California’s forgotten governor drapes his plaid-trousered legs into a chair and, with dry humor, recalls his five years in political exile. He walked the streets unnoticed, shopped at Ralphs, waited in line at the gas station, all without security. Who needs it when you’re just another guy? Occasionally, he says, someone would recognize him. “I know you,” they would say. “You’re the anchor on Channel 7.”
Such was the obscure life of Pete Wilson. The man who is among the most successful politicians in California history was forced into the shadows after his second term ended in 1999 for having the temerity to support a state illegal-immigration proposition, 187. Voters approved it by a 59% majority, but in the strange ways of politics, Wilson became a liability. Even his own party wanted nothing to do with him, passing him over as a delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention. It was “a hard slap,” says Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan newsletter “The Cook Political Report.” “It doesn’t get a lot worse than that. It tells you how far he fell.”
Then one day last summer, Wilson’s phone rang. It was an actor friend, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The deadline to file as a candidate in the recall election of Gov. Gray Davis was just a few days away. Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, wanted to talk. Wilson drove from his condo in Century City to Schwarzenegger’s mansion in Brentwood. Wilson recalls the conversation. “I told him, ‘I have no doubts about your abilities as a campaigner. I think you have the greatest natural gifts I’ve ever seen. You love it, and you’re good. But you’ve got to ask yourself, “Do I want to do this enough to make that kind of dramatic change in my life?” Think about it over the weekend.’
“I left assuming I’d talked him out of it.”
He hadn’t, and thus Pete Wilson was about to be reborn. Thanks largely to Schwarzenegger’s victory and his continuing reliance on Wilson as an advisor, the former governor is now “in” again. Republicans can relax and put his picture back on the wall. This August, Wilson will occupy prime real estate at the Republican National Convention. Many of his former aides now work for Schwarzenegger. And the man who fell from grace is willing to talk about it, as he did in a series of interviews for this article.
pete wilson at 70 is still marine corps slim, and he settles himself easi- ly in a chair in the park-like surroundings of his home. He says he can still fit in the Marine infantry officer uniform he wore in the late 1950s, and the command presence is there. He is dressed in muted plaid slacks of a certain period, a blue blazer and open button-down shirt. His words have a faint rasp that might be a carry-over from the throat ailment that ended his 1996 presidential run. His humor is robust with a barracks flavor, and too dry to sell well on TV, the kind that leads to chuckles, not guffaws. Asked his middle name, he says “Barton,” then adds, “I never use it, though. Hell, I spent a couple of million dollars trying to get just plain Pete known.”
The Pete Wilson given to us by the media was a Mr. Bland Man. He certainly gave off the vibes of a company accountant who knows how you cheated on your expense account. But when you get to observe Wilson closely, the man who emerges is a determined, tough-minded guy who doesn’t hesitate. If you don’t know where he stands on an issue, you haven’t asked him. Dan Walters, the Sacramento Bee columnist who followed him for years, says he had the intensity of a “junkyard dog” as he patrolled his political fences. He likes to be in charge. Asked if he prefers the title “senator” or “governor,” he says the latter, “because I liked the job more.”
No one seems to begrudge Wilson bragging rights about his accomplishments as a crime-fighting, decisive governor who raised taxes to meet the shortfall caused by the 1991 recession. But if you ask him what he remembers most fondly, he recites a list of programs intended to allay the consequences of teenage pregnancy and juvenile delinquency.
He illustrates his concern for kids by using an earthy anecdote from the time he was working his way through law school by parking cars at the Golden Gate Fields race track near Berkeley. “This guy drove in and was going to leave two kids in the car for probably hours while he went into the races. I told him, ‘Mister, either you drive those kids out of here, or I’m going to knock your ass out of here.’ ”
Wilson would prefer to live in San Diego, where he is regarded as something of a squire from his years serving as mayor of that city, but business interests in banking, consulting and law make L.A. more convenient. He’s finally positioned to make some serious dollars, but he remains wedded to politics, his chosen labor for 40 years, even as time has exiled him to that Elba of politics where there are no more elections to win and no more legislatures to outsmart.
