For a time, no California politician was more formidable than Republican Pete Wilson.
Over two decades, the popular former San Diego mayor enjoyed a record of nearly unbroken success, besting Gov. Jerry Brown in 1982 to seize a U.S. Senate seat and toppling San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein eight years later to win the governorship. He served in Sacramento during a time of epic upheaval, staring down a massive budget deficit and a series of biblical natural disasters: drought, earthquakes, fire, floods.
Now, at 83, he is waging what amounts to his final campaign — and certainly his most personal — an effort to shape how best he’ll be recollected.
By most accounts, Wilson was quite successful during eight years as governor, leaving the state in better shape than he found it, though he takes issue with that assessment. “No,” he said, “a hell of a lot better.”
If Wilson is renowned for one thing, however, it is Proposition 187, the controversial ballot measure that sought to stem illegal immigration and address its costs by cutting off state services, including healthcare and public education, to those in the country illegally.
Wilson didn’t draft the measure, nor did he place it on the November 1994 ballot. But he became the foremost champion and central character — or villain — in a narrative that goes something like this:
His reelection apparently doomed, Wilson seized on the provocative initiative and, through a racist campaign, tapped the latent bigotry of Californians to rescue his flailing candidacy, a Pyrrhic victory that has badly damaged Republicans by alienating Latinos in the state and nationwide ever since.
The narrative gained renewed currency with the rise of Donald Trump, fueled by his inflammatory rhetoric toward immigrants — Muslims and Mexicans, in particular — and the wall he promises to throw up along the Southwest border.
(Although he preferred Trump to Democrat Hillary Clinton, Wilson is no great fan of the president. He does, however, see merit in his proposal to wall off the border. “People say, … ‘God, it would cost a fortune,’” Wilson said. “Not nearly as much as failing to build the wall.”)
Setting aside comparisons, there is some truth to the popular account of Wilson’s political comeback.
He started his reelection campaign as a distinct underdog, trailing by as much as 20 points in preference polls. He was helped considerably by his tough-on-immigration stance, which came after years spent hectoring Washington for not securing the country’s borders and foisting billions in costs on states like California.
But Wilson also benefited greatly from his leadership after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake and the wretched campaign run by his Democratic rival, Brown’s sister, Kathleen, which lacked focus and ultimately ran out of cash.
It is also true his tough stance against illegal immigration and, especially, support for Proposition 187 both antagonized and energized a burgeoning Latino population, in California and around the country, abetted by Democrats who knew an opportunity when they saw one.
But Wilson will go to his grave steadfastly denying any racist or malign intent, saying his support for Proposition 187 — most of which was ultimately blocked in the courts — had nothing whatever to do with race or ethnicity.
“It wasn’t scapegoating. What it was doing was laying out the facts of what it was costing state taxpayers for federal failure,” Wilson said in his office high above Century City, where he still maintains an active law practice.
Later, he circled back: “I may have my flaws but racism is not, never has been, never will be, one of them.”
For all his political success, Wilson was no great orator, nor personally charismatic. Rather, his political strength was always as a tactician, far better operating behind the scenes than standing before a TV camera.
Looking back, he dissected the 1994 campaign the way a surgeon might discuss a kidney transplant, his clinical detachment belying not just the fiery emotion surrounding the immigration issue but the hurt he said he has felt ever since.
Critics point to a TV advertisement that has gained near-mythic status, a foreboding spot with grainy footage of immigrants dashing through traffic into the U.S. at a border checkpoint and an ominous voiceover — “They keep coming” — and present it as incontrovertible proof of Wilson’s insensitivity and prejudice.
He had none of it. The film was grainy, he said all these years later, because it was shot at night by Immigration and Naturalization Service cameras. And “’They keep coming,’” he said, “was a statement of fact.”
“We’d tried everything else for three years,” Wilson said of his support for Proposition 187. “Washington was deaf, dumb and blind.”
And if successful passage meant appealing to the darker angels of human nature?
“Do I think there are racists in the world?” he asked. “Of course I do. Do I think there were some in California at that time who were probably pleased with 187? Yeah, I do. But do I think that most of the people in California who voted for it were?”
Absolutely not, Wilson insisted.
Inevitably, then: If he had it to do it over again, knowing what he does now, would the former governor still support Proposition 187 and assume such an upfront, personally defining role in promoting its passage?
Yes, he replied, without hesitation.
Leadership “means doing the things that you, in your heart, know need to be done,” he said. “It means making people unhappy. It means making them enemies. Not that I enjoy doing that. But I’m not going to shrink from combat if, to avoid it, you’ve got to avoid doing what you know to be needed.”
Otherwise, Wilson said, “Why the hell run for office?”