Environment, Drugs, Elderly Focus of Wilson, McCarthy Alike

Times Staff Writer

The war on drugs, the environment and care for the elderly have been the most frequently discussed issues in a Senate campaign that pits a conservative Republican with an environmental bent against a Democratic challenger with a long record of environmental and social activism.

From the floor of the Senate as well as the campaign trail, Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) has made the issue of drug enforcement something of a personal crusade this year. In recent speeches on the subject, Wilson has invoked the memory of his late grandfather, a Chicago detective shot to death in 1908 by members of a gang suspected of dealing in drugs.

Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, Wilson’s Democratic challenger, also takes a tough stand on drugs but he has been working at a disadvantage. Unlike Wilson, he has no power to introduce timely legislation. Moreover, he has a past reputation to overcome. McCarthy was known during his years in the Legislature for his opposition to the death penalty--a stance he has since changed, and in later years for his support of Rose Bird, the state’s liberal former chief justice.

McCarthy hopes to have greater success capitalizing on his work on behalf of the environment, the elderly and organized labor. His campaign slogan “McCarthy, a senator for us, Wilson, a senator for them” is an attempt to build a rapport with working families while depicting Wilson as a friend of rich people and big corporations.


Entering the campaign with a sizable financial advantage, Wilson went to work early to rival McCarthy’s appeal to environmentalists and old people. Beginning last spring, he went on television with commercials highlighting his efforts to block oil drilling off the California coast and to get the insurance industry more involved in long-term health care.

McCarthy has received key endorsements from groups like the Sierra Club and the National Council of Senior Citizens. But Wilson’s aggressive promotion of his own accomplishments has allowed him to stay competitive, especially on environmental issues.

Defense Issues

Defense and foreign policy matters have not loomed as large in the race as both sides anticipated early on when they sought to paint each other as extremists.


McCarthy set out to exploit Wilson’s fervent advocacy of the costly and, as yet, unproven Strategic Defense Initiative, and Wilson hoped to score points by ridiculing McCarthy’s past endorsement of a nuclear freeze.

Wilson has stuck to his guns on “Star Wars,” while McCarthy has appeared to waver, condemning SDI as unworkable but also endorsing $3 billion in annual research for the space-based weapons technology.

By and large, it has been a campaign of cautious proposals by both sides.

McCarthy’s $1-billion plan to provide home care for severely disabled people is modest compared to the $6-billion effort launched by congressional Democrats earlier this year. McCarthy has made child care a centerpiece of his “working family” agenda, but rather than offering his own approach, he is content with promoting legislation offered by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).

Modest Approach

Wilson’s approach to child care is considerably more modest than the Dodd bill, and his long-term health care bill is no more than a pilot program, requiring no federal funds, and aimed exclusively at federal employees.

Wilson played a prominent role in congressional efforts to pass a $2.3-billion anti-drug bill last week, but he and other sponsors have left it up to the next Congress to find the money to pay for the legislation.

Often, during the campaign, discussion of issues has served as a backdrop to personal attacks by the two candidates. There have been no formal debates and no position papers, although Wilson has released a 106-page highly interpretive compilation of his Senate record.


“The campaign has been more personal than issue-oriented,” said Otto Bos, Wilson’s campaign manager.

“They attack us on character. We attack them on credibility,” Bos said.