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Wilson Urges Caring Adults to Mentor At-Risk Youths

Speech: Governor tells conference that role models can help cure social ills. He defends prenatal aid cutoff for illegal immigrants.

November 15, 1996|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Opening a new assault on the state's social concerns, Gov. Pete Wilson on Thursday called on Californians to lend their time as mentors to children in dysfunctional families and thus provide what he called "the cure for the social pathologies that threaten to destroy us from within."

Before 7,000 women gathered at a networking conference that he started five years ago, the governor said the influence of adult role models would be a gift "more precious than money."

"If you can spare even an hour, an hour or two each week, I urge you to become a mentor to a young boy or girl," Wilson told the audience at the Long Beach Convention Center. "It will provide you the greatest return on investment that you will ever know."

Wilson said the absence of a caring adult in the lives of many of California's children is the most widespread and crippling learning disability they face. Although the state did not have the money to help needy children five years ago, he said, it can now afford to back up its inclinations with dollars.

Last spring, Wilson announced the formation of a $10.6-million California Mentor Initiative that would recruit 250,000 role models for at-risk youngsters by 2000. So far, hundreds of willing adults have been approved as mentors and others are awaiting background checks.

Wilson will also appeal for mentors in a television ad that is scheduled to begin appearing next week, a senior aide said. That ad is part of a larger, $13-million television effort to encourage youngsters to abstain from sexual intercourse and stay in school.

The renewed emphasis on themes like those on which Wilson first ran for governor in 1990--when he referred to himself as a "compassionate conservative"--comes as he is under fire in some circles for his moves to curtail state aid for illegal immigrants and their children.

After his speech Thursday, Wilson defended the impending cutoff of state-paid prenatal care for illegal immigrants. He emphasized that the cutoff is required by the welfare reform bill that President Clinton signed into law. And the governor took pains to distinguish his views on subsidized care for illegal immigrants and legal California residents.

"Prenatal care is not the issue," Wilson told reporters. "No one has been more of an advocate for prenatal care than I have. The problem is that charity begins at home and if we're going to spend $70 million providing additional prenatal care, it ought to be to working poor legal residents of California."

Health care advocates who believe otherwise, the governor added, are being "generous with other people's money."

Wilson's appeal for mentors came during his remarks at the fifth annual "Call to Action" conference. Started by Wilson at the beginning of his first gubernatorial term, the conference has become the largest women's networking event in the country.

Organizers this year had to turn away 5,000 women from the daylong sessions, which were filled to capacity with 7,000 attendees.

The event is decidedly nonpartisan, despite Wilson's founding role. In keeping with that fact, the governor did not discuss last week's election except for an elliptical comment apparently referring to criticism of his support for Proposition 209. That initiative, which was handily approved by California voters, outlawed the use of gender or racial preferences in state government contracting, employment and university admissions.

"Life is a competition, but we are all entitled to fair competition," Wilson said. "Those of us who can, have a duty to ensure that it is fair."

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