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Pete Wilson Gets to Show Popular Side


SACRAMENTO — A relaxed Gov. Pete Wilson stood before a packed news conference Wednesday and proudly talked of plans to spread billions around the state like some Johnny Appleseed. He wants to spend the money for good deeds, mostly helping children.

Pols and pundits are speculating about a "new" Wilson--softer, if not quite warm and fuzzy.

Six years ago, a tense Wilson stood at the same Capitol podium and proposed a hefty $7-billion tax increase. He also advocated big cuts in spending for schools and welfare moms. The next year he added huge hikes in university tuitions and confiscated billions from local governments.

Same guy, different times. A new economic reality.

Like many Californians, Wilson has gone from victim to beneficiary of his times. First there were the hard times--for workers, businesses and government treasuries. Between mid-1990 and mid-1993, an estimated 730,000 jobs were lost in California. Two-thirds disappeared in Los Angeles County.

These are boom times. One million jobs have been created since the recession depths, 374,000 in the last 12 months. Tax revenues are pouring into the state treasury. It's estimated there'll be an extra $2.3 billion to spend over a two-year period.

One can only surmise what Wilson's image would be today if he had been elected at the beginning of boom times instead of bad. He would not have been forced to play the roles of a tax-hungry Caesar or a money-grubbing Scrooge. Most likely, he would not have been so widely depicted as "heartless" and "mean-spirited."


Leadership is tested in the face of true crisis. And I've always thought that Wilson's most statesman-like act--in contrast to some clever political ploy--was that gargantuan tax increase during his first year in office.

The new governor was confronted by a $14.3-billion budget deficit, representing one-third of the state's general fund. He proposed the tax hike promptly without feigning resistance and took full responsibility.

"People deserve better than the usual budget gamesmanship," Wilson told reporters that day six years ago. "They deserve a solution--not protracted negotiation, horse trading and jockeying for partisan advantage."

As Wilson remarked to me recently, however: "Raising taxes is never a way to drive up your popularity."

He was pummeled by Republican conservatives. They never had trusted the man anyway because of his support for abortion rights. Across the state, Wilson's popularity plummeted. It hit bottom after the summer of 1992, when he tried to win back conservatives by being bullheaded on the budget. That's when Californians saw petty gamesmanship by both sides during two months of embarrassing IOUs and gridlock.

But what if the recession had been mild, instead of the worst since the Great Depression? What kind of governor would Wilson have been? It's instructive to look back at his first State of the State address in January 1991.

Wilson proposed a long list of "preventive" programs to "give increasing attention and resources to the conditions that shape children's lives."

The governor advocated a "healthy start" program to integrate health and social services with schools, prenatal care insurance for poor women, mental health counseling in elementary grades, expansion of Head Start, adult mentoring of troubled youths, treatment of drug-abusing pregnant women, big funding increases for family planning . . .

But the price tag was around $200 million. And as the governor soon learned, there was little money.


Not that Wilson still wouldn't have cut welfare or campaigned hard for Proposition 187 to deny public services to illegal immigrants.

Wilson believes--as President Clinton apparently did when he signed the welfare reform bill--that people need an incentive to get off the dole and go to work. With high cash grants and other benefits, the governor asserts, it would have been "irrational" for a mother to leave welfare. Yet, if there had been a full treasury, Wilson says, he would have spent more for child care and to help recipients find a job--as he now proposes.

The governor also says he would have reduced class sizes earlier. That clearly has been his most popular act.

This is all academic, of course. Wilson is what he is and always has been: An all-elbows fighter who outrages critics and enemies.

But he's also conflicted, with a "compassionate conservative" side that he would have showed more in a healthy economy--the popular side we've been seeing this week.

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