Pete Wilson's Hot-button Issue


Being burnt in effigy is not every politician's idea of a good photo-op. But for California Gov. Pete Wilson, there's no better way to transform a sputtering political campaign into an inexorable force.

In the summer of 1993, the first commercial of his re-election campaign aired. It featured black-and-white images of anti-Wilson demonstrators hurling fruit at the governor and breaking the glass door of the state office building. An announcer declared: "Burned in effigy, pelted at speeches, the Capitol under siege -- his moves to change California have angered many." Then Mr. Wilson appeared on camera: "Change is painful, but when you've made it, you're going to have a much better California."

Fast-forward to the University of California regents' meeting last week. As pro-affirmative action demonstrators burned Mr. Wilson in effigy at the UC San Francisco campus, his political operatives were surely smiling. Maybe even his media handlers were on hand filming future commercials. As a fire needs oxygen, Mr. Wilson's sagging presidential campaign needs the controversy surrounding the regents' historic vote to end UC's affirmative action policies.

Unfortunately for California -- and the UC system -- politicking rarely makes for sound policy-making.

"Don't duck this issue," Mr. Wilson urged. But why the hurry? Why the need to move so quickly after 30 years?

The answer is simple: Mr. Wilson's presidential campaign schedule. Cynically, Mr. Wilson transformed the regents' monthly meeting -- the first he bothered to attend since January 1992 -- into the defining moment of his nearly invisible campaign.

Mr. Wilson's approach -- which might be called the "ready, fire, aim" method -- should come as no surprise. The governor's affirmative action maneuvers are lifted straight from his well-tested political cookbook: Find a submerged issue, flambe until it is burnt, make the unpalatable palatable, then worry about the indigestion later.

Just look up "I," for immigration.

In 1992, according to Los Angeles Times polls, immigration did not even register among the major concerns of California voters. In June, 1993, illegal immigration placed a distant fifth on the issue list in the Los Angeles mayor's race.

Faced with a tough re-election fight, Mr. Wilson's operatives began to conduct focus groups across California to study the electorate. The main discovery: Although immigration did not "pop" as an important issue, most Californians had a troubling personal story or anecdote about illegal immigration. It was the opening Mr. Wilson's political pros needed.

Mr. Wilson began to beat the immigration drums. His theory of politics, as his longtime campaign manager explained, is to pound an issue until it registers. Sure enough, by September, 1993, Mr. Wilson began to get a boost in the polls. By November, 1994, the entire public agenda in California had shifted: Illegal immigration ranked No.1.

But policy-making by electioneering can create havoc. Just look at the wreckage from last year's campaign. Mr. Wilson no doubt knew Proposition 187 would be overturned by the courts. He knew the "three strikes" law would clog the courts and ultimately lead to huge cutbacks in higher education. There were more reasonable alternatives to both "solutions" on the table, but Mr. Wilson dismissed them. He needed gasoline, not logs, for his re-election fire.

Mr. Wilson insists, of course, that charges of political opportunism on affirmative action issue are "bogus."

But why, after five years as governor, did he wait until the summer before his first presidential campaign to jump on the issue? Why, as mayor of San Diego from 1973 to 1981, did he support affirmative-action programs? Why did he oppose allowing the UC system to conduct a detailed study of the consequences of eliminating affirmative action? How did the governor find time, with the state into its third week without a budget, to attend the meeting?

The answer, of course, is that Mr. Wilson needs a jump-start -- now. Affirmative action certainly requires an overhaul, but long after the polls have closed in November 1996, the UC system, and its 162,000 students, will be dealing with Mr. Wilson's hasty remedy.

But for now, Mr. Wilson is content to start fires. "These kinds of things are defining opportunities for Pete Wilson," campaign chairman Craig Fuller said the other day of the regents' vote. "You don't get too many of those in campaigns, so we hope that it goes well."

As a defining moment for Mr. Wilson, the regents' vote and accompanying protest could not have gone better. But as for the future of California and the next generation, his political opportunism trivialized the historic importance of the debate and the decision.

Ben Sherwood is writing a book on race, ethnicity and politics, to be published by Basic Books. He was issues director for Kathleen Brown's California gubernatorial campaign.

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