CALIFORNIA Gov. Pete Wilson is trying to seize the initiative on the volatile issue of affirmative action.
By publicly signing an executive order this week to dismantle a wide range of hiring practices in California, Mr. Wilson is jumping out front in the growing national revolt against hiring preferences based on race or gender.
His announcement at a state park in Malibu Thursday could impact everything from the hiring of firefighters to scholarships at universities. It puts the Republican governor -- and likely presidential contender -- on the controversial cusp of an issue that is expected to be important in the 1996 elections. It also puts him sharply at odds with positions he embraced while mayor of San Diego in the 1970s.
''In a party where everyone is pretty much in the same place on the issue of affirmative action, Pete Wilson is sending the message to voters that he is not only willing and courageous enough to do something. He, as a sitting governor, has the power to actually do it,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School.
Wilson signed orders wiping out preferences -- originally adopted by the state's executive government -- for programs as specific as the hiring of 2,000 summer forest firefighters and as far reaching as dictating how goals are established for the employment of new workers in state government jobs.
''Is preferential treatment based on race or gender consistent with the American Dream of equality under the law?'' asked Wilson, in remarks read for him by a surrogate because of his throat surgery. ''Every generation has struggled with that question.... The answer we cannot deny is that it does not.''
Among the actions:
* All state departments will remove incentives for state workers to meet hiring and contracting affirmative-action goals, and they will abolish boards created to advise agencies on diversity issues.
* A program in the California Department of Forestry that has a 50 percent goal for the hiring of women and minorities as seasonal firefighters will be eliminated. Last year, 59 percent of the firefighters hired for the summer were women or minorities.
* The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which is required by agreement with the federal government to spend 20 percent of its major contracting dollars on minority and women-owned businesses, will lower its goal to 10 percent.
''There is a school of thought that believes the 20 percent figure has outlived its usefulness,'' says Jim Drago, spokesman for Caltrans. ''We will adhere to the new thinking. It's as simple as that.''
In a wide-ranging letter to the people of California, Wilson also invoked the words of such Americans as Hubert Humphrey, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote in depth about the history of this country's struggle with affirmative action resulting from ''great societal guilt ... felt in America for the wrongs of past discrimination.
''It was natural to want to redress the just grievance of those whose mere membership in a group subjected them to denial of real opportunity,'' the letter reads. ''But however natural this compensatory urge may have been in the immediate post-discrimination period of the 1960s and 1970s, the validity of the need for such compensation has steadily faded ever since.''
Observers here say the Wilson message is crafted to resonate with his core supporters both in and out of California: white, rural and suburban males. It is also intended to broadcast the image to other states that Wilson, despite his support of abortion rights and gun control, is fundamentally a conservative.
Even before the executive orders were made public, opponents attacked Wilson's motives and argued that the governor, by law, has no power over bigger programs that govern state contracting and university admissions. In a recent press conference, Assemblywoman Marguerite Archie-Hudson (D) of Los Angeles lamented the symbolic impact of Wilson's intentions, which she says will erode the moral authority of diversity programs.
''The harm is really to the state. He's going to pit people against each other,'' Ms. Archie-Hudson said. ''He's going to send a message that the good guys are white and the bad guys are people of color and women.''