Pete Wilson

views updated May 14 2018

Pete Wilson

Republican Peter Barton Wilson (born 1935) was elected the governor of California in 1991.

As governor of the most populous and economically powerful state in the United States, Pete Wilson is faced with both problems and opportunities of monumental size. His 1990 triumph over Dianne Feinstein for the governor's position made the 60-year-old Wilson an instant candidate for national office—as former California governor and U.S. president Ronald Reagan demonstrated earlier, California politics often become American policies—but for the time being Wilson has his hands full coping with California's massive budgetary, environmental, and population problems. In his first year as governor, Wilson outraged the right wing of the Republican party by raising state taxes $7 billion to help cover California's growing budget deficit, caused by a slow economy and the state's extensive system of social welfare programs. In the land of Reaganism, tax hikes by a Republican governor are viewed as nothing less than treason by many party members; as California Assemblyman Tom McClintock lamented to the New Republic, "All the advantages we [Republicans] had in the 1980s have been thrown away."

Wilson's situation is far more complex than those faced by earlier Republican governors of California, however. The population of the state grew from 23 million in 1980 to 30 million in 1990, with much of the increase in the child population or people too poor to contribute to the state's tax base. At the same time, Californians have grown used to a broad range of social services and tight environmental controls, while simultaneously expressing growing frustration with the size of government and especially with taxes, signaled most clearly by the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which imposed a cap on real estate taxes. The net result of these disparate forces was a 1991 budget deficit of $14 billion, a rude welcome to the governor's mansion for Pete Wilson.

Peter Barton Wilson was born August 23, 1935, in Lake Forest, Illinois, an affluent suburb north of Chicago. His father, James Wilson, was originally a jewelry salesman who later became a successful advertising executive. The Wilson family moved to St. Louis when Pete was in junior high school. There he attended St. Louis Country Day School, an exclusive private institution, winning an award in his senior year for combined scholarship, athletics, and citizenship. In the fall of 1952 Wilson enrolled at Yale University, where he majored in English and won a Marines ROTC scholarship. A former Yale classmate later described Wilson to the Los Angeles Times as "not the kind of guy who put himself forward a lot," a capable student but not exceptionally gifted nor much interested in student politics.

After graduation from Yale, Wilson served three years in the Marines as an infantry officer, eventually becoming a platoon commander. His Marines service gave Wilson his first taste of leadership, a kind of political initiation which would prove decisive for his later career. After writing a novel in 1958 (which has not been published), Wilson attended law school at Berkeley, having decided that he wanted to live in California while visiting the state as a Marine. He was an average student at Berkeley but became active in political circles, starting a local chapter of Young Republicans and working on various election campaigns. In 1962, while working for Republican gubernatorial candidate Richard M. Nixon, Wilson got to know one of Nixon's top aides, Herb Klein. Klein suggested that Wilson might do well in San Diego politics, and in 1963 the ambitious young Republican moved to San Diego and began his long climb to the governor's mansion. He was attractive, well-spoken, and conservative, all of which made him a good match for San Diego's rather sedate political climate.

Wilson had to take the California bar exam four times before passing, which speaks for his persistence if nothing else. He began his practice as a criminal defense attorney in San Diego, but found such work to be low-paying and personally repugnant—as he later commented to the Los Angeles Times, "I realized I couldn't be a criminal defense lawyer because most of the people who do come to you are guilty." Wilson switched to a more conventional law practice and continued his activity in local politics, working for Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1964. Wilson soon discovered that he genuinely liked politics and that he was good at managing the day-to-day details of the political process. He put in long hours for the Goldwater campaign, earning the friendship of local Republican boosters so necessary for a political career, and in 1966, at the age of thirty-three, he ran for and won a seat in the California state legislature.

