Round One Goes to the Crafty Old Pro

Gov. Pete Wilson jabbed at Treasurer Kathleen Brown for the first time on Monday and connected, showing himself to be a wily veteran who loves a fight and her to be an untested novice.

Basically, Brown had proposed several solutions to illegal immigration without saying what the problem is that it causes. In fact, she seemed to conclude that illegal immigration is not a major problem. Wilson responded that Brown is out of touch and "once again" had proved she has no grasp of the issue.

The governor merely scored a point, not a knockdown. But the early sparring exposed some Wilson strengths and Brown weaknesses as they began trading blows in the 1994 gubernatorial campaign.

Wilson demonstrated the toughness and savvy that have enabled this politician with little star quality to consistently triumph throughout a 27-year career. And it was a reminder to political handicappers who have established Brown as the campaign favorite that, regardless of family pedigree, she still has not competed in a main event. Wilson has fought four major statewide campaigns and lost just one, his first bid for governor in 1978.

The exchange also illustrated the awkward time many Democratic politicians have in handling the touchy issue of illegal immigration. "It's a defensive issue for Democrats, not an offensive one," notes one Democratic campaign consultant who asks to remain anonymous. "We're not trying to win with it as much as we're trying to mitigate damage from it."

Bob Mulholland, state political director for the party, concedes that "this is tough for Democrats. We're the party of immigrants, the party that reaches out when they arrive and helps move them into middle-class. Our concern is that the (party) activists will misunderstand what we're saying."

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Brown advertised her Town Hall immigration speech last week as a political coming out: It was the first in a series of major policy addresses. She would offer specific proposals clearly distinguishing her from Wilson. And, although she didn't say so publicly, the speech would provide inoculation, immunizing her against any Wilson charges that she was soft on the issue.

The words were chosen carefully. There were drafts and revisions. The tone seemed almost apologetic for even broaching the subject--"Most of us are descendants of immigrants," etc.

The governor didn't get a chance to read the speech until a day after Brown delivered it. A copy was sitting on his desk when he returned to Sacramento from bill signing/campaigning in Los Angeles.

Wilson generally agreed with her proposals, which actually mirrored some of his. But her list was not as lengthy or controversial. Some of his ideas--such as repealing federal laws entitling illegal immigrants to public education and emergency health care--she called "barbaric." That incensed him. And one line about "people dying on the sidewalk in front of our hospitals" really set him off.

Then near the end of the lengthy speech was a paragraph that "leapt off the page," Wilson later told aides. It read: "Many of our people are . . . scared of losing their jobs. They're scared of losing their health care. They're scared their children can't get a decent education. And they're scared about their personal safety. Illegal immigration is wrongly seen as a cause."

Wrongly seen as a cause, Wilson thought. Not the , but merely a cause.

Wilson eagerly will tick off the unfunded education and health programs for legal residents that could be financed with the $3 billion California taxpayers now are spending on illegal immigrants. And if they aren't a cause of crime, why are 25,000 of them serving time in jails and prisons?

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To be fair, Brown had previously told me that "we should observe our laws" on immigration. And early in her speech, she did say that "we can't pretend illegal immigration isn't a problem. In the past decade, the number of illegal immigrants in California has doubled to 2.1 million." But she never answered the so what? --except to note that it's costing taxpayers $500 million to incarcerate the criminals.

Is there a major problem or isn't there? (Three-fourths of California's Democratic voters thought so in a recent Times poll.) If there isn't, why propose solutions? Is the problem just a political one? Does Brown really have a conviction on this?

The latter question also frequently is asked of Wilson. But he at least has been able to articulate the problem as he sees it. After the governor took his swing at her in a lengthy news conference statement, Brown would only say that she stood behind her speech.

It was just a little hit in a big campaign, but an instructive one. Brown will have to learn not to lead with her chin.

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