Column: Happy birthday, Pete Wilson. And thanks: You made California what it is

California Gov. Pete Wilson smiles after being handed a feathered duster following a news conference
Then-California Gov. Pete Wilson smiles after being handed a feathered duster following a news conference in Los Angeles, Nov. 9, 1994.
(Bob Galbraith / Associated Press)

Former California Gov. Pete Wilson turns 85 tomorrow, so on behalf of all Californians, I say: gracias. (That’s “Thank you” in Spanish, Pedro.)

Gracias for your 30-plus years of service as a public official — first, as an assemblyman for San Diego, then as the mayor of that city, followed by two terms apiece as our U.S. senator and governor. Your career helped shaped the modern-day Golden State.

Gracias for a career mostly defined by a moderate approach — an important lesson for the Democrats and Republicans of today that too few bother to remember.

Gracias for a mayoral career that saw you protect San Diego’s wetlands and implement affirmative-action hiring practices. “He believes that America’s minorities have been handicapped for years,” one campaign flier read, “by inadequate housing, education and job opportunities, and he has dedicated his efforts to alleviating these problems.” That’s a reality that more Republicans should acknowledge.


Gracias for being so hurt when the Republican Party pulled their 1972 convention from San Diego that you responded with an “America’s Finest City” campaign. You showed second-tier cities across the country that they, too, should be proud of who they are.

Gracias to Proposition 187, Mexican Americans like me realized for the first time that a large part of society still considered us ‘Mexican’ and not American.

Gracias for proving that Republicans can take the lead in addressing America’s prior racial wrongs. As senator, you cosponsored the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted reparations and an official government apology to Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

Gracias for showing us that a Republican governor could understand that raising taxes to help shore up public finances was a wise thing and not treason. In 1991, when California faced a record deficit, you backed tax increases for sales, the wealthy and even snacks.


Gracias, too, for throwing away this record of centrism. (Just bear with me.) You showed future generations of politicians how not to ruin their legacy.

Gracias for helping to deregulate California’s electricity, which led to mass blackouts in the beginning of the 2000s and convinced an entire generation that we shouldn’t leave public utilities to the private market.

Gracias for signing the state’s three-strikes sentencing laws. The increase in prisoners proved that justice isn’t blind but usually racist and always classist, and it planted the first seeds of distrust in law enforcement that have bloomed into a movement across the state today.

Gracias for working so hard to eliminate affirmative action at the University of California and beyond. The program helped to get thousands of minorities into the middle class, where they promptly retreated into the comforts of whiteness. Your 180-degree turn on the issue radicalized college students.

Gracias, most of all, for Proposition 187. You didn’t author the 1994 measure, which declared war on immigrants in the country illegally and the people who helped them. But you jumped on the 187 bandwagon and took the reins as soon as you could to help resurrect your flagging reelection campaign.

Gracias to Proposition 187, Mexican Americans like me realized for the first time that a large part of society still considered us “Mexican” and not “American,” like we always believed ourselves to be. Most of us have identified with the former more than the latter ever since.

Gracias to Proposition 187, MEChA bounced back. The Chicano high school and college group was slowly losing its power as more Mexican Americans began to identify as “Latino” or “Hispanic” and wanted no part with radical politics. Because of 187, MEChA members went on to reinvigorate the labor movement, introduce ethnic studies in high schools, and make Dia de los Muertos a thing.

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Gracias for inspiring Latinos to enter politics like never before. And gracias for making the defense of immigrants their rallying cry. From State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s zeal, to bringing back driver’s licenses for the undocumented (which you took away) to declaring us a sanctuary state, it’s all a direct response to your cynicism.

Gracias for inspiring two of the most hilarious death-metal songs ever: “Matando Güeros” (“Killing White People”) and “Raza Odiada” (“Hated Race”), both by Brujería. I certainly hope that you take their mock-assassination skit as satire at its finest, instead of a bona fide threat.

Gracias for providing the California Republican Party a cautionary tale.

Gracias for inadvertently posing for an airplane selfie two years ago with film director Alex Rivera. Your befuddled expression reminded Latinos that you’re not a monster but rather just a confused fool.

And gracias for still not getting it. At a recent speech by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to the Southern California Leadership Council, you complained to him that Sacramento “ignores us,” whatever the hell that means. (Who’s “us”?) Speaker Rendon’s grace in responding to your petulance — basically “I’m here now” — was as great an example of Old and New California as Rivera could’ve scripted.

Gracias, Governor Pedro. May I suggest a birthday dinner of crow tacos?

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