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Pete's second coming

The GOP Dumped Ex-Gov. Wilson After Prop. 187 Cost the Party Latino Votes. Then Arnold Flexed His Muscles.

May 09, 2004|Fred Dickey | Fred Dickey last wrote for the magazine about former Gov. Gray Davis' handling of environmental issues at Indian casinos.

California's forgotten governor drapes his plaid-trousered legs into a chair and, with dry humor, recalls his five years in political exile. He walked the streets unnoticed, shopped at Ralphs, waited in line at the gas station, all without security. Who needs it when you're just another guy? Occasionally, he says, someone would recognize him. "I know you," they would say. "You're the anchor on Channel 7."

Such was the obscure life of Pete Wilson. The man who is among the most successful politicians in California history was forced into the shadows after his second term ended in 1999 for having the temerity to support a state illegal-immigration proposition, 187. Voters approved it by a 59% majority, but in the strange ways of politics, Wilson became a liability. Even his own party wanted nothing to do with him, passing him over as a delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention. It was "a hard slap," says Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan newsletter "The Cook Political Report." "It doesn't get a lot worse than that. It tells you how far he fell."

Then one day last summer, Wilson's phone rang. It was an actor friend, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The deadline to file as a candidate in the recall election of Gov. Gray Davis was just a few days away. Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, wanted to talk. Wilson drove from his condo in Century City to Schwarzenegger's mansion in Brentwood. Wilson recalls the conversation. "I told him, 'I have no doubts about your abilities as a campaigner. I think you have the greatest natural gifts I've ever seen. You love it, and you're good. But you've got to ask yourself, "Do I want to do this enough to make that kind of dramatic change in my life?" Think about it over the weekend.'

"I left assuming I'd talked him out of it."

He hadn't, and thus Pete Wilson was about to be reborn. Thanks largely to Schwarzenegger's victory and his continuing reliance on Wilson as an advisor, the former governor is now "in" again. Republicans can relax and put his picture back on the wall. This August, Wilson will occupy prime real estate at the Republican National Convention. Many of his former aides now work for Schwarzenegger. And the man who fell from grace is willing to talk about it, as he did in a series of interviews for this article.

pete wilson at 70 is still marine corps slim, and he settles himself easi- ly in a chair in the park-like surroundings of his home. He says he can still fit in the Marine infantry officer uniform he wore in the late 1950s, and the command presence is there. He is dressed in muted plaid slacks of a certain period, a blue blazer and open button-down shirt. His words have a faint rasp that might be a carry-over from the throat ailment that ended his 1996 presidential run. His humor is robust with a barracks flavor, and too dry to sell well on TV, the kind that leads to chuckles, not guffaws. Asked his middle name, he says "Barton," then adds, "I never use it, though. Hell, I spent a couple of million dollars trying to get just plain Pete known."

The Pete Wilson given to us by the media was a Mr. Bland Man. He certainly gave off the vibes of a company accountant who knows how you cheated on your expense account. But when you get to observe Wilson closely, the man who emerges is a determined, tough-minded guy who doesn't hesitate. If you don't know where he stands on an issue, you haven't asked him. Dan Walters, the Sacramento Bee columnist who followed him for years, says he had the intensity of a "junkyard dog" as he patrolled his political fences. He likes to be in charge. Asked if he prefers the title "senator" or "governor," he says the latter, "because I liked the job more."

No one seems to begrudge Wilson bragging rights about his accomplishments as a crime-fighting, decisive governor who raised taxes to meet the shortfall caused by the 1991 recession. But if you ask him what he remembers most fondly, he recites a list of programs intended to allay the consequences of teenage pregnancy and juvenile delinquency.

He illustrates his concern for kids by using an earthy anecdote from the time he was working his way through law school by parking cars at the Golden Gate Fields race track near Berkeley. "This guy drove in and was going to leave two kids in the car for probably hours while he went into the races. I told him, 'Mister, either you drive those kids out of here, or I'm going to knock your ass out of here.' "

Wilson would prefer to live in San Diego, where he is regarded as something of a squire from his years serving as mayor of that city, but business interests in banking, consulting and law make L.A. more convenient. He's finally positioned to make some serious dollars, but he remains wedded to politics, his chosen labor for 40 years, even as time has exiled him to that Elba of politics where there are no more elections to win and no more legislatures to outsmart.

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