."
He was "superior to any (student) I have had since in his ability to do outstanding work in two very different fields."
Badian recalls his star student "was very well aware of his own quality and moved as an equal among the most prominent academics. …
"He was eager to learn and excellent at doing so. But once he had formed an opinion, he would hold onto it with dogged tenacity and could hardly ever be persuaded to change it."
Admiring Mao Tse-tung
"Ron always spoke very highly of Mao, not for his politics. He admired the way Mao cobbled together China and moved it from a starving Third World country to a world power," Reyburn recalls.
"To this day, I couldn't really put a finger on Ron's politics. I wouldn't call him a liberal by any means. He had many conservative views in those discussions and he had many liberal views. He's gotten much more conservative since those days."
Just as it's hard to pigeonhole the political Unz, it's hard to know the personal Unz. His friend, his aunt and his former professor say he doesn't talk much about his personal life.
Badian was struck by the distance Unz kept.
"Unlike just about all my other senior thesis students, he never told me anything about his personal background, never spoke about -- or introduced me to -- his family," Badian recalls.
"He never mentioned any views or belief of his, religious or political, and of course I never guessed that he would develop business and political ambitions. …
"I assumed he would become an academic physicist and keep up an interest in ancient history as some exceptional academics have done."
In 1984, Unz started work on a doctorate in physics at Stanford, where he studied black holes, quarks and gravity.
Three years later, he took a summer job with First Boston Corp., an investment company based in New York. The firm started him out working on software for evaluating mortgage securities and later persuaded him to take a leave from his studies.
Six months later, figuring he could develop and market similar software on his own, Unz left his job, rented an apartment in Queens, N.Y., and spent the next year writing computer code.
It was the start of Wall Street Analytics, a multimillion-dollar enterprise now based in Palo Alto that employs around 20 people and serves about 100 financial firms -- banks, brokerage houses and investment managers.
Five years after moving into the Queens apartment, Unz moved out and went back to the West Coast. He never returned to Stanford. Instead, he used some of his profits to launch his political career.
Down and dirty
A man who can't recall the last movie he saw, who has little interest in athletics and whose idea of cooking is microwaving a can of chili or frequenting McDonald's, Unz has one major hobby.
"I enjoy thinking about how to fix public policy problems," he says.
Because he contributed to conservative think tanks, he was invited to receptions with key political leaders.
"Many of them did not seem very well-informed at all," he says. "That raised the possibility that (politics) is not as difficult as it might seem."
So, two months before the primary election in 1994, with no other Republican willing to take on Wilson, Unz entered the race for governor with a hard-core conservative platform.
He called for cutting health and welfare programs, education funding and money for parks and environmental programs.
He proposed cutting by more than half the top-level state income tax rate and abolishing the state worker's compensation system. He opposed gay rights and abortion.
Unz tapped into a conservative backlash. The governor's popularity had plummeted. Right-wing Republicans, who never cared for the moderate Wilson, were quick to join the Unz camp when he entered the race.
He called the governor "an ideological, cross-dressing Democrat." And he was merciless in his television advertising attacks.
For example, he accused Wilson of fiddling while Los Angeles burned during the 1992 riots.
"He let the National Guard sit on its hands as mobs of criminals burned and looted my native city for days," Unz said in the commercial.
In fact, Wilson was angered by slow deployment of the National Guard, which was due to poor leadership and equipment.
Unz's offensive brought him 34 percent of the primary vote. And it demonstrated that the Harvard-trained scientist was willing to get down and dirty with the politicians.
"He seems to be campaigning with the perky self-assurance of a young scholar who is slumming intellectually in another field," wrote Sacramento Bee political columnist John Jacobs during the campaign.
"He doesn't quite have a grasp of the new field's literature yet, but thinks he could pass an oral exam on sheer will and brain power."
He called for an end to the "poisonous brew of bilingual education, multiculturalism and other ethnic separatist policies" in the state's public schools.
