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Wilson Sends a Message With a 'Long Punch'

August 23, 1993|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson summoned key advisers to his office the other day to elicit their thoughts on a public message he wanted to convey.

What if, the governor asked, he responded to Democratic Party criticism of his immigration proposals by saying: "They can kiss my rear end if they can leap that high from the low road where they are dwelling."

Not exactly gubernatorial discourse, some aides counseled. Besides, it would violate the political axiom against an elected official lowering himself to do battle with mere staffers.

One dissenter from this timidity--or good sense, some would argue--was communications director Dan Schnur. For two years, Schnur had hungered for, fantasized about sound bites that might make the governor more attractive to TV news editors. There had been few, and certainly none as irresistible as kiss my rear end. Schnur urged Wilson to use even stronger language and include, as he later characterized it, "hand gestures."

The governor stuck with his original idea, deciding to insert the line into the opening statement of a news conference last week. He was angry about the political attacks of Democratic officials--and also at what he regarded as some mean-spirited newspaper commentary. Critics should argue his proposals on their merits, he contended, and not merely dismiss them as a transparent attempt to seduce voters.

Proclaiming kiss my rear end was his way of making that point and assuring it would be noticed. And, anyway, this was not alien language for the former Marine Corps combat officer, at least in private. It just didn't usually slip out in public.

"I'm not sure I would have recommended it," says one adviser, who missed Wilson's strategy session. "But my visceral reaction when I heard he'd said it was, 'Good for Pete.' "


There was the predictable hue and cry-- undistinguished for a governor, etc. But, in all likelihood, Wilson helped himself politically.

One of this governor's biggest handicaps--and one reason he has sunk so low in the polls and is an underdog for reelection in 1994--is an inability to relate to average people. He comes across as stilted, stuffy and starched. But in telling his adversaries to kiss my rear , Wilson revealed a human side and exhibited a normal reaction guaranteed to connect with ordinary folk.

"It also demonstrates fortitude," says one veteran GOP strategist. "And it is Pete Wilson. That's the reason I've never ruled him out (for reelection). He knows how to throw the long punch. It signals he's not going to be rolled by anyone."

Wilson threw "the long punch" two weeks ago when he offered his far-reaching proposals--critics called them far-fetched--to control illegal immigration. In an open letter to President Clinton "on behalf of the people of California," the governor declared that California is "under siege" from illegal immigrants. It was an assertion, indeed, that most Californians seem to concur in, according to subsequent polls.

Virtually everything Wilson suggested would require federal action and is beyond Sacramento's authority to impose--denying education and health care for illegal immigrants, refusing citizenship for their children, creating tamper-proof ID cards, and linking the North American Free Trade Agreement to Mexican help in controlling the border.

And, aside from pounding on Clinton to provide more federal funds for the care of illegal immigrants, Wilson was tardy in joining the debate. Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer jumped out front months ago.

Wilson answers these criticisms by saying he now is trying to refocus the national debate away from border interdiction--which he is skeptical about--and onto eliminating incentives for emigrating illegally. (Democrats counter that the No. 1 incentive is jobs and he has not proposed stronger enforcement of laws against hiring illegals.) And he leaped on the issue late, the governor says, because earlier he was tied up on the budget.


But no politician supports illegal immigration. So what's the issue?

For many voters, one issue is whether they have anything in common with--or any confidence in--the governor they elected three years ago. And here is a hot subject on which they and he agree: California is spending too many scarce tax dollars on people living in the state illegally and something ought to be done about it.

Just what that something is they'll leave to the politicians. Meanwhile, Wilson has moved up in the polls. He finally has an issue that is working for him politically.

And that is a pretty good present on today, his 60th birthday.

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