San Jose Mercury News
West Magazine

Sunday, January 11, 1998

The English Man
What does a software millionaire with a degree in physics and ancient history know about bilingual education? More than enough, says Ron Unz, and that's why he's out to get rid of it.

It's 10 minutes before the door will swing shut on Southwest Airlines flight 1466 and I still have not caught sight of my seatmate, Ron Unz, the software millionaire turned political ingenue who wants to kill bilingual education in California. We've agreed to meet at the gate so I can tag along for an overnight trip to Los Angeles, where Unz is scheduled to appear on a TV special about the state's troubled public schools. But I realized when I arrived at San Jose International that I have no idea what Unz looks like. I've spent the last 45 minutes anxiously scanning passengers. Is Unz that sporty guy in Armani? The paunchy, executive type barking into his cell phone?

Somehow, neither fits the mental picture I've formed of Unz during our many phone calls over the last couple of weeks. The guy I've been talking with would be clutching copies of the New Republic or Commentary, his favorite periodicals, not a leather-bound day planner.

Ron Unz first made headlines in 1994, when he stunned (and irked) Republican party regulars by attempting to unseat incumbent Gov. Pete Wilson. Unz captured a surprising 34 percent of the GOP primary vote. Wilson's backers shrugged off the strong showing as a "protest vote." (It didn't hurt that Unz was able to bankroll his seven-week "surprise attack," as he describes it, with $2 million of his own money, profits from Wall Street Analytics, the Palo Alto-based financial software company he founded.)

Last summer, Unz unveiled "English for Children," his initiative to abolish bilingual education for the state's 1.4 million immigrant children, and replace it with an English immersion program.

Under the measure, sponsored by an unusual mix of Latinos, conservatives and liberals recruited by Unz, immigrant parents could put their children in traditional bilingual classes only if they request and are granted a waiver. Then there must be 20 children in the school with waivers to form a class; otherwise they must transfer to another school. The measure would provide free English instruction for adults if they agree to later tutor non-English-speaking children. Unz claims the current bilingual program has a "95 percent failure rate," with only about 5 percent of the students graduating each year able to speak English. Opponents claim he's misinterpreting the data.

The initiative catapulted Unz back into the news, deepened his rift with state Republican leaders who warned that the measure may further alienate Hispanic voters. It comes on the heels of two GOP-supported initiatives--Proposition 187, which cracks down on illegal immigrants (and which Unz opposed), and Proposition 209. the and-affirmative action effort (which he supported).

On Nov. 19, the day before our trip to LA, Unz filed more than 700,000 signatures--300,000 more than required--and in December the initiative qualified for a spot on the June 1998 ballot. It also ensures his spot on the talk-show circuit, which is why he's supposed to be taking a 4 p.m. flight to Burbank. His live television appearance is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

The policy wonk

"Has Mr. Unz checked in yet?" I ask the Southwest attendant for the fourth time. She shakes her head. At 4 p.m., I watch the jet taxi down the runway.

At 4:11 p.m., a short, sweaty-looking man wearing a rumpled brown pinstripe suit and clutching a beaten-up canvas satchel rushes up to the now-deserted gate. "Are you Ron Unz" I ask. He flashes a good-natured smile. "Did I miss the flight?" he asks. I nod and he looks crestfallen. I suggest we take the 4:35 to Los Angeles. "Great!" Unz says, and whips out his well-used Southwest Frequent Flier card.

Over the next hour, I learn a crucial fact about Ron Unz: He is an exhaustive, non-stop talker about the political issues that absorb his energy. No chitchat for this guy, who was a debate champion at North Hollywood High. I casually ask him why a software geek decided to try to oust the governor. He goes on for 20 minutes--about why he abhors Pete Wilson, why physics majors are out of jobs, why his mother is no supporter of his Republican/Libertarian politics. And then he's back to Wilson. "The reason I was running against Wilson was because of all the anti-immigrant rhetoric," Unz says. "I strongly oppose it."

"Wasn't there was a more seasoned Republican who could have taken on Wilson?" I ask. Unz shakes his head. When Wilson started behaving like a "George Bush clone," Unz says, he thought that "surely somebody would run against him as a Ronald Reagan Republican." But the conservative wing of the party did not field a candidate, so he decided to do the job. "I figured I'd lose, but I could get some ideas out there and make trouble for Wilson," he says. "Wilson didn't stand for true Republican ideals."

