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The Return of Pete Wilson

By Fred Dickey

San Diego Magazine

Nov. 2004

THOUGH THE STREETS ARE FAMILIAR and the old friends are still smiling, a trip to San Diego for Pete Wilson is still a disconnect from his beginnings. This is a man who would suffocate without the oxygen of politics. So when he looks at the San Diego Convention Center, he sees urban redevelopment; when he watches the trolley rumble by, he relives a mass-transit controversy. But all those pressing issues that used to be on his daily agenda have either disappeared or morphed into new battles being fought by new people in City Hall. He offers no opinions, for example, on a new football stadium or who should be elected to local office.

However, he doesn’t hesitate to jump into the strong-mayor controversy headed for the November 2 ballot, because that was his issue. When he led the city, it had a de facto strong mayor because of his style of leadership. The only way Wilson could have been made less than a strong mayor would require a gag and handcuffs. But when he tried to formalize it by referendum in 1973—abandoning the city manager form of government —it was slapped down by the voters. Resoundingly. Now, Wilson looks at the resurfaced issue and cheers it on. He says the current strong-city-manager form, in big cities at least, is a system that mainly addresses the problems of a half-century or more ago, when local governments were frequently corrupt and officials were as dug in to their offices as gophers.

“Voters didn’t trust local officials, so they tried to improve city hall by putting in a layer of ‘professionalism’ between politicians and government decisions. The problem is, such a layer has the effect of creating insulation between voters and their elected officials, and that makes accountability and communication all the tougher.”

Wilson says a strong mayor would give the public someone to directly “blame or credit” on such things as budgets, key hires and council-decision vetoes. He won’t claim he’d have been a better mayor had he been given more charter authority, but he says the job would have been easier to accomplish with a lot less wheel-spinning.

“Good government requires holding people to account, and the best guarantee of that is the ballot box. If you choose a good mayor, loosen the reins; if you choose a bad one, kick him out. When you can do that, you have the ultimate power.” Pete Wilson knows something about winning at the ballot box.

Here’s a question guaranteed to start an argument: Who have been the three most successful office-winners in California politics? Hiram Johnson . . . Okay. Earl Warren . . . Okay. Pete Wilson . . . Excuse me?

Pete wilson on a bus That latter name may surprise you, but that’s what decades of election returns tell us. The arithmetic is simple: 10 consecutive general-election triumphs, starting with three terms in the state Assembly, three as mayor of San Diego, two as U.S. senator and then two as governor. For 32 years, from 1966 through 1998, Pete Wilson was on top of the hill, and nobody could push him off.

These days, the termed-out Wilson and Gayle, his wife of 21 years, are on the sidelines and living in an expensive two-bedroom condo in Century City. He would prefer to live in San Diego, where he is regarded as something of a squire from his years of leading the city, but his job as a high-powered government-relations consultant ties him to Los Angeles. (“Be sure to say I’m not a lobbyist,” he cautions.) Wilson is now free to make profitable use of his vast knowledge of California government, law and—of course, this is part of it—contacts. In operating at the highest levels, the value of having your phone calls always returned comes with multiple zeroes before the decimal point.

On this particular night, he is back home to attend a dinner to honor an old friend, the man who first urged him into politics, retired North County Congressman Clair Burgener. If one would doubt Wilson’s love for this city, it need only be recalled that it was he who coined the slogan “America’s Finest City,” a shameless but durable Greek chorus to boosterism.

Wilson is not a slouchy man; to him, informal means tieless, as he is while he eats a Caesar salad standing in front of the desk that serves as a table in his room at La Jolla’s posh Lodge at Torrey Pines. At 70, he could pose for an AARP recruiting poster. He is slim and erect, and moves easily and briskly. His voice still has a slight crack dating back to throat surgery of a decade ago that made his political speeches for a time sound like gargling— and helped end his brief run for the presidency in 1996.

SINCE LEAVING OFFICE, Wilson has been able to move freely around the state without having to explain himself or his decisions. When he shops at Vons, gasses up his Jaguar sedan or travels coach to Washington, D.C., where he sits on two federal boards, he says people generally respect his space; their interruptions are usually brief and pleasant. Often, he’s not recognized at all, or gets “Aren’t you the anchor on the Channel 7 news?”

This often allows him to exercise his sardonic sense of humor. “I was serving in a jury pool recently, and during a break I went to get coffee. A woman came up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, but you look just like former Governor Wilson.’ “ ‘Madam,’ I told her, ‘there’s a reason for that.’ ”

Once, in San Francisco (“of course,” he adds), a man approached him on the street and started berating him. Wilson says he told the man, “This is a wonderful country with a wonderful constitution that protects a man’s right to make a horse’s ass of himself, and I’m pleased to see you’re exercising your constitutional rights.”

At least one aspect of Pete Wilson represents a failure of the state’s media. For years, he was commonly portrayed as a cardboard man with all the personality of a Camp Pendleton landscape. The media fell short of portraying the real man. Wilson in person comes on strong as a guy with a wit and attitude learned in the Marine Corps. In conversation, he is blunt, unambiguous and leaves his listener anticipating the next comment that might either praise an old ally or reduce an enemy with a dismissive snicker.

