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Wilson Vows to Aid Farm Workers, Victims of Rape

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Concepcion Mesa, a farm worker with 10 children and no job, received a personal visit and a promise of help Tuesday from Gov. Pete Wilson.

Wilson and his wife, Gayle, came to the Mesas’ modest two-bedroom home in the San Joaquin Valley to call attention to the plight of thousands of farm workers who lost their jobs because of last December’s devastating freeze.

“No one has suffered more than those who labor in the fields and in the packing houses,” the Republican governor said after meeting the Mesa family. “It could be our turn the next time. We who can help are the lucky ones.”

Earlier in the day, Wilson toured a rape crisis center in Compton, talked with rape victims and pledged to support legislation imposing tougher penalties for sexual assault. “We cannot call ourselves a civilized society if we don’t protect women,” the governor declared.

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Wilson, who attended the Academy Awards ceremony Monday night, traded his tuxedo for a plaid shirt and light jacket as he sought to reach out to poor Californians in the state’s rich farming region.

The governor noted that more than 100,000 farm workers have lost their jobs because of the freeze that destroyed the citrus crop and damaged a wide variety of other crops in Tulare, Kern and Fresno counties. The unemployed workers have little prospect of going back to work before November, he said.

Speaking with Concepcion Mesa through a translator, the governor learned that the 41-year-old farm worker cannot afford to pay his mortgage or feed his family on his unemployment benefits and the part-time work of his two eldest sons.

Mesa said he labored for 16 years in the region’s orange groves and then worked last year as a plumber, commuting as much as 160 miles a day. But because he quit his last job just days before the December freeze, he has been ineligible for food stamps, he told the governor. In addition, a food bank set up to help the needy gives his family only enough food for about one day a week, he said.

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Most of his children--who range in age from five months to 20 years--receive hot meals at school. But with this week’s Easter vacation, they are not even getting that.

Without help soon, Mesa said, the family is in danger of losing its house and the oldest son, Avelino, could be forced to drop out of college.

Sitting in the small living room--filled by the family, more than a dozen reporters and two beds--Mesa asked the governor if he would provide assistance to his family and others who have no immediate hope of finding work.

“Yes, that’s the purpose,” Wilson said. “We are going to try to find as much assistance for them as possible, not only from the government but also from private contributions.”

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Later, speaking at a nearby food distribution center, the governor outlined an emergency aid plan that includes mobilizing the National Guard and the California Conservation Corps to distribute food.

But, grappling with a budget deficit of as much as $10 billion, the governor said he would not support a temporary increase in the sales tax--similar to the increase imposed in 1989 to help victims of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Wilson’s willingness to help was questioned.

“Governor Wilson: We have children who need to eat,” read one sign in the crowd. Said another: “The freeze was three months ago. What took you so long?”

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During his appearance in Compton, Wilson said he would support recently introduced legislation that would require minimum 18-year sentences for rape and other sex crimes. The measure, by Assemblywoman Carol Bentley (R-San Diego), also would scale back so-called “good time” or “work time” that allows these felons early release from prison.

Rape victims, the governor said, “are entitled to have law that says if convicted, a rapist will be kept away from society for 18 years, and after that for an indeterminate sentence because it needs to be determined whether they won’t strike again.”

Currently, the basic penalty for sexual assault averages three to eight years in state prison. But Wilson said a first-time rapist sentenced to a three-year term can be back on the streets in as little as 18 months.

Wilson’s announcement came after his visit to the YWCA Los Angeles Compton Center, where he talked with rape survivors and watched a self-defense class in which his wife volunteered for a brief lesson on “finger gripping techniques.”

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Paddock reported from Visalia and Sahagun from Los Angeles.


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