Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson took a step Saturday toward a major objective in his 1988 reelection campaign: winning the support of--or at least neutralizing--environmental activists.
Wilson was the main speaker at the annual convention of the California Sierra Club and was warmly applauded as he reminded the group of his work on a number of issues that it considers crucial.
He reviewed his vocal opposition to offshore oil drilling, his support for federal clean water and clean air legislation and his leadership in 1984 in passing the California Wilderness Bill, which added 1.7 million acres of land to the national park system and gave "wild and scenic" status to a stretch of the Tuolomne River.
It was a significant event because the Sierra Club, while bipartisan, has tended to support Democratic candidates in California elections. What it does in Wilson's race is being watched closely by Democrats who are hoping to oust Wilson after one term.
Aides to Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, who hopes to be Wilson's Democratic opponent, were so concerned when Wilson was invited to speak to the Sierra Club that they called club leaders to get reassurances that no endorsement decision would be made until McCarthy has a chance to speak to the group.
The environment is almost always a big issue in California's U.S. Senate elections, and Wilson believes that his record, going back to his service in the state Assembly and his years as mayor of San Diego, has earned an endorsement by such activist groups as the Sierra Club.
After he spoke, club member Ted Cobb of Sacramento got right to the point as he asked Wilson: "The Sierra Club has endorsed political candidates from both parties all over the country, but in California we have had a great deal of trouble finding people in your Republican Party to endorse. Is that our problem or your party's problem?"
Wilson responded that the environment was a bipartisan issue in his mind, but that he wasn't sure the Sierra Club agreed with him.
As the club looks to the 1988 election, Wilson said, "it is a matter of political reality that any group is much better off having friends in both camps. . . . You ought to make a very special effort not to be perceived as a partisan organization.
"That does not do anybody who is advocating environmental causes any good, and I say that as someone who may have an ax to grind," Wilson said.
Some Sierra Club members agree that Wilson presents the club with a stern test of its bipartisanship.
"The jury is still out on what we will do in 1988," Los Angeles Sierra Club officer Bob Hattoy said. "But some members are saying that Pete has been strong enough on environmental issues that it does not make sense to oppose him."
Hattoy and other club members acknowledged that a main reason it may not make sense is that they may need his services in the Senate for many years. Independent polls show Wilson in good shape heading into the election and he is expected to have plenty of campaign money to get his message to the voters.
Answer Lies in Desert
But much of that money comes from traditional GOP sources, such as agribusiness, which are often at odds with environmentalists.
The answer to whether Wilson succeeds with the Sierra Club appears to lie in the desert, of all places.
Members said Saturday that they want Wilson to join Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston's effort to dramatically change the way millions of acres of California desert are used and protected.
Cranston has introduced sweeping legislation that would limit grazing, mining and off-road vehicle use in the desert. Those groups are expected to put tremendous pressure on Wilson to scale back the Cranston bill.
Pushed by Sierra Club members Saturday to take a stand, Wilson said: "I want to hear the other side too . . . but I hope we can get the same cooperation from all sides on this that we got on the wilderness bill."