Georges Marciano was holding court at the Polo Lounge last week, making the case why a man best known for the snazzy jeans that made him a multimillionaire should be California's next governor. A political independent untethered to the usual party schisms is, he argued, the solution to the state's perennial financial mess.
Never mind that voting records suggest he has sat out the last decade of elections here. And never mind that his solutions to the state's annual flirtation with bankruptcy would, in many cases, worsen its straits.
Quibbles all, they miss the point: Marciano is running as the latest personification of a phenomenon that, even if not uniquely Californian, has certainly been embraced here -- the celebrity candidate reaching for political power.
This is not an easy season for celebrity politicians. Arnold Schwarzenegger has found that it might be easier to stay atop the heap in Hollywood than in politics, as his popularity ratings have plummeted to record lows this spring. Much the same trajectory marked the tenure of former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, previously best known for his antics in the wrestling ring.
Even with all the attention they garner when they enter politics, the rich and famous have a checkered history of success in California. For every Schwarzenegger -- who announced his 2003 recall candidacy on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" -- there is more than one Al Checchi, the fabulously wealthy co-chairman of Northwest Airlines who spent nearly $40 million of his own money for a second-place finish among Democrats running for governor in 1998.
Thematically, Marciano is trying to fill the same niche as Checchi and Schwarzenegger -- the up-by-the-bootstraps success story, ready to grace the state with his perspective.
In Marciano's case, the vehicle that propelled him into the high life was jeans. He arrived in California from France with $5,000 in his pocket, he says. With his brothers, he built Guess Inc., the sportswear corporation whose jeans were famous for cladding, in their ads at least, models like Anna Nicole Smith. The company has lasted longer than the brothers' partnership; candidate Marciano was bought out to the tune of $240 million in 1993 and has since pursued real estate, diamond-purchasing and other investments.
Much of his time, however, also appears to have been spent in court, with a host of lawsuits filed against varied parties. In the Polo Lounge interview, he accused a number of unnamed associates and entities of misappropriating up to $400 million from him; a Marciano website that was disabled last week offered a reward for millions in allegedly stolen artwork and bottles of wine. Marciano returned repeatedly in the interview to the story of Bernard Madoff, the New York investment guru who confessed to a scam that looted clients of $50 billion.
From there, Marciano, 62, excoriated banks, which he accused of conspiring to swindle him. Not coincidentally, one of his primary campaign promises is to audit banks -- each and every one with a branch in California.
"The banks had the money somewhere," he said of the nation's financial turbulence.
The candidate in the Polo Lounge, in pristine white linen and dyed black hair, made for a surprising populist, but there it was: He wants to go after rich people who he is convinced have been cheating on their taxes. He wants healthcare for all, along the lines of European plans: "If people want to call it socialist. . . . Why them and not us?" He wants to boost education spending and to build new prisons: "We have lots of land unoccupied." He does not want to raise taxes.
If the campaign is in its early stages, so is the candidate.
On the budget deal crafted by the governor and Legislature to fend off a $41-billion deficit: "It's too late to say what you think."
On the May ballot measures that resulted from that deal, whose passage would restructure the state's budget:
"It would be unfair for me to give my position, really."
"You're still reviewing it," suggested his spokesman, Rod Harrell.
"On the ballot I want to study everything. . . . I was not planning to run for governor a month ago," replied Marciano. "Now I have to take everything seriously."
The realities of making it in politics are bracing, which is why it helps to be, as Marciano is, blithely oblivious to the odds. He has no conventional campaign team and doesn't plan to get one. His campaign manager is his publicist, Harrell, a onetime actor and technology systems specialist who recoils when asked if he has ever before run a campaign: "No, absolutely not!"
Marciano has no plans to bombard Californians with television spots, the traditional sales venue for political figures here. So far his campaign is the political equivalent of the baseball "Field of Dreams" -- if he builds it, perhaps the voters will come.
"It depends upon what the public wants from me," he said when asked where his campaign goes now, after last week's announcement of his candidacy. "If they want to hear from me or not, you know, it's very simple. If they like my message, great, I will go far, far, far. If they don't like my message. . . ."
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