The Race for Governor
Can Pete Wilson be California's "Comeback Kid"?
In all of the turmoil that has accompanied the 1994 race for
governor, Pete Wilson and Kathleen Brown share one dirty little secret.
Both the incumbent Republican governor and the Democratic state treasurer
trying to unseat him fail a basic test of human sensibility. Each has a
defect in his or her judgment so basic as to call into question whether
either is a sensible choice to lead the state into the 21st Century.
They both actually want the job.
Sure, being governor carries perks, among them a good salary,
generous benefits, a nice office (several, in fact), a large staff and
lots of power. All your letters to the editor get printed and you can
hire people who bullied you in school and boss them around. On the other
hand, the next governor of California carries an awesome, almost
crushing burden. He or she must lead a state that has run out of luck,
time and easy answers. There is ample reason to question the sense, if
not the sanity, of any two people who actually covet such a no-win
While California's ponderous challenges have been decades in the
making, much of the pessimism Californians feel about themselves and
their state has developed during the decade of the 1990s. That would
seem to be a big problem for Peter Barton Wilson, the beleaguered
incumbent seeking another four years in office. Certainly Californians
are far from enamored with the way he's handled things to date,
repeatedly giving him approval ratings among the lowest ever recorded
for a state chief executive. And yet, with less than two months to go
before election day, Wilson stands at least an even chance of winning,
pulling ahead of challenger Kathleen Brown among likely voters in
several statewide surveys.
"I've had a strategic role in two campaigns where Pete Wilson beat my
candidate," says Democratic political consultant Darry Sragow. "This guy
knows how to win elections."
Things looked a whole lot different in the spring of 1993, when Brown
held a lead of more than 20 points over Wilson in the statewide Field
Poll. California's economy was in the dumper, despite signs of recovery
elsewhere, and Wilson was still smarting from the fallout stemming from
1992's 64-day budget stalemate. Brown was riding high, thanks to the
"year of the woman" and the family name. "Jerry's brains, and Pat's
political savvy" was the tag, a reference to the positive traits of the
last two Democratic governors, who are her brother and father,
respectively. The national media gushed, brushing off the two white,
males that stood in her way -- Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi in
the Democratic primary, and Wilson in the general.
Brown cleared the first hurdle much as expected. Although he
consistently polled better than Brown in head-to-head match-ups against
Wilson, Garamendi fell victim to another kind of arithmetic: The kind
with dollar signs attached. Brown outspent Garamendi by about
three-to-one, having socked away millions in contributions during the
heady days of 1993, when she looked like such a shoo-in. Garamendi tried
to hit Brown on her most vulnerable political stance, her opposition to
capital punishment, and he tried to hit her for being too closely allied
to old-line political interests. It didn't work. Late-entering state
Senator Tom Hayden was supposed to soak liberal votes away from Brown,
but when the final vote was tallied, Garamendi lost by about the same
margin as he had trailed Brown for almost a full year prior to the
While Brown was rolling over the Democratic competition, she was
simultaneously losing ground to Wilson. A tentative, front-runner
strategy in the primary, coupled with some embarrassing campaign
missteps, kept Brown from catching fire even among Democrats. Exit
polling conducted by the Los Angeles Times after the primary showed
nearly a third of Garamendi voters indicating they'd switch to Wilson,
most giving as their reason Brown's personal stand against the death
penalty. By mid-summer, private surveys, including some conducted by
Democrats, showed Brown trailing among the coveted collection of likely
voters by anywhere from three to eleven points. A mid-September Times
poll showed Wilson leading by 9 percent among likely voters -- 50
percent to 41 percent -- and she had lost ground among crucial swing
voters: moderates, independents and the elderly.
"When she had the lead, she took no risks, and didn't establish an
identity for herself," said Joel Kotkin, a Los Angeles-based writer who
briefly advised Brown's campaign. "She didn't solidify her lead at all,
and didn't build support in the political center."
Brown's campaign has been a water-torture of missed opportunities and
unrealized expectations. Brown was criticized for being too much under
the spell of the technicians handling her campaign, particularly veteran
guru Clint Reilly, who spent a lot of time and effort tweaking her
message and image. Brown started out accusing Wilson of bad-mouthing the
state, then in the spring, joined the chorus by proclaiming California
to have "the worst economy in the nation." A promise to provide "a
million new jobs" was derided for actually low-balling most economic job
forecasts. Efforts to neutralize Wilson on the crime issue by attacking
his parole policies had mixed success, and even Reilly conceded in late
July that Democrats were "uncoalesced" behind the candidate whom they
had so recently nominated.
While Brown was stumbling, Wilson was playing to his strength,
jamming his fingers down on the hot buttons of crime and immigration.
Operating with a single, consistent message -- "a tough governor for
tough times" -- Wilson's campaign has effectively parried most of the
Brown camp's thrusts, and those it hasn't parried, it buried. Moreover,
it has been successful, so far, in making the race a referendum not on
Wilson, the most unpopular governor in the history of modern polling,
but on Brown, the unproven challenger.
"They are going to run a nasty, negative campaign because they have
to," says veteran Democratic consultant Duane Garrett. "Wilson can't run
on his record so he has to make Kathleen the issue."