"We include many ethnic groups here in America but one culture, American culture -- and many languages for the home but one language for our society, English."
Even though Unz was gunning for bilingual education in the gubernatorial campaign, he says he didn't decide to launch the initiative drive until he read about problems in Los Angeles in 1996.
Latino parents, whose kids made up about a quarter of the students in a downtown elementary school, had pulled their children out of class to protest bilingual education. The parents wanted their children put in English-only classes.
"At that point, I decided to investigate the statewide statistics on bilingual education a little more closely because you can't make public policy based on anecdote," Unz says in his stump speech.
"Anecdote can get you started, but you have to look at the government statistics, the official statistics on these programs. And the truth is the numbers are dreadful."
'95 percent failure'
It's clear Unz is no longer in an academic classroom. He's in the political arena, where mathematical accuracy takes a back seat to repeating your slogan and hoping it sticks.
The numbers Unz cites actually tell very little about the success of bilingual education. They show that last year 6.7 percent of California schoolchildren who had been classified with limited English proficiency had become fluent in the language.
That's what Unz likes to call a "95 percent failure rate" (even though, by his reasoning, it's a 93 percent rate). Unz says more children should be progressing to fluency.
"We have to get rid of bilingual education," he says. "It doesn't work."
But most California schoolchildren with limited English aren't taught with the method Unz seeks to abolish. Only 30 percent receive bilingual education.
At the same time, more than 40 percent are taught with methods similar to the immersion classes Unz is asking state voters to make mandatory.
The failure rate Unz cites does not distinguish between the methods. Thus, the immersion method in his initiative might be more to blame for the "failure" than the bilingual classes he detests.
Unz is unfazed by the inconsistency. Whatever the cause, children aren't learning English fast enough, he says. "I say one year is enough for a young child."
It's a decree that opponents say lacks any scientific evidence, but it's a decree likely to strike a chord with voters.
He is working from a position of strength. He comes in expecting to win rather than as a long-shot underdog.
He must convince a cross-section of voters rather than just Republicans in a partisan primary.
So Unz emphasizes his intellectual side and downplays the raw partisan politics he demonstrated in 1994. Consequently, he seems much more in his element.
He talks about how he separated himself from most Republicans by opposing Prop. 187, the 1994 initiative to deny state government services to undocumented immigrants. He insists Prop. 227 is not another wedge issue.
"The Republican Party made a dreadful mistake by becoming an anti-immigrant party," he says. "Clearly, the Republican Party is regretting it now."
Unz says he's pro-immigration. At the same time, he is equally strident that, once here, immigrants should adopt the United States' culture.
"The reason America has succeeded," he says, "is because of its emphasis on assimilation."
"Although he's a very kind person," says Knox, his aunt, "probably one of Ron's failings is because he is so amazingly bright and can be so very focused and very high energy, I think it's hard for him to understand that not everyone can be like that."
For now, Unz is focused on abolishing bilingual education. He is unconcerned that he hasn't had a date in seven or eight months. The money he has spent doesn't faze him.
"Ron is not interested in money and material things," says Knox. "His idea of earning money was because he wanted to be able to work in the public policy field."
Whether he uses the money to spearhead another initiative campaign or run for office, Unz has shown the state he is a political force with which to be reckoned.
For now, he seems happy taking his policies straight to the voters.
He compares his initiative to the gubernatorial campaigns of two other multimillionaires. Between them, Al Checchi and Jane Harman will probably spend at least $50 million of their own money running for governor this year.
At least one of them will lose, Unz notes. And, even if one wins, "it's not even clear what impact they will have."
In contrast, he says, he will make a much more cost-effective investment by spending less than $1 million on his initiative.
"It does affect a quarter of California's public school population," he says flashing that beaming smile again.
"It's this very entrenched program that suddenly we're on the verge of getting rid of."
Ron Keeva Unz
Birthplace: Los Angeles
Hometown: Palo Alto
Marital status: Single
"I guess you could say I'm going to try to fix broken things in California."