Checchi Meets the Press
A year ago, the vast majority of California voters had never heard of Al Checchi. The same held true for the state's top political writers; to the press, Checchi -- the former co-chairman of Northwest Airlines who last week announced his campaign for the state's Democratic gubernatorial nomination -- was an almost complete unknown.

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.

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