Gov. Pete Wilson's uneasy relationship with California Republicans--ranging from thunderous rallies after his election to his effigy hanging in a gay rights dispute--came to a polite and respectful official close this weekend.
The party's formal farewell dinner for Wilson after his eight years in office was an intimate gathering of about 300 of his friendliest supporters. Those less friendly, including some who have tangled with Wilson over such issues as abortion, kept their distance as the moderate and sometimes cantankerous governor was feted at a convention in Long Beach on Friday night.
"Public service is as thankless and joyless an avocation as any in this country," said Steve Frank, a conservative leader and longtime Wilson nemesis who did not attend the dinner. "If you are willing to put yourself through that, I respect that. So tonight is like New Year's Eve and Auld Lang Syne--those who you disagreed with you can hug and shake hands with."
For Wilson, the evening was a chance to focus on accomplishments, not differences. A blue and gold thank-you card on each table contained a list he hopes Californians will remember--nearly all achieved in his final term: "1.4 million jobs created; class size reduction; three strikes; workers compensation reform; Healthy Start; tax cuts; welfare reform; mentoring initiative; fought illegal immigration; ended quotas."
Wilson aides said the governor asked that the commemoration be modest. He handpicked the event's three speakers: Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), UC Regent Ward Connerly and the Republican nominee to succeed him--state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren.
No Traditional Bands or Banners
There were no bands or banners, and the ballroom lacked any of the decorative touches featured at nearly every political dinner. Wilson did not even want the word "tribute" uttered. For one thing, he said, he's not quite done.
"My fellow Republicans, this old Marine has no intention of fading away just yet," Wilson declared, prompting a cheer. But this week, as he signs the last of nearly 10,000 bills that aides say have passed his desk since he was elected, Wilson begins the final lap of his tenure.
In January, after serving his maximum two terms, Wilson will turn over his office to the winner of the November election. And at Friday's dinner, he began taking some final bows.
"This is the last time I will have the privilege of appearing before you as governor," he told the crowd, relaxed and even light-hearted in his delivery. "I don't know what happened to the eight years. . . . This really has stimulated some memories. Those are what I will remember."
Wilson heads toward departure at a high point, the state's healthy economy having boosted his popularity rating to record levels.
A recent Los Angeles Times poll found that 53% of the state approves of his job performance, the highest level for Wilson by the newspaper's survey since the governor took office. His score has climbed from the 33% who felt that way after his presidential bid in 1995.
With his remaining months in office, Wilson plans a final attempt to raise his popularity even further and shape his standing in history. His staff has prepared a "legacy tour" that will include a series of public events to highlight Wilson's role in popular education reforms, improvements in the economy and a declining crime rate.
In his Friday comments, Wilson was offering his own perspective on that legacy.
Delegates to previous state party conventions have hung Wilson's effigy to protest his support for a gay rights bill. They have repeatedly blasted him for supporting abortion rights. They once tossed tea bags into the air like colonial revolutionaries to condemn his 1991 tax increase.
Even this weekend, the sparring continued--over Proposition 8, the governor's education initiative on the November ballot, and a conservative attempt to scuttle two Wilson-appointed state Supreme Court justices who oppose a parental consent requirement for teenage abortions.
Reminds Conservatives of Common Ground
Wilson took the occasion Friday to remind conservative colleagues of their common ground on the tax cuts he signed during the last two years, as well as his role in promoting two ballot measures to end benefits for illegal immigrants and affirmative action in government hiring.
"We have fought the liberals tooth and nail for lower taxes, less government and a return to a government that reflects the values of working, mainstream Californians," he said.
And in a pointed challenge to critics outside the party, Wilson rejected the charge that he exploited divisive racial issues for political gain with Proposition 187 in 1994 and Proposition 209 in 1996. He suggested that such issues should be considered a character test for public office.
"That's the complaint," Wilson said, smiling. "They say he's pugnacious, he's combative. It's true."
Turning serious, the governor continued: "They accuse me of conducting wedge-issue politics. You know what a wedge issue is? A wedge issue is one that liberals don't want to talk about. They want to duck it because they don't have the guts to face it.
"Slavery was a wedge issue," he said. "The right of women to vote was a wedge issue. People who don't want to take positions on wedge issues have no business asking you to vote to elect them to office."
Connerly, who was recruited by Wilson to serve as co-chairman of the Proposition 209 campaign, described the battle over affirmative action as an example of Wilson's integrity.
"He believes devoutly in certain core principles," said Connerly. "There isn't a person alive who is willing to defend his beliefs as religiously as he is."
Pringle and Lungren also spoke of issues they have championed with the governor.
Lungren gave Wilson credit for many of the recent reductions in the crime rate.
"If you ask me what the mark of a person is in public life . . . if you say you have saved lives, have made a difference in the lives of people . . . then you can say you have succeeded," Lungren said. "And ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you, Pete Wilson has succeeded."