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Gov. Wilson's Not-So-Secret Campaign Weapon : Politics: For the fourth time in their marriage, Gayle Wilson is hard at work trying to 'humanize' her husband to voters--and help feminize his policies.

October 23, 1994|PATT MORRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAKERSFIELD — If, as has been said before, Pete Wilson looks the way California feels--tired, cranky and peevish--then his wife, Gayle, is looking the way California wants to feel: chipper, smiling, glad to be here.

That's also a shorthand assessment for the political job-sharing component of the Wilsons' partnership. In her fourth and possibly last "Wilson for ---" campaign, the state's first lady still believes that one of her best and highest roles is to "humanize" her husband to the vast and querulous California public.

"I think in a lot of ways, when people meet me, they think, 'Well, he can't be so bad,' if they like me," she said. "People" see her as the disarming, warm one while her husband (and how this galls her) comes across as the dour man with negative ratings about as high as his current poll numbers.

This year, as her husband runs against a woman who holds a triple-A rating on women's movement issues, Gayle Wilson--to neutralize his opponent--is cruising the state not only humanizing but helping to feminize her husband's policies.

Not ceding the double-X chromosome vote to Kathleen Brown, Gayle Wilson takes her "I the Gov" enameled pin and her humor and her Junior League chic into the kind of venues--breast cancer fund-raisers, neonatal intensive care units, Women in Science projects--that the wooden Wilson could not hope to crack.

Which brought her to Bakersfield.

At a $25-a-plate fund-raiser lunch--big cookies, small sandwiches--some 300 women gathered at the fairway home of an orthopedic surgeon. In the autumn sun of the Central Valley, some wobbled as their high heels sank into the moss lawn. Gayle Wilson is too practiced for such a mistake; she shakes hands in fail-safe, low-heeled black-on-black spectator pumps.

The woman who introduced her, Kay Meek, made the point clear: "This turnout certainly proves the governor for California's women just happens to be a man."

And Gayle Wilson, with the sheaf of note cards she holds more for security than for necessity, for she has gotten this riff down, obliges with her stump speech, rounding the bases of Wilson policies and putting special emphasis on things of interest to women:

The governor's "one-strike" policy for aggravated rapists and child molesters (applause). Streamlined procedures for new businesses, and the fact that 3 of 10 business owners are women. A few personal touches ("I was never more proud of him than when he gave his clemency statement" deploring the childhood abuse and the adult crimes of executed murderer Robert Alton Harris). And praise for Kathryn M. Werdegar, Wilson's Supreme Court appointee, a "terrific" woman, "a very pretty, feminine woman," and the governor's law school classmate. "He used to like to carry her books until she was No. 1 in the class."

The women laughed ripplingly; this is the kind of bonus you get for your $25, the stuff you can pass along at lunch the next day, the stuff you don't hear in campaign ads.

The Werdegar remarks--the point of a smart woman who is also feminine--also bookend Gayle Wilson, 51, a woman somewhere between the Age of Eisenhower and the Age of Aquarius, a Stanford premed Phi Beta Kappa who got married in her junior year, a Westinghouse science scholar who, as a housewife and mother of two boys, did volunteer work and began a home sewing business.

She married U. S. Sen. Pete Wilson in 1983, the second marriage for both. And she is still a volunteer, with one cause.

She arrived here in the morning, a trifle late after a queasy flight from Sacramento in a private plane. "This actually isn't too bad," the pilot remarked; "Easy for you to say," she answered.

A not-new light blue Ford ferried her to Kern Medical Center, to tie in the beginning of National Child Health Month to the work of BabyCal, the state's program to combat low birth-weight babies.

In the new, softly lit neonatal ICU, Wilson put on about her thousandth white surgical gown for about her thousandth tour. The first, as a senator's wife, was at Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center, and she could see on her escort's face, " 'Oh God, we've got another politician's wife coming through here,' until she realized that I not only had a true interest but some background."

The couples and babies she stopped to talk with at Kern Medical Center were black, like Janice Pierce and Clarence Stubbs, finally able to hold--even let the governor's wife hold--their 30-week-old daughter Shasta (named for the soft drink, they said, not the California peak).

And most of the people waiting in the auditorium for Wilson's remarks about BabyCal were African American women and their infants, targets of this year's BabyCal programs.

Not until a young Latino doctor, Augustine Munoz, asked: "What is Proposition 187 going to do to this program?" did the sometimes unhappy conflict of policy and politics arise.

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