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NEWS ANALYSIS : Wilson Is Getting a Chance to Rebuild His Image : Politics: State’s economy is a weak spot, but legislative victories and his stands on immigration and crime may win him points with voters.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Pete Wilson enters the final year of his term still behind in the polls but better positioned than he was 12 months ago to mount a strong campaign for another four years as governor.

A year of good relations with the Legislature has given Wilson the opportunity to build his image as an effective executive. And the public’s increasing concern with two issues on which Wilson has capitalized--illegal immigration and violent crime--has given him an opening to talk about something besides the state’s moribund economy.

On that issue--his weakest subject with the voters--the governor insisted in a year-end interview with The Times that laws enacted at his urging in 1993 have set the stage for a strong recovery beginning before the end of 1994.

“There is obviously a new attitude, and it isn’t lip service,” Wilson said of the state’s desire to make itself more hospitable to business. “There was a very good collaboration that produced genuine reforms. The reforms have been appreciated for what they are by those who are most affected by them.”

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But the recovery he envisions, Wilson conceded, will not come soon enough to prevent another tough year of budget negotiations with the Legislature. He is putting the finishing touches on a spending plan that must erase a deficit that without corrective action would reach an estimated $4 billion by the end of the next fiscal year.

Although declining to offer details, the Republican chief executive made clear that he once again will pressure the Democrats in Washington--the Clinton Administration and Congress--to provide relief to help California cope with problems he believes are not entirely the state’s responsibility.

He said a nationwide credit crunch, cuts in military spending, federal environmental policies and illegal immigration all continue to hamper the state’s private and public sectors.

“What the state can do and has an obligation to do is to be competitive,” Wilson said. “But there is nothing the state can do immediately that will provide a complete, immediate remedy to the devastating impact of certain factors that are clearly beyond our control.”

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Wilson’s strategists are planning a campaign that will portray him as a fighter for change who has sometimes offended people who want to protect the status quo. In the interview, Wilson said he is confident that voters by November will see him for the battler that he is and not hold him accountable for problems outside his scope of authority.

“The responsibility is ours to try to alleviate the pain that is caused by those things,” Wilson said. “But they are caused by other people, other (federal) agencies that have the legal authority as well as the moral responsibility.”

A key example, he said, are the base closures and military spending cuts that have hampered California’s economy.

“The public understands that,” he said. “If they think about it for 30 seconds they know it’s Congress . . . and the Administration who operate the armed services, it isn’t the state of California.”

Ironically, it was the election of Democrat Bill Clinton that has given Wilson the chance to point the finger at the federal government. When fellow Republican George Bush was in the White House, Wilson complained occasionally about Congress but rarely attacked the executive branch.

But Bush was defeated in November of 1992, part of a Republican electoral debacle that also saw Wilson’s hopes of a GOP takeover of the state Assembly crushed. Voters also rejected the governor’s ballot initiative to seize budget powers and slash welfare benefits.

Coupled with a legislative session in which he accomplished almost none of his major goals and forced the state to pay its bills with IOUs during a 63-day budget stalemate, Wilson’s political showing led experts to predict that he would have difficulty in 1993 getting the Democrat-controlled Legislature to approve anything he wanted.

Wilson, however, confounded those predictions.

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Teaming with Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco, the governor fashioned an economic recovery plan that included tax breaks for business, greater assistance for first-time home buyers and major changes in the troubled workers’ compensation system that are expected to cut employers’ costs by 10%.

Wilson retreated from his opposition to extending a half-cent sales tax that was supposed to expire, eventually campaigning for a ballot measure that extended the levy indefinitely. And he failed to win passage of a growth management plan, a major campaign goal that continues to elude him. Yet he did get most of what he proposed in a January speech outlining his legislative program.

Although Wilson seemed more willing to compromise in 1993 than he was the year before, he attributed his improved record to an “attitudinal change” on the part of state lawmakers.

“I think they reflected the mood of the general public, in that they took a while to fully appreciate the magnitude of not just the recession but all its implications,” Wilson said in an interview. “Once they did they decided we’ve got to change this. We’ve got to do whatever it is within our power to change.

“We got a lot of things done that needed to be completed.”

Some have questioned the value of these achievements. Conservatives--pointing out that Wilson’s $500-million package of tax breaks is dwarfed by a $7-billion tax increase he signed in 1991--say the state needs to do still more to improve conditions for business. Others complain that the tax incentives will make the rich richer but not necessarily produce new jobs.

Wilson and his aides say the proof will come in 1994, when the economy starts to respond to the new conditions. They cite as early indicators a handful of high-profile cases, such as toy maker Lego’s decision to build a theme park in Carlsbad and computer giant Intel’s move to expand its Northern California operations.

Still, according to Wilson’s Finance Department, the state continues to shed jobs. More than 11,000 people were thrown out of work in November, and non-farm employment is down nearly 170,000 from a year ago. Home building declined in October, car sales lagged behind a national rebound, and retail sales, after adjusting for inflation, are flat.

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Voters, at least until recently, seem to have been paying more attention to the economic statistics than to Wilson’s legislative score card.

In the most recent Los Angeles Times poll, in October, just 31% of those surveyed said they approved of the job Wilson was doing, while 55% disapproved. Those numbers were improved only slightly from the dismal rating the governor received a year ago in the wake of his summer-long budget stalemate with the Legislature.

More than a third of those who disapproved of Wilson in the latest poll attributed their dissatisfaction either to his performance on the economy or to the fact that they saw him as generally ineffective. About three out of every four Californians said the state was on the “wrong track.”

Wilson also has been doing poorly in hypothetical matchups with the two likely Democratic contenders, Treasurer Kathleen Brown and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi. Though a huge number of voters say they do not know much about either candidate, both are favored over Wilson.

There are signs, however, that Wilson could yet get the political upper hand. Voters now place crime atop their list of problems plaguing the state, and Wilson has a long record of supporting tougher sentencing of criminals. He also is the first governor since Ronald Reagan in 1967 to carry out the death penalty--a policy the public clearly supports.

Voters also are increasingly concerned about the effects of illegal immigration, and recent polls have shown that Wilson struck a chord when he seized the issue over the summer. Voters of all political leanings said they viewed the governor more positively after he called for tougher enforcement of border controls and curtailing services to illegal immigrants and their children.

Wilson will stress those issues again this year, juggling those priorities with yet another effort to erase a budget deficit. The Commission on State Finance recently predicted that the state will face a $3.8-billion deficit at the end of the next fiscal year unless taxes are raised or spending cut. Wilson must present a balanced budget to the Legislature by Jan. 10.

Wilson does not want to raise taxes, and he said he doubts there is significant support for that approach in the Legislature. The alternative is deep cuts in state-supported programs--a concept the public supports in general terms but not so much when specific programs go on the chopping block.

“We are just going to be faced with a very tough set of circumstances,” he said.

Still, he said he expects to build on the cooperative relationship he established with the Legislature in 1993, even as Democratic lawmakers are hoping he leaves office as a one-term governor.

“The interesting thing is that the (budget) negotiation is framed by the reality of the options that you have,” Wilson said. “There isn’t realistically, I think, anyone who is going to seriously propose tax increases. There are some people who would like to see them but they know that’s just not in the cards. So that option is foreclosed. That being the case, you are really compelled to deal with what you have to do. That’s what happened last spring.”

Lawmakers, he said, have found that sniping at the governor hurts the Legislature’s image as much as it does his.

“I have found that individual members of the Legislature seem to have enjoyed the experience of getting accolades instead of brickbats,” he said.


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