Pledging "strong and unflinching leadership" to fight crime and create jobs, Gov. Pete Wilson on Tuesday formally opened his bid for a second term as California's chief executive and said it would be the last campaign of his long political career.
With stops in Fontana, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, Wilson began a two-day campaign tour with an upbeat message of optimism for a state that throughout his first term has suffered from economic recession, natural and man-made disasters and a rising fear of violent crime.
"I think this state has a magnificent future," Wilson said. "I came to this office at a time when it was particularly challenging. Having been through the hard times, I would like to have the opportunity to lead California in good times."
To get that chance, Wilson, who has only token opposition in the Republican primary, will have to defeat one of three Democrats who are vying for the right to face him in the fall: Treasurer Kathleen Brown, Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and state Sen. Tom Hayden.
Wilson begins the campaign behind in the polls. A year ago, public opinion surveys gave him the lowest ratings of any governor in 30 years and showed him losing badly to his major Democratic challengers. He has rebounded in recent months with vigorous attacks on illegal immigration and street crime.
Already, Wilson has established himself as one of the most durable politicians in the state's history. He was elected three times to the Legislature, served three terms as mayor of San Diego and won two elections to the U.S. Senate. He left the Senate in the middle of his second term when he won the election for governor in 1990.
A former Marine, Wilson has forged a career as a tenacious legislator and government executive as well as a relentless campaigner. The touchstones of his past campaigns have been support for business and advocacy of stricter treatment of violent criminals, elements that were on display Tuesday.
Praising Westminster's pioneering anti-gang program and flanked by Orange County's leading law enforcers, Wilson, 60, kicked off his reelection campaign here after stops in Fontana and Los Angeles.
Riding high on his Monday signing of the "three strikes" sentencing law, Wilson recited a litany of his anti-crime measures and commitments over the years in front a crowd of about 100 supporters outside the Westminster police station.
Orange County Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi, Sheriff Brad Gates and five police chiefs were among those who crowded next to Wilson on the small outdoor stage.
"I'm grateful and deeply flattered to have your support and endorsement. You in Orange County are especially well-served by your sheriff and your D.A.," said Wilson, adding that the county has always been key to his success.
"I have always looked to Orange County as a bastion of sound thinking and good government," he said.
Wilson chose Westminster as his Orange County kick-off site in order to laud the city's TARGET program, a multi-agency gang unit funded in part by state seed money that has reduced gang-related crime by 60% over the past two years.
"I think we should spread TARGET throughout the state. It clearly works," Wilson said. Capizzi praised Wilson for supporting TARGET and other programs modeled on it that are now being implemented throughout Orange County, including in Santa Ana and Garden Grove. The programs unite probation officers with city police investigators and a deputy district attorney in a team charged with getting the most dangerous gang leaders off city streets.
"It's not surprising. (Wilson) can spot something that's good and protect public safety and this is no exception," Capizzi said of Wilson's support.
Also present in a show of support was Ky Ngo, chairman of the Vietnamese American Political Action Committee.
"Our main concern now is that he's very anti-crime. I feel the governor's been with this issue for a very long time," Ngo said. "Besides that, he cares about education."
Wilson kicked off the campaign with a low-key rally inside a cavernous warehouse at California Steel Industries, a foreign-owned company on the site of the former Kaiser Steel plant. Wilson said he helped cut through red tape to speed a recent expansion at the factory, which employs about 1,000 people.
Fontana is in the heart of the Inland Empire, home to the kind of swing Democrats once credited with electing Ronald Reagan but who sided with President Clinton in 1992. Wilson strategists say the governor must win back those voters if he hopes to be reelected in November.
Speaking before an early morning audience of about 300 supporters, Wilson offered a job description of the post he has held for three years.
"The governor of California must be many things--a crisis manager when the earth shakes or the forests burn, the chief salesman for California jobs all across the country . . . and a leader of conviction who stands up for what's right no matter who's opposed or what the consequences," he said.