As a young state assemblyman Wilson spent much of his time working with Frank Lanterman, a long-time power in Republican state politics. Under the tutelage of Lanterman, Wilson learned the intricacies of the political maneuvering by which the political process is conducted among a host of competing factions. As has always been his fashion, Wilson tended to be quiet and diligent as an assemblyman, neither a brilliant speaker nor visionary policy maker but willing to do the hard work needed for success. In the Republican party, Wilson defined himself as a moderate, while then-governor Ronald Reagan was forging the new coalition of extreme right-wing Republicans that would later carry him to the White House. The two men did not see eye to eye ideologically and were never close personally. At times, Wilson's moderate brand of Republicanism ran head-on with Reagan's conservatism, as when the young assemblyman sponsored a bill that would have created a master plan for controlling use of the California seashore. For the most part, however, Wilson benefitted from the strength of Reagan's popularity, and it was not until the 1991 tax crisis that the philosophical gulf between the two men became apparent.

In 1968, Wilson married Betty Robertson. The couple bought a house in Sacramento, the capital of California, but soon returned to San Diego when Wilson decided to run for mayor of that city in 1971. His experience as chairman of the state Urban Affairs and Housing Committee between 1968 and 1970 had whetted Wilson's appetite for urban government, and San Diego was the natural arena for his ambitions. Not only was the city Wilson's home and political base, but San Diego had also recently seen the indictment of several city officials for bribery and was in the mood for a change. Wilson's youthful good looks and conservative record made a perfect combination, and he beat thirteen other candidates to become mayor of California's second largest city in 1971. Voters were impressed by Wilson's refusal to accept campaign contributions from certain controversial land developers and his commitment to a program of controlled growth for the San Diego area. As he repeatedly said in campaign speeches, "We don't want to become another sprawled-out Los Angeles monster"—a platform that did not jibe well with Reagan-style laissez-faire economics but was in keeping with the growing environmental awareness of many San Diegans.

Wilson remained a very popular figure in San Diego during his terms as mayor. His habitually long work days and concern for the smallest details of city government earned him the respect of voters, while he also extended his political base by leadership in organizations such as the League of California Cities and the president's Citizens' Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality. Wilson's style of living was modest—at $20,000, his salary was less than that of some municipal bus drivers—adding to his image among San Diego residents as a young Mr. Clean. As mayor, his government was fiscally conservative but relatively liberal on social issues, particularly care of the environment. Wilson appealed to his fellow citizens as a sober but not insensitive politician, often described as being rather dull ("Button-Down Pete" was one of his nicknames, referring to his Ivy League dress) but never as insincere or dishonest. San Diego is itself often thought of as rather dull, and in 1976 its voters returned Pete Wilson to the mayor's office with a resounding 61.7% majority.

In 1978, Wilson attempted the next step in what appeared a surefire political career by running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. He failed miserably, coming in fourth out of five candidates, a defeat that taught him a good deal about politics on a large scale. His poor showing was mainly due to two factors, Proposition 13 and Wilson's own lack of charisma. Proposition 13 was a state referendum intended to put a stop to California's rising property taxes; its approval in 1978 marked the triumph of Ronald Reagan's "supply-side economics" and deeply conservative social policy. Wilson's opposition to Proposition 13 contributed heavily to his poor performance in the gubernatorial election and, ironically, to the fiscal crisis confronting Wilson twelve years later when he succeeded in the governor's race. Of more permanent significance was Wilson's inability to inspire excitement in the voting public. As Wilson's media consultant Paul Keye told the Los Angeles Times, "What you have to do is convey Pete's seriousness without letting it become so earnest it fogs your glasses." Or, as Ronald Brownstein wrote in the New Republic, Wilson has an "unerring instinct for the gray."

Four years later, however, Wilson ran against and defeated then-governor Jerry Brown in the 1982 race for the United States Senate. Many Californians were weary of Brown's eccentricities (his nickname was "Moonbeam"), and the Senate race itself was an excellent opportunity for Wilson's "dullness" to shine—the Senate is traditionally the more conservative house of Congress, and Brown's much-publicized liberalism was out of place in the atmosphere inspired by Reagan's conservative presidency. Wilson won the Senate race with the same mix of conservatism and progressivism that had carried him to victory twice in San Diego—he was hawkish on defense, opposed to taxes, and a supporter of the death penalty, but in favor of abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and environmental planning. In many ways, his political make-up resembled that of George Bush, a moderate, Yale-educated Republican, and it succeeded for Wilson in both the 1982 and 1988 Senate elections. In the latter campaign, Wilson was reelected easily over challenger Leo T. McCarthy, as Senate incumbents generally are when the economy is strong.

