Pete Wilson’s Duty on the Home Front

It must be hard for a governor to concentrate on mundane details of his job when there’s a war on.

Especially for Pete Wilson, just back from the U.S. Senate, where he was privy to top-level briefings as a member of the conventional forces, nuclear forces and manpower subcommittees of the Armed Services Committee.

He’s trying. Last Friday, he attempted to promote a policy statement on growth management, and focus attention on his new planning adviser, attorney Richard P. Sybert, 38, director of the governor’s office of planning and research. But it just didn’t work out.

Wilson had been invited for breakfast with the Friday Group--several Los Angeles political reporters who meet with politicians at the Sheraton West on Fridays, or any other day they can snag a guest. Wilson’s press secretary, Bill Livingston, distributed a 3 1/4-page statement headed, “Governor Pete Wilson Announcement on the Creation of the Council on Growth Management.”


But Friday was the third day of the war, and that’s all the reporters wanted to talk about. War fever is catching and, as the discussion continued, Wilson slipped on his old Armed Services Committee cap and strategized.

He was hoping for a “relatively short” war, the governor said. No, it wouldn’t have much impact on the California economy. Poor old growth management was forgotten until the very end of the session.

If I were Wilson, I wouldn’t be discouraged. Granted, growth management is not a sexy subject. However, it’s important. And when a governor can keep his mind on the domestic and prosaic in wartime, he could make the history books.

That was certainly the experience of California’s World War II governor, Earl Warren.


I’m not talking about Warren’s most famous--or infamous--wartime experience. That was his enthusiastic support of the federal government’s forcing Japanese residents of California into detention camps. Backing that violation of human and legal rights remains a puzzling chapter in Warren’s life story, a stain not completely wiped out by his subsequent years as the pro-civil liberties chief justice of the United States.

But Warren did plenty of good during the war. While the troops were battling in the Pacific and Europe and the papers were full of their exploits, Warren’s aides figured out what would happen when the fighting ended.

The GIs are going to move to California, the aides told the governor. They’re going to marry. And they’ll have lots of babies.

Unlike today, the state had plenty of tax revenue. New industries, business people, war plant workers all were making money and paying taxes. With national resources allocated to the war, the state couldn’t build any prisons, roads or schools. So, heeding the warning of his advisers, Warren salted away the surplus in a “rainy day fund.”

And he planned what he would do with it.

There were no headlines for dusty state planners in that time of titanic battles and a nation totally mobilized for war. Sacramento and the Capitol were far out of the mainstream of news.

But when the war ended, California was ready. The planners were right. This is where the vets settled. And the GI families, as predicted, had many babies.

The “rainy day fund” emptied its wartime treasure for new university and college campuses that eventually became the nation’s best example of public higher education. Money was sent to school districts, for elementary, junior high and high schools. Highways were built. Unglamorous wartime planning--and saving--cleared the way for California’s great economic growth after World War II.


The situation today, of course, is far different than during World War II. For one thing, the state is so far in the red that the creation of a “rainy day fund” is a pipe dream.

But the planning council announcement Wilson brought with him to the breakfast dealt with the future, as much as any of Warren’s plans: Population up by 25% in the last decade, up to 29 million, and growing. “We can and must choose not just to grow but to manage our growth,” said Wilson.

That will be difficult. Wilson’s political constituency is the home-owning, tax-hating middle class. To these folks, managing growth means stopping new shopping centers, condos, high-rise apartments and ending traffic jams. Another, poorer, California, believes “growth management” is providing jobs, including building shopping centers, high-rises and condos. It means more factories, more low-cost housing, better schools and an effective public health system.

Wilson will have to balance all that. Post-World War II California agreed on the need for rebuilding the state. There’s no such consensus today on managing the future. Building one will keep the governor occupied on the home front.