Between the Central California coast and L.A., Unz barely takes a breath as he briefs me on his life: He got perfect 800s on his college SATs, won the Westinghouse Science Talent Search scholarship, double-majored in theoretical physics and ancient history at Harvard, studied with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, and came to Stanford to get his Ph.D. He ended up on Wall Street as a summer intern and discovered he's a gifted financial software writer. With two friends, Unz started Wall Street Analytics, which developed innovative software programs to help financial institutions manage mortgage-backed securities. He also purchased a cheap co-op in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in Queens, N.Y.

The kid from North Hollywood was fascinated by his neighborhood--Colombians, Indians, Hispanics, Asians and Eastern European cultures thriving side-by-side. He says it sparked his interest in immigration issues.

Although Unz was working 20 hour days at his start-up, he started dabbling in politics--at least making political predictions. "I told friends in 1989 that in a few years there will be an anti-immigrant backlash. I gave $40,000 to the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, to fund a book on immigrant assimilation issues."

By the time we land in LA, it's clear that nothing makes Unz happier than a good argument about public policy. This confirms what I'd heard from his friends. "I've never known Ron to do the kind of normal things people do in college, like drugs," a Harvard dorm-mate, Eric Reyburn, told me. "It was just totally anti-intellectual to him." Now, as we race to catch the shuttle to the rental car, Unz is still talking. "The people I most enjoy discussing politics with are those who are leftist-leaning."

Unz steps onto the shuttle and yelps mid-sentence, "I forgot my bag on the plane!" He races back to the gate, where the bag is waiting. Minutes later, Unz is again so deep into conversation that he leaves the bag on the seat as he steps off the bus. I point to the bag. "It's great to have an advance person!" he says, laughing as we climb into a rented Ford. The TV show goes live in just 90 minutes.

What makes Ron Unz run?

The truth is, Unz considers traditional campaign trappings--advance aides, a driver, even the all-important campaign consultants--a waste of money. "I guess I'm the consultant," he says as he maneuvers the Ford into Interstate 405 traffic. If envelopes need stuffing, he'll stuff them. He installed the campaign computer and taxed out the initial press releases.

The campaign does have a bare-bones staff--Lorelei Kinder, the former executive director of the state GOP during the Reagan years, who helps manage the campaign, and Sherri Annis, who is a spokesperson. They work at the initiative's state headquarters in L.A., next to the soup kitchen run by ex-nun Alice Callaghan, who made headlines by organizing a boycott of the L.A. public schools by Hispanic parents who demanded their kids be pulled out of bilingual ed programs. Unz, a long-time bilingual ed opponent, read about the boycott in the L.A. Times; the story inspired him to come up with the initiative. "I never got over reading that story," he says, then glances anxiously at the clock. "Traffic's not bad. We're in good shape."

Unz is an unlikely general in California's education wars--single, 36, no kids. As of late November, he'd spent $300,000 on his bilingual campaign, and the tab keeps growing. His only brush with the issue comes from his mother's experience as the child of immigrants from Russia. Before she entered kindergarten, her parents, who spoke both English and Yiddish, stopped speaking Yiddish at home and steeped her in English.

Unz wrote his controversial initiative--it requires children to learn English in one year instead of up to seven--without setting foot in a bilingual classroom. He doesn't see why opponents seize on this to discredit him. "The accounts I've read make it clear how bilingual classes are handled," he says. "Seeing it would have reinforced what I read and saw on TV. But I've talked with parents and teachers. I have nothing against bilingual education, but it just doesn't work."

Unz's critics, who include the California Association of Bilingual Educators and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, say he's using the issue to further his political career. But people who know him say his motivations aren't so simple. "Ron is not your typical politician. He's a bizarre politician, a hybrid---a cross between a computer geek and a political theorist," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a liberal immigrant advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Sharry and Unz came together to defeat Prop. 187. Sharry's job was to find a role for Unz in the campaign. "After our first phone call, I remember thinking, 'This is great; he's got his own ideas, but I'm not sure if he's a team player. He's more of a lone Ranger.'" Last summer Sharry tried to talk Unz out of his anti-bilingual crusade. After he failed, Sharry offered advice: "This could get ugly, divisive. If you're going to do it, do it in a way that is pro-Latino and pro-immigrant." Unz was already working on that strategy.

By midsummer, Unz had turned over his business responsibilities to associates and started working full-time on the initiative out of his Palo Alto home office. In a shrewd move, he recruited Gloria Matta Tuchman as co-chairperson. Tuchman, a Mexican-American educator who teaches English immersion, has waged a lonely fight against bilingual ed for years. For his honorary chairman of the initiative drive, Unz enlisted Jaime Escalante, the high school teacher who taught barrio kids college-level calculus and became the subject of the movie "Stand and Deliver."