As Senator of California, Wilson was best known for being unremarkable—"obscure" was the New Republic's characterization of his eight-year tenure in the Senate. His one brush with national recognition came in 1986, when the Senator had to be wheeled into the Capitol after an appendectomy to cast a decisive vote for the 1986 Republican budget. Wilson's record as Senator earned him neither great love nor enmity from most Californians; in fact, it was not until his defeat of Dianne Feinstein for governor in 1990 that Wilson generated much attention. The race with Feinstein (a former mayor of San Francisco) degenerated into a campaign of negative advertising and mudslinging, as the candidates held common opinions on nearly every substantial issue. Perhaps simply because he was the candidate from the more populous southern half of the state, Wilson won the election by three percentage points over Feinstein and entered the governor's office in January of 1991.

His decisive action of raising taxes in the face of California's fiscal problems brought Wilson's level of popularity to the lowest mark ever recorded for a California governor. An advocate of what he calls "preventive government," aimed at solving problems before they arise, Wilson raised taxes and cut social programs with equal vigor, denouncing along the way his more conservative fellow Republicans as "gutless" for their tax phobia.

Wilson, who ran unsuccessfully for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, received much public attention for his controversial and conservative agenda for California. In August of 1993, stated Christian Science Monitor contributor Daniel B. Wood, Wilson "called on President Clinton to 'repeal the perverse incentives that now exist for people to emigrate to this country illegally."' In open letters reprinted in several national newspapers, he detailed a broad plan to deny citizenship to the children of undocumented aliens, cut off health and education benefits, and create a legal-resident eligibility card that would be required for anyone seeking such benefits. Wilson told the Monitor that "enough people to fill a city the size of Oakland [Calif., population 372,242] got past the border patrol over the past four years. The almost $3 billion in state tax dollars we are required to spend by federal law on services for illegal immigrants is causing us to be unable to spend [on], and in some cases to [have to] cut, needed services for legal residents." "To me, it is terribly unfair and wrong," Wilson concluded, "to be spending state tax dollars for illegal immigrants and declining it to working poor who are legal residents."

In the summer of 1995, Wilson made another controversial decision when he convinced the University of California's Board of Regents to end the university's affirmative action policy. "At a moment when affirmative action is under attack across the country—and just one day after President Bill Clinton told Americans that it had been 'good for America'—the vote made California the first state to eliminate race preferences in college admissions and put the state at the forefront of eliminating them nationwide," declared Time contributor Margot Hornblower. Although Wilson's actions were opposed by many national figures, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, the governor's stance was popular with many California voters. "Next year," wrote Hornblower, "Californians will vote in a referendum on a measure that would forbid the state to use affirmative action not only in public education but also in state employment and contracting. Polls show three-fourths of the state's voters supporting it."

But although voters in California accepted the measure, the Clinton administration has decided to press its challenge of Proposition 209 that was deemed constitutional by a federal appeals court panel. The decision by the White House means that the Justice Department will continue to participate in the legal challenge to the proposition as a friend of the court. Thus, the Justice Department may file a legal brief outlining why it views the affirmative action ban as unconstitutional in future legal proceedings. However, the key decisions in the case will continue to be made by others.

In 1997 Wilson has also found time to volunteer as a mentor. A teenage boy from an underpriveleged neighborhood and Wilson met in April through a mentoring program. Policymakers nationwide have high hopes for such programs. Leaders of the volunteerism are searching for new ways to avert the tragedies of crime, drugs, and violence that afflict too many youth in the U.S.

Further Reading

Business Week, October 14, 1987.

Christian Science Monitor, October 4, 1993.

Los Angeles Times, March 7, 1976; October 11, 1982; April 11, 1997, p. A3; April 28, 1997, p. A3.

New Republic, August 22, 1988; April 15, 1991; December 9, 1991.

Newsweek, October 11, 1982.

New York Times Magazine, September 30, 1990.

Time, November 18, 1991; July 31, 1995. □