Wilson is a proud man, and talking about his exile at times is visibly painful, like the jilted guy who shares his thoughts on why his girlfriend dumped him. Asked about being omitted as a delegate and largely sitting out the 2000 and 2002 elections, Wilson grimaces sourly and shrugs. It’s more important to him to clarify that his support of Proposition 187 doesn’t mean he’s a racist. “A lot of politicians made that racism charge knowing it wasn’t true,” he says. “I remember a Democratic legislator who stopped me in the hallway at the Capitol during that campaign. He said, ‘Don’t take it personal, governor. We know it isn’t true; it’s just business.’ ” Wilson pauses to let his disgust register. “Don’t take it personal,” he repeats. “It’s like the Mafia. Nothing personal, but we’ve got a contract out on you.”
Still, the governor came out fighting. George Gorton has been a Wilson political advisor for more than 30 years and is now on Schwarzenegger’s team. He calls Wilson “a warrior. We used to say about him that he never saw a political fight he didn’t want to pick. If he loses or has a setback, you won’t find him crying about it. He goes on.”
Schwarzenegger describes Wilson as unflappable in the face of the Proposition 187 attacks--a true pro and a tough guy. “Gov. Wilson realizes that in politics sometimes you have people with you and sometimes people against you. He knows who his true friends are.”
But Wilson’s armor has some soft spots. Right before they were married, he says, he told his wife, “Honey, you’ve got to promise me one thing: You’re going to read and hear things about me that will deeply offend you, and if you want to get angry, that’s fine. But you’ve got to promise me that you won’t let the bastards hurt you.”
Once, in San Francisco (“of course,” he adds), a man approached him on the street and started berating him. Wilson says he replied: “This is a wonderful country with a wonderful Constitution that protects a man’s right to make a horse’s ass of himself, just like you’re doing.” It seems his main remaining public battle is to rid himself of the albatross that has hung around his neck for a decade, and maybe the time has come for that. Even so, when our grandchildren study Pete Wilson in school, Proposition 187 will surely be on the quiz.
Wilson made a lot of right decisions in more than 30 years in politics: 10 consecutive general election triumphs, starting with three terms in the state Assembly, three as mayor of San Diego, two as U.S. senator and then two as governor. From 1966 through 1998, Pete Wilson was on top of the political hill.
But in 1994, Wilson made the decision to endorse Proposition 187, which authorized Draconian spending cuts aimed at illegal immigrants, especially in health care and childhood education. Though it passed easily, Wilson became the punching bag of Latino activists and liberal politicians. One Latino academic compared him to Hitler. He was burned in effigy by an L.A. crowd of 70,000, a gesture usually reserved for defeated dictators. Conservatives stood by him, albeit a bit tepidly, but moderates of his own party went into denial. Pete who? A key California Republican operative says that the Bush campaign was looking to establish their candidate as a different kind of Republican. Part of that was their “Latino strategy"--a “gentler conservative” theme without a lot of commitments. “The problem is, how do you do that without going into a lot of details?” the GOP operative says. “So, someone came up with the idea of Bush sending the message of, ‘I’m not Pete Wilson.’ After that, you isolate Wilson, which then becomes the message you send. And you use the tail wind of the media that was beating up on Wilson to carry the message forward. That was a way to send the desired communication to Latinos without spending a lot of effort to do it.”
Bush, in a campaign visit to Los Angeles, made it clear that he was distancing himself from the Proposition 187 blowback. He told the National Hispanic Women’s Conference that he espoused “leadership that rejects the politics of pitting one group of people against another, leaders that stand up and say we will not use our children, the children of immigrants, as a political issue in America.”
All this changed with Schwarzenegger. The Associated Press transmitted a photograph of Wilson occupying a seat of honor at the State of the State address of the man he helped guide into office by serving as campaign co-chair. For those wishing to bury Pete Wilson, it was apparent they had not dug deeply enough.
No one knows the exact moment when Schwarzenegger decided to run for governor during last year’s recall election. But his announcement in August on Jay Leno’s show only came after he was sure of Wilson’s backing. Schwarzenegger had decided that he needed Wilson’s expertise and experienced staff. Plus, they were longtime buddies going back two decades.
Asked if groping allegations against Schwarzenegger were discussed, Wilson says: “It never came up. I didn’t know anything about that, but I did tell him, ‘If you’re going to do this, and there’s anything that the opposition is going to discover, then you’ve got to deal with it, and you do it by meeting it head on.’ And looking back, I think he dealt with it very well.”
