Pete Wilson for Governor: On Balance the Best Choice

In deciding to endorse in a California gubernatorial election for the first time since 1970, this newspaper realized that any evaluation of Pete Wilson has to be tempered by a fair respect for the turbulent and depressing economic environment in which he has had to govern.

This must be said at the outset in evaluating his mixed record because at times it seems there are two Pete Wilsons. The first is the moderate, forward-thinking, pro-environment, straight-talking, policy-wonk Republican who defies his own party on issues such as abortion and offshore oil drilling and who can cut crafty, pragmatic deals with--and more than hold his own against--equally crafty Democrats like Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. This is the Pete Wilson whom even Sacramento Democrats heartily welcomed after the confrontational years of George Deukmejian.

Then there’s the Pete Wilson who signed the overly broad “three-strikes” bill, which even veteran prosecutors say the state can’t afford; who played games with revenue figures to paper-balance the state budget; who grandstands on the volatile illegal immigration issue, even advocating the odious Proposition 187.

Similarly, any evaluation of the Democratic gubernatorial challenger must ask whether there are sometimes two Kathleen Browns. One is the intelligent, politically savvy and energetic former Los Angeles school board member and current state treasurer--a pragmatic New Democrat. But then there is the Kathleen Brown who ducks hard questions and who makes you wonder if she really has an inner core of hard-held convictions.


Voters have the ability to assess whether Wilson has what it takes to continue as governor of the most populous state because they have seen him in action over 3 1/2 years. For all his lack of rhetorical pizazz, Wilson is a firm, hands-on administrator who keeps his staff jumping and his political opponents guessing. He is a knowledgeable student of public policy, especially well-versed on such issues as preventive care, children’s services and welfare reform.

He is also one tough, cool customer. He deserves credit for the bone-wearying work of hacking out a compromise budget with a Democratic Legislature amid ever-shrinking revenues, while taking on the state bureaucracy and streamlining government to make it less of an obstacle course for business and economic development. This is the Wilson we like: the competent leader and the moderate Republican with core convictions but not obstructionist ideology.

His accomplishments include:

-- Fighting the entitlements monster: A good deal of his welfare reform gets to the heart of this fiscally corrosive issue and is a model for the nation.

--Fighting for California: Amid horrific federal defense cutbacks, he led efforts to prepare for future, peacetime uses of military bases.

-- Fighting for economic development: Workers’ compensation reform and the highly visible efforts to keep businesses from leaving the state set the right, urgent tone.

-- Fighting for environmental balance: He laid the groundwork in creating a model for habitat preservation that preserves endangered species without endangering economic development.

--Fighting for a saner, safer California: Signing workplace and state office smoking bans; signing a bill protecting gays and lesbians against workplace discrimination (after unwisely vetoing a similar bill a year earlier); creating an important state commission on domestic violence two years ago; signing various gun control measures.

What’s the case against Pete Wilson? The governor is clearly not responsible for the worldwide recession; indeed, the best argument against him is his ambiguous identity--whether in fact he might not be the politician who embraces Proposition 187 because of political expediency and who vetoes a gay rights bill because of his braying right wing.

Thus voters who believe the worst about Wilson will want to give Brown a longer look. However lackluster and unfocused her campaign, there is no doubt that the state treasurer would bring a buoyant energy to Sacramento, not to mention a valuable diversity in making appointments. There’s also no question that her campaign-book economic plan, though incomplete and raising many more questions than it answers, focuses on the urgent need for a long-term fiscal blueprint for the state. That’s something a second-term Wilson Administration would be wise to work harder on.

However, on balance it must be said that the Brown critique of Wilson fails to persuade. She sounds at times like Pete Wilson before the recession, but it is he who has brought us through it as governor. Now that we know the ride was rough, she asks California voters to throw him out. Things could be a lot worse for California. By the arrival of this election season, even the hard-headed realists assessing the business outlook at UCLA were seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Wilson deserves credit for helping to shepherd this state through some very tough times--recession, fires, riots, earthquakes. Moreover, while he is utterly, totally, hopelessly wrong on Proposition 187, he has managed successfully to draw attention on the national stage to the plight of states trying to come to terms with problems that ought to be federal responsibilities. All things considered, Pete Wilson is a leader who deserves a second term as governor. And it is on this basis that The Times, with all considerable respect for Treasurer Kathleen Brown, endorses his reelection.