Wilson Record Has Improved, Environmental Group Says

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Senate campaign in California took a surprising turn Thursday with the announcement by a national environmental organization that Sen. Pete Wilson’s hotly debated environmental record has improved dramatically over the last two years.

As it often does in California campaigns, the environment has emerged as one of the most important issues in the 1988 Senate race.

The League of Conservation Voters, the political arm of the national environmental movement and no fan of Wilson in the past, gave the Republican Senator a 70% favorable rating, a score that places him well above the average grade for both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.


Same as Cranston’s

Wilson’s score is identical to that given to Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who is widely regarded as the Senate’s elder statesman of environmental protection. The league’s rating of Wilson, which is almost twice as high as the score he received for the years when he was not up for reelection, has caused a considerable stir in his opponent’s camp and among some environmentalists. Wilson’s latest rating is bound to throw more fuel on the controversy surrounding his complicated record on environmental issues.

Quickest to react on Thursday was the California League of Conservation Voters, which dismissed Wilson’s high rating as “election year posturing.” Tracy Grubbs, a spokeswoman for the California league, said that Wilson’s favorable rating also failed to reflect several anti-environmental votes cast this year.

Last spring, the California league, which operates independently from its Washington counterpart, endorsed Wilson’s Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy.

The national league’s score card has become an issue in the campaign because McCarthy has frequently cited Wilson’s past poor ratings as evidence of a feeble commitment to the environment. Wilson voted the right way on important environmental issues only 37% of the time during his first four years in office, according to the league’s rating system.

Roy Behr, who heads up research for the McCarthy campaign, discounted Wilson’s latest score as an election year aberration, saying, “If you want a true reading of the man’s record, you should look at those years when he was under no particular pressure to look good.”

However, Wilson says he has never paid much attention to the league’s score card.

“I haven’t been following their index, and I don’t go onto the floor with it in hand.”

Wilson said he has grown more aware of certain environmental menaces, such as acid rain.

“As new evidence is presented, as we learn more about the dangers . . . yeah, I’d say I’ve become more attuned to them,” Wilson said.

The league’s score card shows that this year, for the first time, Wilson joined an ongoing struggle in Congress to pass legislation that would eliminate millions of tons of acid rain pollutants.

Wilson’s record on the environment has been in the forefront of the Senate campaign recently as McCarthy, who trails in the polls, has sought to dispel the image that Wilson has erected of himself as a moderate with a respectable environmental record.

In so many words, the McCarthy campaign has accused Wilson of trying to sabotage the Clean Water Act, of turning his back on asbestos-ridden schools and of encouraging the slaughter of dolphins by commercial fishermen.

However, Wilson’s record on those issues and others is not as clear-cut as McCarthy contends.

For example, the national League of Conservation Voters approved of Wilson’s most recent vote on clean water legislation. Wilson voted in favor of a bill authorizing $20 billion in federal funds for construction of new sewage treatment plants and water pollution control facilities.

But two years ago, the league faulted Wilson for voting for an amendment that restricted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to enforce the Clean Water Act in states where local enforcement was inadequate.

At different times, Wilson has voted both for and against legislation authorizing federal funds to remove asbestos from schools. The asbestos funding usually was included in catchall spending bills, and Wilson, who is a fiscal conservative, says that when he voted ‘no’ he was objecting to aspects of the legislation that were not related to asbestos funding.

Wilson is from San Diego, the home port of most of the U.S. tuna fleet, and he has opposed efforts to lower the number of dolphins that the fishermen can legally kill. The dolphins die when they become enmeshed in nets meant for tuna.

Much of the campaign debate between Wilson and McCarthy has focused on safeguarding coastal waters from oil drilling, protecting state wilderness areas and regulating toxic substances.

Wilson’s mixed record in those areas draws qualified praise from environmentalists.

“To get him to be good on the environment is like pulling teeth. But if you pull hard enough, if you write enough letters and make enough noise, you can get him to take the right position,” said Dave Bunn, the director of the California Public Interest Research Group, which lobbies for environmental causes.

Most environmentalists agree that, in California, Wilson has been especially helpful in the struggle against offshore oil drilling.

“Sen. Wilson has always been on the forefront of the bipartisan delegation pursuing offshore protection. I have seen him break with his own Administration repeatedly and be effective in that regard,” said Richard Charter, who represents a coalition of coastal towns that are opposed to more drilling.

Wilson disappointed environmentalists when he refused to endorse Proposition 65, the 1986 ballot initiative that tightened the regulation of toxics. The measure won overwhelming voter approval.

On the other hand, Wilson is given credit for backing legislation he had previously opposed that allows states to impose tougher tests than the federal government on pesticides. According to some environmental groups, 60% of the pesticides on the market are not adequately tested by the federal government for their capacity to cause cancer or birth defects.

The issue that has caused the most trouble for Wilson is his refusal to back Cranston’s bill to grant wilderness protection to nearly 9 million acres in the Mojave Desert.

His position on the desert legislation, which he says would unnecessarily restrict public access to the desert, contributed to the Sierra Club’s decision last June to endorse McCarthy.