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At 70, Pete Wilson Can Still Draw a Crowd

August 24, 2003|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Former Gov. Pete Wilson, relaxed and wearing his favorite bright green blazer, surveyed the crowd of 200 former aides and supporters gathered to fete him on his 70th birthday and recalled the famous words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

" 'Old soldiers never die; they just fade away,' " Wilson said. "Great speech. Not for me." Wilson is nearly five years out of office, but this former governor seems to have found his future. It's in the campaign to unseat his Democratic successor, Gov. Gray Davis, and install Arnold Schwarzenegger, the weightlifter-turned- actor-turned-candidate.

"I have a new hobby -- and it's my old hobby," Wilson said at the first of two events held Friday and Saturday at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. On both nights, the hotel was filled with ex-Wilson operatives, volunteers and backers, many of whom now are Schwarzenegger operatives, volunteers and backers.

Those events combined Wilson nostalgia with current politics. Saturday's silent auction included a Wilson campaign visor with lights blinking, "Re-Pete." Minimum bid: $25. Another offering was lunch with Wilson and his wife, Gayle. Minimum bid: $250.

Then there was an autographed picture of Wilson and Schwarzenegger, both of them in front of the state Capitol, doing push-ups. Minimum bid: $10,000, with the check to be made out to "Schwarzenegger for Governor."

Sacramento consultant Bob White, Schwarzenegger's campaign manager, was Wilson's chief of staff dating to the governor's days as an assemblyman in the 1960s. White organized the 70th birthday party.

Sacramento public affairs executive Marty Wilson is co-managing Schwarzenegger's campaign. He was a top Wilson political advisor, having forgone law school to work on Wilson's first run for governor in 1977.

Democrats battling the recall are trying to make a campaign issue of Wilson's reemergence, hoping to mobilize voters, particularly union workers and Latinos. An anti-recall poster superimposes Wilson's head atop Schwarzenegger's body, with the words "Hasta la vista, unions."

Democrats are renewing attacks on Wilson for his support of Proposition 187, the voter-approved 1994 initiative that sought to eliminate most government aid for illegal immigrants but was gutted by the courts.

Wilson shrugged off such criticism Saturday: "It tells me they have a very weak case."

Partisan volleys notwithstanding, the former governor left office in 1998 with high approval ratings in polls and bequeathed a multibillion-dollar budget surplus to Davis. He remains the last California Republican to win a major statewide race -- and he did so four times.

"Arnold is a different candidate than Pete. He is certainly his own person in every way," White said. But Schwarzenegger tapped into the former Wilson political team to throw together a campaign in a few short weeks for good reason. "What other group," asked White, "has won four statewide races?"

The Wilson administration has had other reunions. But this time, reminiscing gave way to planning, and trying to re-create a winning formula for a GOP victory.

"Everybody has gone different directions, but they've come back together," said Beverly Hills lawyer Sheldon Sloan, who helped Wilson select federal and state judges. Now Sloan plans to help Schwarzenegger by co-hosting a fund-raiser in September with his son-in-law, actor Jim Belushi. "Everybody is back. I love it."

There were no Schwarzenegger sightings, and the events in Wilson's hometown were, at root, chances to honor Wilson.

On Saturday, about 800 attended a dinner to raise money for a statue of Wilson to be placed near Horton Plaza. It would be part of a display commemorating people who helped develop downtown San Diego.

The rooms where the receptions were held were decorated with Wilson memorabilia, including photos, buttons and posters from his many campaigns, first for the Assembly, then San Diego mayor, and later for U.S. Senate and governor. There weren't obvious references to his ill-fated run for the presidency in 1996.

"How many governors do you know who could turn out this many people who worked for them? Not many," said Lisa Kalustian, a former Wilson spokeswoman who now works for HealthNet. She too plans to volunteer for Schwarzenegger.

Staffers put together a Top 70 list titled "Why we love Pete Wilson." Many were schmaltzy. "Loyalty goes up and down," said one, referring to a view that Wilson's staff was loyal to him because he was loyal to them.

Other messages commented, with affection, on nerdy aspects of the former governor. One observed that it was "hip to be square." Another said Wilson showed guts Friday by wearing that green sport coat.

Alumni who attended included Janice Rogers Brown, a Wilson appointee to the California Supreme Court who recently was nominated by President Bush to the federal bench. Also attending were California Court of Appeal Justice Daniel Kolkey, a state senator, an assemblyman and two Assembly candidates.

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