When opponents suggest the initiative is racially divisive, Unz points to support from people like Tuchman and Escalante, as well as two independent polls that show broad support across party lines and ethic groups. (The most recent survey, the Field Poll taken in early December, finds 71 percent of non-white voters would back it.)

It's unfair to label Unz an immigrant-bashing racist, as some critics have. He's the first to admit that "lots of people who support the initiative are anti-immigrant"--one reason, he says, the campaign has a shortage of people to speak at public debates and forums. Unz believes immigrants are key to the U.S. Three years ago, at a press conference in Washington, he warned members of Congress that proposed restrictions on immigrant labor would be a "serious blow to America's competitiveness" especially in Silicon Valley.

A year after Unz lined up with opponents of Prop. 187, Unz was campaigning for Prop. 209--the anti-affirmative action initiative. His positions defy any pigeonhole, but they make perfect sense to him. He believes Prop. 187 is unfair because its provisions punish immigrants who are trying to improve themselves--for example, jailing mothers for sending their kids to school. He supported Prop. 209 because he's opposed to affirmative action based on race. "The major ethnic beneficiaries tend to be the most affluent, well-educated of their minority group," he says.

On the air

It's 6:10-50 minutes before Unz is due at public TV station KCET for makeup. We're on Sunset Boulevard in bumper-to-bumper traffic. As soon as it breaks, the tires screech and we're whipping around 25 mph curves at about 45 mph. "How far is the station" I ask, gripping the door handle. "About 50 blocks," says Unz, eyeing brake lights ahead. "I wanted to get there in time to shave."

The on-air light already is red when Unz rushes up to the studio at 7:32 p.m. "You're too late," a production assistant says. "No more guests are being admitted."

Unz looks crushed. "No one?" Just then a more senior producer spots Unz. "We can sneak you in during this opening videotape segment," she says, whisking Unz through the door. I head to the VIP Green Room where aides to officials appearing on the show "Life and Times" are watching on a TV monitor. I spot Unz in the back of the studio crowd, among activists, educators and union leaders who are seated town-meeting-style.

Unz has little to offer until the bilingual segment. A microphone is thrust in his face and the host demands theatrically, "Ron Unz, what is wrong with bilingual education?"

He's sweaty, pasty-looking and unshaved, but Unz's eyes light up. "It's not working!" he answers with poise, launching into all the reasons why, in his opinion, the state of California is wasting $320 million annually on the program. The camera shot changes and catches Unz from the side, making him appear shifty-eyed. "He's kind of Nixonian-looking," one of the Green Room aides observes. This is probably the cruelest thing you can say about Unz, who hates the former president and accuses him of betraying conservative Republican Party ideals.

The "town meeting" is tame, nothing like the reception he got at a recent debate on the UC-Berkelev campus, where students hissed and heckled him while he smiled broadly and defended his initiative. When the "On Air" sign off, Unz and Callaghan, also a guest, are exuberant about the support they found among a potentially hostile audience. But not everyone is won over. I spot state schools chief Delaine Eastin, who must enact the measure if it passes. "Have you met Ron?" I ask. She looks pained. "No, I probably should meet him," she says and thrusts her hand out. Unz beams and hands out "English for Children" press kits. "Maybe we could sit down and talk sometime," he suggests.

Eastin shoots him a withering look, and says she's uncomfortable with the initiative's "sink or swim" approach. "More kids are in a sink-or-swim situation now," Unz says.

"If you had sat down and talked with me, you wouldn't find so much hostility," Eastin says, then says she's worried about issues that drive a "wedge" between ethnic groups.

"Most Latinos want their kids to learn English," Unz says, rattling off statistics. But Eastin is dismissive. "Well," she says, "I've got a long day ahead tomorrow. I look forward to meeting with you."

At 8:56 p.m., Unz drives out of the parking lot through the entrance lane. How can a guy be expected to notice a huge DO NOT ENTER sign when he's engrossed in explaining why he never bothered getting Eastin's input into the initiative; ("I tried to steer clear of politicians. Everything they did to defend bilingual ed made me more convinced about my initiative.") Soon, we're at a hotel in downtown LA, and Unz hands the clerk his credit card for check-in. "I'm sorry, Mr. Unz, this card didn't go through."

"Must be over my limit," Unz says with a shrug. "Try this one." Then he turns to me. "I was just thinking, I haven't eaten anything for a while. I'm a high-energy person, I can keep going. Have you eaten?"

Disagreements with Mom

"So why are you doing this?" I ask. "You don't have kids in school."

