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The Man Behind Prop. 227

Meet Ron Unz, the tycoon who waged a campaign to all but outlaw bilingual education in California

By Margot Hornblower/Los Angeles

TIME magazine

(TIME, June 8) -- No, Ron Unz says, it's not true that he owns only two suits. He owns one. The other wore out weeks ago. And the one left "is on its last legs," he says. "I've patched the pants a couple of times." But it is true that he eats mostly at Burger Kings and pizza joints. And, yes, he lives in a house with no wife, no kids, no dog and hardly any furniture. "It's pretty sloppy," he offers. But Unz, 37, does have a hobby: attempting to turn public policy upside down. Over the past eight months, the multimillionaire Silicon Valley software entrepreneur has spent $1.2 million--more than half of it his own money--to pass a ballot initiative that would all but abolish bilingual education in California.

It looks as if he may succeed. As of last week, polls preceding the June 2 vote showed about 60% of citizens favoring Proposition 227, the "English for Children" initiative, despite a last-minute media blitz by opponents. "Politicians are ineffective on ethnic issues," Unz says, explaining his surprising clout. "If I didn't do something about bilingual education, no one else would."

The hubris is characteristic of the Harvard-educated computer whiz who once listed his IQ on his resume: 214. Born out of wedlock to a Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant, Unz went on to win first prize in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and, after majoring in theoretical physics and ancient history, studied quantum gravitation with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University. In 1988 he formed a financial-software firm, Wall Street Analytics, which made him wealthy, and began funding conservative think tanks. Unz, who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household, says, "America is successful because we have assimilated immigrants."

Only a few years ago, few took the geeky ideologue seriously. Infuriated by what he saw as Governor Pete Wilson's anti-immigrant stance, Unz challenged him in the '94 G.O.P. primary, garnering 34% of the vote. Unz's opposition to Proposition 187, the measure that would have excluded illegal immigrant children from public school, has stood him well in attracting Latino support. "My mother learned English easily in school," he says. "Latino parents want their kids to learn English too."

Waking at dawn and blast-faxing reporters from his PC, crisscrossing the state for media debates, Unz has made do with two paid staff members, getting his message across with radio rather than costly TV. Unz's opponents have spent $3.2 million to date, including $800,000 from teachers' unions and $1.5 million from A. Jerrold Perenchio, CEO of Univision, the nation's largest Spanish-language network, which has aired editorials four times a day to stymie Unz.

"If children learn English, they're more likely to watch English TV, and that hurts Perenchio," Unz charged. "But he can't buy an entire election." In the meantime, Unz was lining up lawyers to defend 227 against an expected court challenge.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: June 8, 1998

Fight To The Finish
The Conscience Of A Curmudgeon
Kinder, Gentler--And In The Lead
Smaller Pond
The Man Behind Prop. 227
The Notebook: Who Moves To The U.N.?

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