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Wilson's California Agenda Could Be Recipe for the US

AS Republican Gov. Pete Wilson steps to the podium to deliver his fifth state-of-the-state address today, audiences well beyond the Golden State will sift through the rhetorical pomp and circumstance.

Since 1991, the dour and feisty Mr. Wilson has watched as California has gone through a series of freezes, droughts, floods, fires, earthquakes, recession, riots -- all affecting his political fortunes, for better but usually for worse.

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Yet in November, partly through his own political cunning and a lack thereof by his opponnent, he rebounded from the lowest ratings of any governor in state history to handily defeat Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown. Now Wilson sits on everyone's short list for the 1996 presidential race.

''This [speech] is the beginning of the reading of the presidential tea leaves as they pertain to Pete Wilson,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the Claremont Graduate School.

Beyond Wilson's usual dry analysis of how to keep the California on the road to recovery, and what themes he wants to emphasize in the coming year, analysts will be looking for hints that he is open or closed to a White House bid.

''I don't think even Pete Wilson yet knows if he wants to be President,'' says Rich Zeiger, editor of the California Journal. Wilson insisted before the election he wouldn't run. But last week he conceded he is open to a favorite-son-style draft. Either way, says Zeiger, he has ''far more clout within the state and in Washington because of [the speculation].''

Of course, some of that clout comes with the territory. California's political bounty consists of 54 delegate votes, 20 percent of those needed for a presidential nomination. A March 1996 primary, instead of June, adds to Wilson's influence this time around. And then there's the bonus of hosting the Republican National Convention in 1996 in San Diego. It puts the decision-making process in Wilson's home territory.

''It makes him a more valuable member on the ticket,'' says Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute in Claremont, Calif. ''He's in the best political position of his career.''

That career has run from the California statehouse, to two-terms each as San Diego mayor and US Senator. Beginning today, analysts here will also be looking for clues on how Wilson may define himself ideologically and how that may fit with the more conservative Republican ''revolution'' going in Washington.

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''Until now, there have always been two Pete Wilsons,'' says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, referring to his conservative and moderate impules. ''In his new spotlight, he may have to choose one or the other.''

CONSIDERED a moderate on many issues when he took office in January 1991, Wilson immediately angered conservatives by going along with a tax increase to help close a budget gap. Since then, tension has surfaced between the two sides on a range of issues, from the environment to crime and education. Recently, though, there has been more harmony.

The chumminess has been helped by the rise of several big issues in California -- among them immigration, crime, and welfare reform -- that mirrors a more conservative trend nationally.

Following the Nov. 8 elections, Wilson played a major role in Republican governor dialogues with new House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Wilson was among several govenors leading the call for sweeping reductions of federal intrusion into state programs.

Wilson has been the point man on the issue of immigration, Scott says, which moved forcefully into the national agenda with the passage of a Proposition barring illegals from education and health benefits. Wilson has also lead the charge of five states in suing the federal government for costs incurred in mandated funding for illegals.

Wilson signed the nation's first three-strikes-you're-out bill last year, putting away three-time felons for life. More get-tough crime reforms are expected to be outlined today.

Wilson is also expected to curb affirmative action, taking that issue to national prominence between now and 1996, say analysts. Two bills have already been introduced in the state legislature to eliminate current programs, and Wilson has voiced support, favoring a major reexamination of existing law.

As revealed in today's speech, Wilson's other four main themes echo many of the things Republicans are doing nationally, according to gubernatorial spokesman Sean Walsh: a push for jobs, tax cuts, education reform, and criminal-justice reform.

California has already taken the national lead in welfare reform, setting up programs designed to nudge recipients into the work force. Walsh promises more along the same line. ''You can expect him to talk more about encouraging fundamental, personal responsibility and the work ethic,'' says Walsh.

On taxes, Wilson will likely follow recommendations from his own task force, which proposed last year a three-year, phased-in 15 percent reduction in personal and corporate income tax rates.

Wilson has several liabilities, say analysts, which could keep him from getting his name on the 1996 presidential ticket.

The biggest is his lack of charisma and oratoracal zing. And because he has always been a hands-on governor who digs into every detail of governance, Wilson may find he has little time for a traditional campaign. Most analysts don't see him entering the contest early on.

A final deterrent: If he were to win, Wilson would by law hand the reins of state over to Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat. Close aides say that eventuality is an anathema.

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