He is awed by Schwarzenegger’s public magnetism as a campaigner, perhaps because he never had much of his own. “He has the power of celebrity, but it’s more than that, he’s a very likable guy,” Wilson says. “I remember a grip-'n'-grin fundraiser of 20 years or so ago where Arnold joined my wife and me. It went on and on, about two hours. At the end, I apologized to Arnold for the length of the thing. But he said, ‘Oh no, I enjoyed it.’ I said, ‘If that’s the case, then what the hell’s wrong with you?’ He loves it. It’s meat and drink to him.”
The importance of Wilson to Schwarzenegger became apparent in the new governor’s staffing, both in the campaign and his administration. His organizational chart is honeycombed with ex-Wilsonites, including the chief of staff, Pat Clarey. As for Proposition 187, Schwarzenegger acknowledged during his campaign that he had voted for the measure, but he also made it clear it was a subject he would just as soon forget. Asked if the Proposition 187-Wilson connection made him nervous, the governor complimented his friend while also skirting the issue: “I was never concerned about anything with Gov. Wilson because I needed his expertise, and I needed his wisdom.
“He’s helped me with a number of issues. He ran this office with great leadership and strength. I became a big fan of his.” The governor favorably compares Wilson to former Gov. Ronald Reagan. “Both were great leaders of different styles. Reagan was much more ‘out there’ as a communicator, and we don’t think of Wilson that way. I think of Wilson as being a guy who knows every single detail that’s going on in the office. I don’t know he even needed a chief of staff, to be honest with you.”
Embracing Wilson appears to have had no ill effects. Running against Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Schwarzenegger captured an estimated 31% of the Latino vote, while another Republican candidate, Tom McClintock, got 9%.
It may be a measure of Schwarzenegger’s clout, or the softening influence of time’s passage, or Republicans’ more positive reappraisal of Proposition 187, but when the party convenes this summer in New York City, Wilson will be a delegate from California.
Cook is impressed, and says Wilson’s return speaks for his toughness and resourcefulness: “It says a lot. It shows resilience. Gov. Wilson has to feel good that he’s resurrected himself.”
What might be lost with the passage of time is the social conflict that gave rise to Proposition 187. The Reagan amnesty provision of 1986 was supposed to put a stop to the river of people crossing the border, but it clearly did not. School boards and health providers throughout the state were beginning to groan under the burden of educating and treating people who didn’t pay much in taxes or almost anything in health insurance premiums.
In Sacramento, Wilson sued the federal government for the money to pay the expenses for those who were in his state because of the failure of federal law enforcement. His plea became a chorus joined by Texas, Illinois, New York and several other states, but it won them nothing.
Wilson was facing a reelection campaign against Kathleen Brown, daughter of Pat and sister of Jerry. Governors both. The early betting was that she would make it a family hat trick. Wilson was far behind early in 1994, but he caught up to her in the polls in the first week of September, cementing his front-runner position after attaching his campaign to Proposition 187 later that month. Helped by an inept campaign by Brown, he won by 15 points, joining Proposition 187 in the landslide.
Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, says the measure may have saved Wilson in ’94, but not without cost: “It turned his poll numbers around. He closed a huge deficit; at one point he was more than 20 points behind Kathleen Brown.” However, DiCamillo says there was an unanticipated backlash on the part of Latinos who detected an ethnic threat in Wilson’s campaign: “In the years immediately after 187 passed, Latino voters increased by 1 million between 1994 and 2000. A lot of that is attributable to 187. Every election from 1994 to 2002, Latino voters were voting for Democrats in a way they never had before.”
State Sen. Gil Cedillo, a Democrat from Los Angeles, is regarded as a ground-zero advocate of Latino political causes, especially as the prime mover behind the effort to give illegal immigrants driver’s licenses. He has mixed feelings about the man he worked against (and sometimes with) in Sacramento. As do many Democrats, he doesn’t hesitate to praise Wilson’s budgetary discipline and overall decisiveness: “Unfortunately, the 187 episode may eclipse the career of a man I consider very competent, very moderate and an effective leader.”
Cedillo says there is lingering distaste for the notorious commercial showing immigrants sneaking across the border. The grainy, sinister look of the film made the immigrants appear to be criminals, and revealed the true feelings of its backers, Cedillo says. The line used in the commercial: “They keep coming.”
Reminded of the line today, Wilson responds: “They do keep coming! The film used in that commercial was shot by the INS through a night scope. The reason it unnerved our opponents was because they couldn’t argue with the truth of it.”