Explaining Brown's free-fall in the polls in these strategic terms
may make for an entertaining bull session among pundits, but it doesn't
tell the whole story. Ultimately, a campaign for governor is about two
people and their vision for the state. The rest of the nation watches
California's descent into uncertainty like fire bugs fascinated with a
three-alarm blaze. Based on the conduct of the campaign to this point,
the weight of evidence suggests that neither Pete Wilson nor Kathleen
Brown have convinced Californians that they know where to point the
hoses to put out the fire.
Talk with Brown about "the vision thing" and you hear a lot about
Wilson. "I want to be governor because this guy's done such a lousy
job," she says. "I don't think he believes governors can make a
difference. [He believes] governors stand back on the sidelines and ...
tinker with the dials, then whine and complain when things aren't going
right, or blame somebody for the problems that we're having." Brown says
Wilson's drumbeat of blame, targeting immigrants, the Legislature and
the Clinton administration is slick and stupid.
"It's like at home with the kids around the dinner table. You've had
a bad day, the kids are driving you crazy, and the dog comes along, and
you kick the dog," Brown says. "That is Pete Wilson's strategy for
governing ... kick the dog."
When speaking of her personal vision for California, Brown echoes
Democratic visions of the past. She recalls the traditions of her
father, Pat Brown, under whose leadership, she says, "people took pride
in being Californians." She speaks of the "John Muir" tradition of
stewardship of resources, and of the husbanding of the state's limited
resources, which came from her brother, Jerry. Her view of "the
California dream" could be lifted right out of a Bill Clinton campaign
"I see [the California dream] as a promise," she says. "A kind of
covenant with the people that if you work hard, and you get a good
education, and you pay your taxes, and you use your imagination, you can
The fact that Brown's own vision seems blurred by the vision of
others has generated reams of punditry about her campaign. Check the
Brown file of any political reporter and you'll likely find it chock
full of ruminations about where to find "the real Kathleen Brown." If
Brown suffers from blurred vision, however, then her opponent could just
as easily be accused of having double vision.
A conversation with Pete Wilson about the future yields a reasonably
convincing, if somewhat long-winded, explanation of the moderate,
pro-active Republicanism for which he has been identified. "The question
isn't whether [California] will change but how it will change," he says.
"I'm convinced it not only doesn't have to deteriorate, but it can have
a brilliant future." Unlike most Republicans, Wilson doesn't idealize
the 1980s. "At the time we had this 'go-go' economy ... we had more
teenage girls becoming pregnant and dropping out of high school, and
tragically not going back," he recalls. Wilson even argues that his
administration's build-up of the criminal justice and corrections
systems is, in effect, a logical outgrowth of his oft-stated goal to
emphasize prevention over remediation.
"If you think to have a healthy California you have to have a
prosperous California, that means you have to be able to generate the
employment base," he says. "You can't get people to keep jobs here, much
less bring them, in a neighborhood that is no longer safe."
If Wilson does, indeed, have a "kinder and gentler" side, however, he
isn't putting it on display in the campaign. The Wilson on parade before
voters is the tough, ex-Marine who gives no quarter to crooks,
immigrants and welfare cheats. He insists in interviews that his attack
on illegal immigration is directed at Congress, and he has "not blamed
the individual immigrants themselves." Yet, it was not members of
Congress shown sneaking across the border in the grainy black-and-white
video that led a Wilson ad on immigration this spring, a spot over which
intoned the ominous words, "They keep coming..."
When discussing his criticism of unfunded federal mandates on
immigration and health care, Wilson is careful to explain that
"President Clinton did not create this problem, he inherited it." Yet,
it is Clinton who is targeted with a letter or, recently, a television
ad -- attacks conveniently timed to coincide with a dip in the
president's approval ratings. Wilson can sound like Clinton himself when
he speaks of "ending welfare as we know it." Yet, the centerpiece of his
1992 welfare-reform initiative was a 25 percent benefit cut that even
one conservative Republican legislator derided as "not tough, just
When given a choice between blurred vision and double-vision,
Californians have historically voted for the candidate who sounded
toughest on crime. That history favors Wilson, a staunch death-penalty
supporter. Although she vehemently insists she will enforce the death
penalty as governor, Brown's personal opposition to capital punishment,
by her own admission, "puts me on the wrong side of a hot political
issue." Wilson, meanwhile, has successfully exploited the issue, even
among Brown's most visible base of support -- women voters.
With her support shrinking among moderates and independents, Brown is
losing voters she will need to beat Wilson, and the only way to get them
back is to find new ones. It is here where Brown must find a message
that resonates with the increasingly large mass of eligible voters who
have opted out of the system. While she feels a lot of "positive energy"
on the campaign trail, that energy hasn't yet translated into waves of
new Democratic registrants. "People tell me they hate Wilson, but then
they ask 'what's this Kathleen Brown all about'?" said one volunteer
working to register new Democrats. "I don't know what to tell them."
To suggest that Wilson is home free, however, is to ignore the
broader landscape of the electorate. Californians have made it clear
they are far from satisfied with Wilson, telling pollsters he's done
little for the economy, education, or really much of anything. Brown's
campaign handlers insist they are positioned to tap into that malaise,
and a speech at a September fund raiser had the sometimes-skeptical
faithful buzzing that she might finally be coming around.
If Brown is able to articulate a reason for Californians to invest
their trust in her, Wilson's weakness could carry her over the top. If
she can't spell out that vision, then California voters will likely
punch their ticket for the incumbent, cross their fingers, and hope for
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