Flanked by a sleek yellow dune buggy, a red and green Yamaha “Blaster” all-terrain vehicle and a brace of muscular looking Honda “TransAlp” off-road two-wheelers, Republican Sen. Pete Wilson received a standing ovation this weekend from people who want the freedom to ride machines like these through California’s forests and deserts.
The audience, about 250 members of the California Offroad Vehicle Assn. meeting at the Irvine Hilton, were thanking Wilson for his refusal to back legislation, dear to the hearts of environmental groups, that would limit vehicular access to about 8 million acres of desert terrain.
Earlier in the week, Wilson’s environmental record was rated as one of the better ones in the U.S. Senate by the League of Conservation Voters, the political arm of the national environmental movement. In Irvine, Wilson said he saw nothing incongruous about his opposition to the desert bill.
He told the offroaders that he regarded them as environmentalists. Talking about a field trip he took with some of them this year, he said “it was very clear that the people I was with felt passionately about protecting the desert, but they also wanted access to it.”
It was Wilson at his contrary best. During the same week, he had managed “to woo the tree huggers and the dirt bikers,” in the words of one disgruntled Democrat, referring to the League of Conservation Voters and the offroaders.
The tactic is a Wilson favorite. It allows him to break bread with sportsmen and environmentalists, conservatives and liberals. He goes to bat for some of their causes while tending to eschew their creeds. In so doing, he hopes to coax enough support from the state’s multitude of disparate interest groups to win a second term.
Rick Bates, president of the California Offroad Vehicle Assn., said Wilson is “a candidate for a profile in courage” for tangling with environmental groups over the desert bill during an election year.
But Wilson is betting that environmentally minded voters, most of whom live nearer the coast than the desert, will pay more attention to his history of opposition to offshore oil drilling.
Late in the week, the Wilderness Society tried to refocus environmental interest on the desert. It released a survey, conducted for it by the California Field Poll, that said 75% of the people surveyed want more protection for the desert.
But the survey also offers evidence that Wilson is not taking a big risk by opposing a bill that would curtail vehicular access to the desert. Just over 50% of the people polled said they wanted to preserve or expand access to the desert by four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, Wilson’s Democratic opponent in the race for the U.S. Senate, is convinced that Wilson is vulnerable on environmental issues, so much so that he has spent nearly $1 million, about 25% of his television ad budget, on commercials that attack Wilson’s environmental record.
The ads, in a selective treatment of Wilson’s voting record, say that he voted “against a crackdown on corporations releasing cancer-causing chemicals, . . . against help for victims of toxic waste, . . . (and) against a bill to remove asbestos from our schools.”
Wilson’s record shows that he has voted against some proposed remedies for the environmental ills set forth in the ad, while favoring other approaches. For example, in 1983 he voted against spending $50 million to remove asbestos from schools. He argued that a federal study on the extent of the problem had not yet been completed. After the study came out, Wilson said he voted for a $600-million cleanup program.
The McCarthy campaign is attempting to build a case against Wilson’s character as well as his record.
At a press conference Saturday in San Diego, however, McCarthy may not have been on solid ground when he accused Wilson of “tip-toeing on the border of illegality,” by never having lived in the San Diego condominium where he is registered to vote.
George Gorton, a Wilson campaign consultant acknowledged that Wilson does not live in the condominium though he owns it and is registered to vote there. Gorton noted that many members of Congress, who spend most of their time in Washington, establish official residences in their districts but do not actually stay in them.
Anthony Miller, chief deputy to Secretary of State March Fong Eu, said it appears that Wilson is justified in claiming the condominium as his residence even though he does not live there.
Miller cited a broadly worded state law that says elected officials are presumed to be correct when they declare their official residence for voting purposes. And Miller said that he had informed McCarthy’s staff of this provision before the lieutenant governor held his press conference.
Wilson characterized McCarthy’s charge as “desperate stuff.”
To date, Wilson has spent most of his ammunition attacking McCarthy’s record on crime. Late last week, the Wilson campaign began airing its second TV ad accusing McCarthy of being soft on crime. But like McCarthy’s ads on the environment, Wilson’s crime ads offer a skewed angle on his opponent’s record.
Wilson’s latest ad reminds voters that McCarthy endorsed Rose Elizabeth Bird, the former California chief justice famous for her unbroken string of votes against imposing the death penalty. The ad goes on to say that McCarthy, while a member of the Assembly, voted for lighter sentences for habitual criminals and once voted to reduce the penalty for rape.
Responding to the ad, spokesmen for the McCarthy campaign did not dispute claims made in the ad, but argued that it presented an incomplete picture of McCarthy’s record on crime. Aide Kam Kuwata said that McCarthy helped strengthen laws against plea bargaining and against certain forms of sexual assault.
“There they go again, taking things out of context,” Kuwata said.
Contributing to this story was Richard C. Paddock in San Diego.