Former Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy reflects the ambivalence with which Democrats still view Wilson. “First of all, Pete and I ran against each other for the Senate in 1988, so understand that there’s going to be some bias,” McCarthy says. “I would say that Mayor Pete Wilson of San Diego was an enlightened moderate, Sen. Pete Wilson was a moderate conservative and Gov. Pete Wilson was an aggressive conservative. This transformation traces that of the Republican Party of California.
“He is smart, but is he smart in terms of political nuances, or is he smart in terms of what he applies to substantive public policy? He could have been smart in both areas, but he chose to be smart on the political side.”
He acknowledges conservative pressure on Wilson to back Proposition 187, but believes the governor went further than necessary. He considers the “They keep coming” TV spot a tip-off of Wilson’s intent. “That really defines what his motivation was, to scare the hell out of the voters. You could make an argument about the fiscal and budget effects on California by the tide of illegal immigrants, and do it on the merits of the issue. But it’s hard for Pete to contend that that’s what he had in mind on 187.”
Still, neither Cedillo nor McCarthy believes Wilson is a racist. Cedillo’s voice slows and drops lower, as though mourning the thought: “The governor is not a racist. No way. He had the courage to step forward on his convictions, and although I didn’t agree with him, there was no question where he stood.”
Many Republicans view the mushrooming Latino voter rolls in the same way a person looks at a growing mole: One hopes it’s benign but fears for the worst. That suggests why Cedillo is gentler toward Wilson than fellow Republican McClintock, who makes no secret of long-standing beefs with the former governor over taxation and budgeting, especially the Wilson-sponsored 1991 tax increase that McClintock opposed.
McClintock vehemently faults Wilson on the Proposition 187 campaign. “We have to confront illegal immigration, but you do it by appealing, in Lincoln’s words, to the better angels of our nature,” he says. “Instead of an elevated debate over the importance of assimilation and the meaning of citizenship, he gave us a crass, divisive, polarizing campaign for his own reelection. He chose the latter course and did enormous damage to the party.”
Wilson scoffs. “What the hell is all this about assimilation?” he says. “Prop. 187 was about illegal immigration, and who was going to pay the cost.” He shakes his head derisively. “What a phony. It pisses me off to a fare-thee-well when people suggest that there was a racist motivation in that campaign. I challenge anyone to point to one word of racism in our campaign. One word. It’s a lie.
“You know,” he says, “everyone talks about the politics of Prop. 187. How about whether it was good government?” He says if the state indefinitely imports “tax takers” at the expense of a diminishing number of “taxpayers,” then the future will bring crippling budgetary consequences. “That proposition looked into the future, and the future will show that it was good government.”
Wilson also is irritated by statements that say Proposition 187 was thrown out by the courts: “It was ruled against by a lower-court judge after a three-year wait, then [Gray] Davis caved in,” Wilson says, recounting how Davis engaged in “phony mediation” that kept the case from advancing on appeal, which could have ultimately taken it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
DiCamillo says that Wilson successfully appealed to “the white, non-Hispanic majority, and he won their support.” Not a thing to be minimized, as the middle-class still dominates California elections. One activist fighting illegal immigration, Joe Guzzardi, a teacher from Lodi, says, “Rank-and-file Republicans consider Pete Wilson to this day to be a hero, and this business that Wilson killed the Republican Party with Prop. 187 is just a lot of scare talk from the ethnic politicians who want to make sure that similar legislation doesn’t come up again.”
Wilson and Schwarzenegger are different personality types, but they have a mutual affection that might be rooted in a shared view of the world: You build muscle mass by wrestling with it. Each is intensely competitive.
Wilson has the Schwarzenegger guttural accent down, and he uses it fondly to relate an anecdote from when Schwarzenegger served as chairman of the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports in the 1990s, and the two of them were at a fitness pep rally for schoolchildren.
“We’re all out there in sweats, standing at the podium just in front of the Great Seal of California. Arnold is whispering, ‘Pssst. Guuvanor!’
“ ‘Yes, Arnold. What?’
“He said to look at the seal.
“ ‘What about it?’
“ ‘That’s the photo op. You and I, vee go to the great seal. Vee face each other and have a push-up contest.’
“And I said, ‘OK. Whatever.’ My God, he was absolutely right. That picture was on the front page of practically every paper in the state.”
“How many push-ups did you do?” I ask.
“Arnold let me win. He did 10, and then I did 11.” He hesitates, then adds firmly, “But he knew I could do more.”