Taking the offensive in the only debate scheduled before the Republican primary, political neophyte Ron Unz on Friday assailed Gov. Pete Wilson for raising taxes, being a hypocrite on immigration and going soft on ex-convicts who violate the conditions of their parole.
Unz, a 32-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has never before run for public office, coolly described his libertarian-leaning agenda for California and had the veteran incumbent alternately defending his record and crying foul but unable to present his vision for the next four years.
Wilson at least five times accused Unz of distorting his record as governor and twice invoked the name of Ronald Reagan, who, Wilson noted in his own defense, also signed a big tax increase when he was governor of California.
The first-term chief executive--a former U.S. senator and former mayor of San Diego--dismissed the significance of polls showing the previously unknown Unz getting 30% of the Republican vote. Anyone who put a name on the ballot against him, Wilson said, probably could do as well.
Unz got some help from the debate moderator, KABC talk radio host Michael Jackson, who repeatedly chided, at times almost rudely, the often wordy Wilson, telling him to stop lecturing and to keep his answers to the point.
"Forgive me, sir," Jackson said as he interrupted Wilson. "You want to go on making a speech, fine, then I will let him make a speech and we'll all yawn to death."
When it was over, Wilson, who participated by telephone from Phoenix, where he was attending a governors conference, told reporters he did not intend to debate his upstart challenger again.
"I've got better things to do," he said.
The candidates agreed on two matters during the 55-minute confrontation: that the proposed Ward Valley nuclear waste dump should proceed and that the death penalty should remain on the books and be enforced.
But on everything else, from economics to education and immigration, the two candidates clashed sharply.
"I believe in the principles of smaller government, lower taxes and fewer regulations," Unz said at the outset. "I come from the productive private business sector. I understand the technologies of the future. And I think my views, my policies and my knowledge of technology could help to revive the California economy."
Unz proposed replacing the inefficient and fraud-ridden workers' compensation system with private insurance, and he challenged Wilson to support his proposal to "massively cut" the size of government while rolling back social welfare programs.
He asked Wilson: "Do you endorse those types of massive cuts or will you spring a new tax increase on us just like you did in 1991?"
"Well, that's clever if dishonest, Mr. Unz," Wilson replied.
Wilson said that under his leadership state government has made the "deepest spending cuts in American history." Projections when he took office, Wilson said, had state spending reaching $60 billion this year, and instead it will be less than $40 billion.
He did not mention that much of that drop occurred because of the faltering economy or that most of the rest came as a result of his plan to use local property tax revenues to relieve the state of part of its constitutional obligation to the public schools.
"It's been a shell game," Unz said.
On immigration, Wilson attacked the Clinton Administration and Congress for failing to stop illegal immigrants and for not reimbursing California for the full cost of providing services to those illegal immigrants who get through.
"It is costing the state taxpayers of California virtually 10% of their state general fund budget," Wilson said. "We have reached the point where we are unable to provide needed services for legal residents . . . because of what we are having to provide . . . to illegal immigrants."
Unz cut Wilson off and accused him of exploiting the issue for political purposes.
"I really think there's a certain amount of insincerity here," Unz said. "You're somebody who's been governor of California for almost four years now. You never raised this issue until very recently. You only raised it once the polls started saying it was the way you could be reelected."
Wilson denied it, saying he made demands on then-President George Bush in 1989, 1990 and 1991 for better treatment for California.
"I have been at this for a very long time," Wilson said.
Although the two candidates agreed on the death penalty, they disagreed on other aspects of Wilson's criminal justice record. Unz, picking up on a charge the Democrats have thrown at Wilson, criticized the governor for an Administration policy that resulted in fewer parole violators being returned to prison.
Unz said: "In 1992, when people weren't as concerned about crime but they were more concerned about the budget, you cut $100 million from the state prison system. Because of that cut, a lot of vicious criminals who have been paroled but have violated the terms of parole have been allowed to remain on the streets."
Wilson tried to stop Unz from completing his charge.
"You're wrong on your facts again," he said as both candidates spoke at once.
Then Jackson stepped in and asked Wilson if the rate of parolees returned to prison for violating their parole had declined from 61% when he took office to 39%.
"No," Wilson said.
But Wilson's own Department of Corrections has published data showing the rate dropping from 60.3% in 1991 to 39.1% a year later.
And the head the prison system, James Gomez, recently told a legislative committee that budget cuts had prompted the department to reduce the use of drug tests and to allow parolees who test positive for drugs to more often remain on the street rather than be returned to prison.
Also contributing to this report were Times staff writer Chris Kraul in Phoenix and Times political writer Bill Stall in Los Angeles.