Back in the early weeks of 1989, it seemed as though U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson had consulted half the state of California about whether to run for governor. But Gayle Wilson still was not sure if her husband would make the biggest move of his political career.
Finally one night at the dinner table, she told Wilson that if he decided not to run for governor because he feared she might object, he would regret it and resent her for the rest of his life.
"If you want to do it, \o7 do it\f7 !" Gayle Wilson told her husband. "And it really was 100% go from there."
Deciding to run for governor is hardly an everyday political decision, but the story is typical of how Pete Wilson goes about collecting information and making decisions. By all accounts, the 57-year-old senator pursues a process that is thorough, wide-ranging, painstaking in detail--and often frustrating to those who know him best.
There is no particular mystery about the process, developed over four years in the California Assembly, 11 years as mayor of San Diego and eight years as the junior U.S. senator from California. Wilson relies heavily on talented and loyal aides--mostly white and male--but also reaches beyond this coterie to a variety of experts. On occasion, even those closest to him are not likely to know which way Wilson will tilt on an issue until he announces his decision.
John G. Davies, a former law school colleague who often is described as Wilson's oldest and closest friend, recalls that he was taken totally by surprise when Wilson decided to seek his first elective office in 1966.
"I was astounded when he told me he was going to run for the Assembly. I had no inkling," said Davies, who received his political education with Wilson in Richard Nixon's 1962 gubernatorial campaign and still counsels the senator on some issues, including helping screen potential nominees for federal judgeships.
But these days, there aren't many surprises when Wilson finally decides an issue, Davies added. "The process is too gradual to contain surprise." With a deep chuckle, almost a guffaw, Davies added, "He never moves fast enough."
Those who have worked closely with Wilson talk about his demands for the facts--all the facts. "He comes not lightly to decisions. Therefore, he does not come lightly to changes," said Robert S. White, the chief of Wilson's 80-member Senate staff who has been with Wilson since 1966.
If he is elected governor on Nov. 6, associates say, there will be no elite "kitchen cabinet" of wealthy California businessmen such as counseled Ronald Reagan, and no eclectic circle of former seminary classmates and alternative-politics gurus who engaged in late-night gab fests with Jerry Brown. Nor would there be the sort of small, mysterious circle--some in Sacramento refer to it as a "black box"--that George Deukmejian seems to draw on for information and advice.
Wilson may touch bases with old chums and a few wealthy advisers--the Irvine Co.'s Donald L. Bren, for example, or San Diego savings and loan executive Gordon C. Luce. But they say he is more likely to call them to chat about local political trends than the nuts-and-bolts decisions of government, turning instead to professionals for expert opinion.
One biographical account of Bren, the reclusive Orange County developer, described him and Wilson as old Marine buddies and claimed that Wilson would not have run for governor without the proper signal from him. If so, that would seem to make Bren a potential power behind the throne.
But Wilson aides insist that Bren has no such influence over Wilson. Wilson said their relationship dates from the unsuccessful 1974 gubernatorial campaign of Republican Houston I. Flournoy. "That's what it is: It's a friendship," Wilson said. He acknowledged that he might discuss a housing or planning issue with the billionaire developer but said he did that with Irvine Co. officials long before Bren took over the firm.
"If there is an inner circle, it's a large one," said Otto Bos, a former newspaper reporter who has served Wilson for 14 years in a variety of roles.
Bos is directing Wilson's campaign against Democrat Dianne Feinstein for governor. Were there a club of Wilson insiders, Bos would be one of its charter members and gatekeepers. So would White and campaign manager George Gorton, who has been Wilson's chief political sidekick since the first race for mayor in 1971 and is in over-all charge of the 1990 election effort. This, in a sense, is Wilson's San Diego clique, those who have been with Wilson for 10 years or longer, going back to his days as mayor and even as a state legislator.
But when it comes to specific issues or problems to be solved, there is a much larger circle of advisers to which Wilson can be expected to turn.