He tells the story of a night in a Singapore bar when he was a Marine officer, back in the ’50s. An American tourist was bloviating loudly about how rotten was the U.S.A. Wilson approached him, and after an exchange of unflattering comments, said, “I think you and I should take this outside.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like Mr. Bland Man.

Dan Walters, the longtime Sacramento Bee political columnist, remembers eating a rather spicy breakfast with then-Governor Wilson. “When we finished,” Walters says, “the governor said, ‘Man, that’ll go through ya like a Bangalore torpedo.’ ”

He clearly is a determined, tough-minded guy, a fellow who would go jaw-to-jaw with a pit bull—and even take the first bite. The dog might win in the end, but it’d walk away with a limp. If you don’t know where Wilson stands on an issue, you haven’t asked him. George Gorton of San Diego, an aide of many years (and now a key political adviser to Governor Schwarzenegger), fondly recalls, “We used to say the governor never saw a fight he wouldn’t pick.”

Wilson is one politician who loved to take charge, not just get elected. That’s why the U.S. Senate was just a job to him. His real delight was being governor. It was as much fun as commanding an infantry platoon, except he also took the point.

Pete wilson and his wifeBUT FOR THE MOMENT, he’s back in San Diego. And even though he has not had day-to-day residence here for more than 20 years, a part of him will always be the 31-year-old lawyer being urged by Burgener to jump into a state Assembly race in 1966. In this setting, he turns reflective, and scans his memories like an EKG strip, seeking what stands out . . .

The pivotal moment in his career, he remembers, was in 1981. Three years prior, he had suffered his only election defeat, losing in the Republican gubernatorial primary to state Attorney General Evelle Younger. At that point, Wilson was in his third term as mayor, so there were no mountains to climb on that horizon, and his ears had been boxed in a statewide election, so what to do? The frequent course for a lawyer in that situation would be to finish out his term and then practice municipal law, calling on his knowledge of local government and thousands of contacts to make what one prominent San Diego lawyer estimated would have been half a million a year, easily.

He could have said of higher office, “Well, I tried that, and it didn’t work.” Instead, Wilson defied the common wisdom that a San Diegan couldn’t win statewide, and soldiered on. He strengthened his fences statewide, aligned himself with the Reagan brain trust and went for the U.S. Senate in ’82—and he shocked the experts by winning. Bottom line, he traded an eventual millionaire’s bank account for a high salary of $135,000 over the next two decades. “No one makes any money in politics if you do it right,” he says.

The biggest achievement he points to is his decisiveness in handling the many emergencies that happened on his watch as governor: floods, fires, earthquakes and even the recession of ’91 (if man-made emergencies can be counted). On 22 occasions in his first term alone, he declared a state of emergency. And of all those, he considers the post-earthquake reconstruction of Interstate 10 in Los Angeles his finest achievement. A job estimated to take more than two years was completed in two months and two days after Wilson invoked emergency powers.

He believes the biggest challenge facing California is to improve education to a level where both the public and students can benefit. “Public education is failing in its basic role,” he says. “There’s been a dumbing-down, a deliberate effort almost to lower expectations, so that every time we try to raise standards, we meet with opposition from so-called professional educators and the teachers’ union who say what we’re asking is too difficult, too tough and would be discouraging to the children.”

His face grims up: “I’ll tell you what will be discouraging to the children—not have the skills to get a decent job when they grow up.”

It was Wilson’s willingness to undertake straight-on combat that threw him into the Proposition 187 ballot issue on illegal immigration in 1994. It was the most acrimonious battle of his career, and although he was victorious, it eventually led to his most bitter disappointment. Wilson saw an obvious need to rein in the cross-border flow and save the state budget by denying benefits to undocumented aliens and their families. His opponents battled back with accusations of racism. During that campaign, a throng of 70,000 in downtown Los Angeles opposed to the proposition even burned him in effigy.

“During that campaign, many politicians accused me of being a racist, knowing that was a lie,” he remembers. “I had many say, ‘Don’t take it personal; this is just business.’ It’s like the Mafia: ‘Don’t take it personal, but we’ve got a contract out on you.’ ” Though the issue passed with 59 percent and Wilson was reelected in a landslide in ’94, the lingering racial fallout apparently cowed the Bush campaign team. Four years ago, they decided Wilson was too hot to touch and managed to push him into the Republican shadows.

Ah, but last year, Arnold Schwarzenegger came calling, and at Wilson’s urging and with his advice, the Terminator became governor. He also became the Rejuvenator of Wilson’s political fortunes, by letting it be known that Wilson ranked alongside Ronald Reagan as a governor he admired. Largely because of their closeness, now, five years after leaving office, Wilson has resumed his role as elder statesman of the California Republican Party.

Schwarzenegger says he talks to Wilson frequently, and many of his key staffers are Wilson administration alumni. “He’s helped me with a number of issues,” the governor says. “He ran this office with great leadership and strength. I became a big fan of his. He’s such a solid guy and so smart.”

Politics aside, the two men have forged a close family relationship. Schwarzenegger says, “The other thing I should add is that I think he has the most wonderful relationship with his wife, Gayle. It is wonderful to watch both of them together.”

Wilson, for his part, would still like to occupy the chair that is now Schwarzenegger’s. “I miss it,” he says with the wistfulness of a man pushed off stage at the height of his performance. “Unfortunately, I’m no longer governor. Fortunately, the man who is governor is a friend of mine.”

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