"It was clear if I didn't do it, nobody else would," he says, taking a hearty bite of a chicken stir fry that tastes I like sawdust clumps. "It's a policy issue."

Unz also was restless. He'd never quite come down from the high of running for governor, marching with immigrant activists against 187 and fighting to outlaw affirmative action. He was back at Wall Street Analytics. "I usually spend my day sitting at a desk, writing code or negotiating contracts," he says. "This is much more interesting."

"If the bilingual initiative passes, will you launch a national campaign?" I ask.

"It might not be necessary," he says. "One half of all bilingual students in the country live in California, and half of those students live in Los Angeles. I think the rest of the nation will just crumble like the Berlin Wall."

Before this trip, I'd asked Unz for autobiographical materials so I could better understand him. Now he leans across the table and hands me three papers he published in college. "Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies," Did Pindar Err?" and "Path Integration and the Functional Measure." I lay them aside and ask if he has anything else. He looks disappointed.

When it comes to talking about his personal life, Unz is a tight clam. This much I've gleaned from news clippings. Unz was born out of wedlock, a fact he sidesteps unless asked directly. Years ago, he confessed to a reporter that his illegitimate status made him feel "very ashamed." His Israeli father, a retired professor of applied physics, was out of the picture. His mother, a high school teacher, raised her only child with help from her parents. When she fell ill, she went on welfare. I have repeatedly asked if I can talk with his mother. "I'll have to give that serious thought" is what he always says.

"I come from a left liberal Democrat background. If my mom was 10 years younger she would have been a hippie." He says he's worried that his outspoken mother will not be deft at handling a media interview. But he may be worried about something else. In 1994, when Unz was campaigning to unseat Pete Wilson and telling everyone that the welfare payments his mother received when he was young were "not that much of a help," Esther Unz recalled things differently. She told the Mercury News that welfare was essential to their survival.

"What does she think of your politics?" I ask Ron Unz.

"My mom thinks I'm a fool to put in such long hours, wasting my money on public policy kinds of things, many of which she doesn't agree with," Unz says. "She wants to know why I don't find a nice girl, settle down and take a long vacation."

Reality check

"I take five newspapers a day and check the Web for others," Unz volunteers three minutes into our ride to the airport. It's 7:10 a.m. and Unz is firing on all cylinders. He's worried that I might not have enough personal detail for this article. "I could drive you around Palo Alto and show you my favorite hangouts," he offers.

"Where do you like to go" I ask.

"Burger King and Round Table Pizza."

Next, I try hobbies. "I like to read and occasionally I go to the movies, mostly action thrillers. My main hobby always has been politics."

What does he do to relax? Unz mulls this over. "I like stuffing envelopes [for the initiative] while listening to the 'NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.' I tape it when I'm not home."

Not surprisingly, our conversation takes a giant zigzag into Pete Wilson. Does Unz want the governor to endorse the bilingual initiative?

"Absolutely not! Hispanics consider Pete Wilson the devil. He's the kiss of death!

"Let me show you how silly Wilson is," Unz continues. "He starts his presidential campaign at the Statue of Liberty"--the national symbol of immigration. "That's like George Wallace starting his campaign at the church where those five little girls were blown up."

We arrive at our gate with--miraculously--a half hour to spare. Our destination: Palo Alto, where Unz has agreed--reluctantly--to let me see his home. When I first asked if I could interview him at his house, which is also the Northern California nerve-center for the bilingual initiative, Unz balked. "I'll have to think that over very seriously," And then: "It's very messy." After weeks of phone conversations, he relented.

Meanwhile, as groggy early morning commuters settle back into their seats, Unz and I continue our marathon public policy discussion. After listening to critics of the initiative the night before, something is bugging me. "If you never spent time in bilingual classes, how did you decide that kids should have just one year to learn English?"

"I did my own reality check. I just asked friends how long it took them to learn English," Unz answers. He says that he dismissed the extensive research on the topic because "it's funded by pro- or anti-bilingual supporters."

Without any research, Unz has also concluded that the state doesn't need more money to teach kids English. "There's no evidence more money will make a difference," he says. And then, a swipe at schools chief Eastin: "I think Delaine looks more at how much money is being spent, not what you're getting for the money."

The English man's castle

Back in Northern California, we head to Palo Alto and the five-bedroom home he purchased for more than a million dollars in 1993 when he moved his business from New York to Palo Alto. He'd planned to move back ever since leaving Stanford in the midst of his Ph.D. for a summer internship on Wall Street. He never finished his degree.

