California's Wilson Mired In Politically Muddy Issues

PETE WILSON has always wanted to be governor of California. There have been days lately, though, that the GOP chief executive probably wishes he were back in the US Senate.Conservative members of his own party recently lobbed teabags at him in protest of his support of new taxes. Last week gay-rights activists were pitching oranges - and worse - his way. A recent poll showed Governor Wilson having a higher negative rating than any other recent California governor at this point in his term. This for a man who a few months ago was being touted as the leader of a new kind of "compassionate conservatism" and a presidential prospect in 1996. Has Pete Wilson lost his luster less than a year into office? Not necessarily. But some analysts warn that he hasn't won any friends with recent decisions and that he faces the danger of being perceived as trying to appease conservatives.

Deficit, drought Others believe he has merely had to cope with unprecedented problems, such as drought and an unruly deficit, and has made decisions on a few visible issues for which there was little political gain either way. "I think he is in trouble," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. "Wilson is having to expend a lot of political capital on issues that, unfortunately, don't have a political upside," says Sal Russo, a GOP strategist. The most visible brouhaha has been over the governor's veto of a bill that would have outlawed job discrimination against homosexuals. Gay activists accuse the governor, who has been a supporter of gay rights, of "betrayal," and they have taken to the streets in noisy and sometimes violent demonstrations in several cities. While the window smashing has done little to help their standing - in fact, it has garnered sympathy for the governor - Wilson hasn't escaped the veto unharmed. The governor says the bill would have harmed small businesses and bring lawsuits. He also believes homosexuals are protected under existing law. Yet the moderate Wilson was also under pressure from the right wing of the Republican Party to veto the measure. While the governor says he didn't do it for that reason, as his critics insist, he does run the risk of being perceived as sacrificing principle for politics. "The public is sensitive about caving-in," says Ms. Jeffe. "People are skeptical enough about government and leadership. What this says is that nobody can believe Pete Wilson." Moreover, Wilson appears to have done little to help himself with conservatives. They are still upset over his going along with new taxes and remain at odds with him on various social issues. "All this points up the distance between Wilson and the right wing," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Timber veto There may be more fireworks this week if the governor vetoes a timber-reform bill, as his aides say he will. The measure sharply restricts clear-cutting and other logging practices. It is the product of an arduous compromise worked out in the Legislature between several environmental groups and timber companies. Advocates believe the "landmark" measure could help quell the enduring warfare over old-growth forests. But Wilson aides say the governor prefers his own less-restrictive proposal, which is backed by a different group of logging companies. They fault the Legislature's bill for being inflexible and "sacrificing jobs for conservation." While a veto might boost the governor's standing with business interests, it will do little to endear him to environmental groups that thought the legislative bill was too weak already. Still, more than any single issue, if the governor has problems, it is because of the economy. In the recent California Poll, in which 33 percent of Californians rated Wilson's performance poor, the main reasons cited were his support for $7 billion in tax increases and program cuts. "Pete Wilson inherited a hornet's nest of problems," says pollster Mervin Field. "In normal times, any governor is bound to alienate a few people. But since he has gotten into office, a disproportionate number has been alienated and the numbers are growing every day."

Unwieldy office Nor is the California economy improving. Tax collections are down. The governor and legislature may face another deficit in January. "What he has to do is go out and find things to win on," says Mr. Russo. There is still plenty of time for Wilson to do just that. But these are sobering times. In fact, according to a book soon to be published, when Wilson was deciding to run for governor, one of the considerations was, is California even governable? Mr. Field says: "If Pete Wilson felt that being elected governor in 1990 would put him at mid-field in his drive for the presidency in 1996, he is now standing back at his own goal line."

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