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Wilson Shows Off His Skills at Political High-Wire Balancing

Times Political Writer

From the beginning, Pete Wilson knew he would have to do a high-wire act to win the governor’s election next year--presenting himself as a progressive ready to grab hold of California’s problems but also as a Republican faithful to his party’s conservative roots.

On Tuesday, the U.S. senator and declared candidate for governor gave 900 blue-ribbon business leaders attending the California Chamber of Commerce legislative convention a demonstration of this emerging effort at political balance.

First, taxes. Wilson said he supported, and now wanted the support of the California Chamber of Commerce for an increase of a nickel, maybe more, in the 9-cent-per-gallon state gasoline tax.

For a Republican to dare to champion a tax increase at the beginning of a political campaign is virtually unheard of in recent California history. But it also shows that Wilson is a candidate who believes that the public is increasingly anxious for government initiatives.

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“There should be at least a 5-cent increase, and if it should go on the ballot, I think people will pass it if they are made to understand what is at stake,” Wilson said.

“I think it is incumbent for us to do it. And when I say ‘us’ my friends, I use the term advisedly, because this great state chamber of commerce . . . and local chambers are key to victory.”

Then, in a more reassuring statement to the business leaders, Wilson said the deep pockets of California’s employers should not be tapped to pay for a broad expansion of mandatory private health care for thousands, if not millions, of needy Californians--an idea advanced by some liberals.

“Why should it fall on the employers?” Wilson demanded.

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The senator, elected last year to his second term, was by his own admission deliberately vague on some of the sticky details of taxes and other looming political debates, however.

Should the gasoline tax increase be placed before voters as retiring GOP Gov. George Deukmejian insists? Or should it be left to the Legislature and the governor?

“I won’t say, but he has a point,” Wilson replied.

Since some experts agree that a 5-cent increase will meet only about half of the state’s transportation needs, might Wilson ultimately support a larger levy?

Five cents, he said, “certainly wouldn’t be the entire thing.” But for the other needs, he suggested the answers may come from other sources, such as creating toll roads or raising local sales taxes.

In his address and at a press conference afterward, Wilson was relaxed and not at all defensive about a campaign presentation that was broader than it was specific.

“It’s 20 months before the election,” he shrugged.

In that spirit, Wilson briefly skimmed through a few of the other hot spots and sand traps in California politics.

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On the need for more water, he declared: “The answer to the growing needs of those 7 to 9 million more Californians expected to be here by 2010 . . . will be by creating the resources necessary to husband water for times when we are going to need it.”

Does that mean more dams and north-to-south water canals?

“Maybe,” he replied.

About clean air, toxics and food safety, Wilson had this non-controversial observation: “They are too important to be allowed to be exploited cynically by election campaign managers. What we’ve got to do is solve these problems without shutting down our economy.”

Oil Spill

Asked what effect the Alaska oil spill would have on the long debate over California offshore drilling, Wilson said, “I hope it will have a sobering effect on the secretary of interior.”

Wilson spoke at the chamber’s third legislative convention. This year, however, there was something new at the scene. The Sacramento Community Center’s larger-than-life and anatomically correct bronze statue of the Greek god Poseidon had been dressed in running shorts out of modesty.

A chamber staffer said, “We had complaints about him last year.”

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Wilson spoke briefly and philosophically to a question that he and many others debated for endless hours before he made the decision to run for governor: Have California’s problems become unmanageable?

“So many people say, don’t do it, you have a good job, stay there. The problems here are intractable, too big, no one can solve them,” he said. “Well, I don’t believe that. I reject that thinking.”

Then he cracked, “Perhaps courage is being too dumb to accurately assess the peril. But I think to the contrary. I think we have problems. But we have the means to deal with them.”

Times Political Writer Keith Love contributed to this story.


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