"I'd been living in a very crowded two-room co-op in Queens, so when I moved here I thought, 'I'll get a nice place, really fix it up and enjoy more of a social life,' " Unz tells me as he leads me up the walk to a lovely new Spanish-style house on a street where houses sell for a million-plus. "But as you can see... He pushes open the front door--and reveals a spacious living room and dining room without a stick of furniture, or even curtains. There's only a heap of old periodicals and Harvard alumni magazine, dumped by the front door. The place gives new meaning to Spartan.

The house echoes with the beep of Unz's answering machine. He dashes upstairs to retrieve his messages, clearly nervous about leaving me alone to look around.

I quickly discover that I was wrong. Unz does have some furniture--a small old wooden table and two chairs in the kitchen. But it doesn't look like the table sees much action. The gourmet stove is covered with dust. The kitchen counter is crowded with nine six-packs of Staggs canned chili, what must be a month's supply of canned minestrone and a pair of two-pound boxes of Honey Bunches of Oats cereal. (He likes to buy in bulk.)

"Do you ever cook.?" I ask as he comes into the room. "No, I just heat it up in the microwave." Unz also doesn't waste time on cleaning. There are five dirty glasses lined up on the counter, next to a box of new flatware--forks and spoons still in their plastic wrappers. From the look of it, Unz just grabs a new one when his supply runs low.

We climb the staircase to the second floor, where he leads me into a small corner room cluttered with art he bought while he lived in New York. Propped on the shelves of several bookcases are paintings, a number of which are scenes of his favorite haunts in New York City. "I figured I'd hang them on all the walls here," he says. Spilling out from underneath the unframed pictures are dozens of trophies. He smiles. "Those are my debate trophies from high school."

Next door is his home office where he's masterminding the initiative. Other than the floor, littered with magazines, the room is strikingly tidy. "These are my files," lie says pulling out a meticulously organized drawer. "The things that are essential, I tend to organize well."

The hallway is waist-high with empty boxes. As I jot down some notes, Unz looks uncomfortable. "Oh," he mutters, "eccentricity is not good in politics."

In fairness to Unz, his eccentricity is inherited. I learned this from his aunt, Rivko Knox, the former head of the Arizona ACLU. Although his mother is off-limits, Unz sanctioned an interview with Knox, who he says has had more experience with reporters. She and I talked a few days after I visited his home.

"Ron is exactly like his mother. She is the sloppiest person I've met other than Ron," Knox said, chuckling. "She'd much rather think and analyze. She's oblivious to the dirt around her."

How did Unz, the Republican conservative, hatch out of a leftist Democratic nest? "Beats me!" Knox laughed again. "It's a puzzle to his mom and me. But I admire the consistency of his views. His mother is very proud of him."

His politics might be on the wrong side of the family, but his love of political debate also is inherited. It's a family tradition to sit around arguing public policy for hours. Knox recalled an evening when Unz tried to convince her that the key to getting off welfare is discipline and planning. "He explained to me how if two people working on minimum wage shared an apartment, didn't own a car but got a bike, they could get by without government assistance."

Knox sighed at the memories. "Some of these things sound good in theory but what if you get sick or the bike breaks down? In some ways life is very easy for Ron because he is so brilliant I think he finds it hard to understand why, if you need a job, you can't just go out and get one."

A warm-up

To a lot of people in California, the bilingual initiative sounds good--not just in theory. Each statewide poll shows a cross section of support from minorities, liberals and conservatives. Bilingual ed supporters say that the measure will flounder once its flaws are exposed, but even Delaine Eastin admits that the measure has an excellent chance of becoming law.

Perhaps, one it passes, Unz will find time to do a little decorating. Unless, of course, he takes up another crusade. "Maybe after I get rid of bilingual education I'll go after the trial lawyers. This is just a warm-up."

He says this with a chuckle--but it is hard to imagine Unz returning to a staid life writing software code. How about a bid for governor? Mounting a statewide campaign is a major undertaking," he responds. Congress? "Too boring." U.S. Senate? Unz nods. "That might be interesting."

As we complete my house tour, Unz gestures for me to step into a small room near the front door. He shows me tray after tray of computer disks, which hold hundreds of thousands of lines of financial software code he's written over the years. The room is barren except for a six-foot-high stack of Dell Computing boxes. I ask if he just bought a new computer. "No," he says, "they've been here since 1993."

As I head out the front door, Unz stops me. "You've been in lots of homes," he says, hesitantly. "For computer types, is this house in keeping with them?" I try to reassure him that it's not too bad. The millionaire egghead turned political crusader flashes his boyish smile. "That makes me feel a lot better."

Tia O'Brien is contributing writer for West.