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Wilson and Prop. 187 Win : Senate Race Close; GOP Controls Congress : Governor: Trailing a year ago, incumbent rides a tide of voter frustration to a dramatic comeback. The victory thrusts him into the ranks of contenders for the White House.

November 09, 1994|BILL STALL and CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITERS

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson rolled to a landslide victory over Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown on Tuesday to complete one of the most dramatic comebacks in California political history, one that thrust him firmly into the ranks of possible Republican contenders for the White House in 1996.

Wilson, 61, rode to a second four-year term on a tide of voter frustration, coupled with anger over crime and illegal immigration.

He was joined in victory by a surprising number of GOP candidates, for as returns came in, Republicans realized their hopes for their biggest victory since the Ronald Reagan-led housecleaning of 1966. Republican candidates apparently won at least four state wide offices--double the number they took in 1990--and were strongly challenging in two others. The party was threatening to take working control of the Assembly for the first time since 1970.

Also sweeping to victory Tuesday was Proposition 187, the emotion-sparking ballot initiative that cuts off free social benefits and education to illegal immigrants. Wilson and other Republicans had made Proposition 187 the centerpiece of their campaigns down the final stretch in October.

Democrats still had hopes of holding on to the seat of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was struggling against the national Republican tide and the nearly $30 million in personal fortune thrown at her by first-term Republican Rep. Mike Huffington of Santa Barbara.

In accepting victory, Wilson said to supporters at the Doubletree Hotel at Los Angeles International Airport: "What you have won today is a victory--a victory for working Californians, those who work hard, play by the rules, pay their taxes, raise their children to obey the law, and respect themselves and others."

Brown, the 49-year-old incumbent state treasurer, conceded at 10:12 p.m., barely two hours after the polls closed. Surrounded by friends, political allies and her family, Brown told a subdued Democratic crowd at the Biltmore Hotel:

"Today, the voters of California have determined that Gov. Wilson, not I, should be for the next four years what Adlai Stevenson once called the instrument of their will."

Giving what observers said was one of her best speeches, Brown added: "As the instrument of that will, I hope and pray that having won the battle of tactics, he will now use his victory to help rebuild California."

Brown, who will leave office the first week in January, pledged to do what she could to help Wilson "chart California through this difficult passage in our history."

Although Wilson did not mention Brown in his public speech, aides said the two chatted on the telephone for five minutes before her concession. Although they had argued bitterly during the campaign, the phone conversation was described as civil.

The governor went on television a few minutes after Brown finished her speech.

Wilson seemed to make a particular effort in his speech to calm tensions spilling over from the emotional campaign over Proposition 187.

"What people need to understand is that this issue was never about race or racism," he said. "To the contrary, Californians of every race and color and creed voted not just to send a message, but they voted for fairness and for the rule of law. . . . This nation-state is a state of legal immigrants, and proud of it."

Just one year ago, Wilson labored along as one of the most unpopular governors in modern California history, hobbled by recession and a massive tax increase, and forced to read in the media about his impending political doom.

At that time, Brown was a well-financed media darling, heiress of a Brown family dynasty--her father and brother both had been governor--and was anointed the Democrats' most promising future star. She held a commanding 15-point lead over Wilson in the polls a year ago.

Wilson, however, reversed the poll standings with an unrelenting campaign--one of his trademark seamless, mistake-free efforts--and became the sixth consecutive California governor to seek and win a second term.

Wilson has insisted that he is not interested in national office. But Washington Beltway pundits looked on Wilson's political self-resuscitation with awe and said he must be considered a powerful potential contender for the Republican presidential nomination in two years.

Wilson's career began in the banner GOP year of 1966 when he won a seat in the state Assembly and Reagan defeated Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr.'s bid for a third term. Wilson now has beaten two out of the three Brown politicians. He defeated former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., Kathleen Brown's brother, for the U.S. Senate in 1982.

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