Pete Wilson: The Capitol Weekly Interview

The issues on this year’s special election ballot have a familiar ring to them. Many of these ideas – from targeting union dues to teacher qualifications to redistricting, were fights that began, and marked, the administration of Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration.

Like Schwarzenegger, Wilson ran for governor campaign as a candidate to the left of many members of his own party. And though Wilson raised taxes in some early budgets, he is remembered more for his tough stands on crime and issues such as immigration and welfare changes than his pro-choice views.

Like Schwarzenegger, Wilson called a special election in 1993 to deal with state budget issues, though his remedy, unlike the current governor’s plan, contained a half-cent sales tax increase to balance the state’s books. The measure passed, 58-42.

But Wilson had some setbacks at the ballot box as well. During his first term, he lost a fight over a ballot measure that critics said would give the governor unprecedented power over the state budget. Also during that first term, Wilson tangled with Legislative Democrats over redistricting, a fight which eventually led to a group of retired judges drawing the state’s political boundaries in 1991.

In his second term, Wilson took on labor unions’ political clout through Proposition 226, and sponsored Proposition 8 in 1998, which would have placed additional requirements on anyone seeking a teaching credential to teach in public schools. Those measures were defeated after labor unions and the California Teachers Association spend millions to defeat them.

Today Wilson spends his time offering advice to corporate clients in the Los Angeles office of Bingham Consulting Group. He also offers advice, “both solicited and unsolicited,” to Gov. Schwarzenegger.

Capitol Weekly recently caught up with the former governor to talk about his continuing influence in California politics, and his thoughts on next week’s special election.

CW: It seems like we’re dealing with many of the same issues in this election we dealt with during your administration.

I think they are problems that have not gone away. I think that what has happened in the interval is there has been a heightened public awareness that the problems exist. The recall of Governor Davis highlighted how dysfunctional state government was. He got all the blame–if the Legislature had been on the ballot with him I think they would have been recalled faster than him.

And they probably think so too but aren’t concerned because they are all in safe districts. And I think the public has begun to understand that and I think they don’t have a whole lot of affection for the Legislature and, more importantly, a whole lot of respect. They think that people that spend money that they don’t have are irresponsible. And they are right. That’s why the cure was passed so overwhelmingly and I think it is very likely that 75 and 77 will pass.

These [initiatives] are not difficult to understand. And I think 75 will pass because I think people, whether they are public employee union members or not, will see that it is an outrageous practice to take somebody’s money from their check for political purposes without their consent.

CW: Do you think that term limits have exacerbated some of the problems that existed in your administration and continue now?

I think term limits are a mixed blessing. Term limits passed I think largely because people thought that there shouldn’t be an absolute guarantee that you would continue as a legislator to hold your seat indefinitely. I think they felt that people were enjoying senicure and had grow unresponsive. And I think in particular they were concerned that those who had been in leadership positions who had been there for a very long time had too much power and were capable of manipulating the legislative process. And I think that is what caused term limits to pass.

When I say it is a mixed blessing, I think it is. I think some of the grievances that gave rise to it are legitimate but it is also true that if you get rid of someone who has been an expert in a particular field of legislation that you suddenly abruptly lose that expertise and it takes a whole for replacements to get up to speed.

It is true that there is a learning curve and that that probably gives some ability to those who are special interest advocates to enjoy temporarily at least some superior knowledge substantively. Offsetting that though, and I think this was a significant part of the support for term limits, was the feeling that there was too cozy a relationship between the Third House and the legislative leadership. And I think that is pretty hard to argue against.

CW: You are still a presence politically. How do you assess your influence on the administration and what’s your role here in Sacramento?

PW: Well I have maintained a keen interest in what happens in this state. It is my home. It is my children’s home. It is my one grandchild’s home. And I obviously have contact with an number of old friends with whom I enjoyed working who are a part of the new administration. And the governor is an old friend. We have known one another for twenty years or more when he called me one day and said he was thinking of running as a candidate in the recall election and I urged him to do so.

I was involved in his campaign, as you know, and have been involved since as an adviser sometimes giving solicited advice, sometimes giving unsolicited advice. But he feels free to call me and I feel free to call him and it is not a daily or even a weekly occurrence but as I say we both feel free to communicate and the things he has undertaken I think have demonstrated a great deal of courage and boldness on his part. I think he has the opportunity which he has chosen to take to become one of the boldest reformers since Hiram Johnson.

CW: When he was first elected, Gov. Schwarzenegger was seen in the Wilsonian mold of the moderate, who gets to all sides but as he has gone through his admin that has declined. That sense of bipartisan reaching out has declined. What’s your sense of what happened there?

PW: Well I don’t know if it is all that different from my own experience to be honest with you. There may have been a greater expectation in his case that he would be more accommodating. I never had that. I think it was based to some extent on the fact that Maria is part of the Kennedy clan but Arnold is doing many of the things that I did or sought to do. We did a reapportionment reform in 1991. We didn’t put it on the ballot because we were able to do it in court with a reapportionment plan that had been drawn up by a commission that I had appointed–three Democrats, three Republicans, four of whom were appellate justices, retired. And it worked. We won in court. There was a reapportionment. It made a hell of a difference for a decade but it was not permanent which is why he has gone to the ballot in the waked of the gerrymander by Gov. Davis. We certainly are on common ground there. I think there is just an inherent conflict of interest when legislators draw their own district lines.

CW: The leadership in both parties don’t want to upset the applecart. Both John Doolittle and Howard Berman…

PW: Who says John Doolittle a leader? He is the one member of the congress in the 1991 reapportionment who appeared in Sacramento arguing not publicly, but privately, I think, to legislators, that they should defeat the reapportionment reform that we had brought forward.

CW: There is a lot of bipartisan consensus that some sort of structural reform needs to take place. How do those reforms depend on what happens on Tuesday?

PW: I think that ultimately–and I hope it is Tuesday–we are going to see not just the reforms in terms of reapportionment and in terms of paycheck protection and a number of other things. Those are fundamental and I think ultimately they are going to happen because the public will become
increasingly resentful of a dysfunctional legislature and of public employee unions that in too many cases have used the power they gained financially from the checkout that allows them to take people’s money without their consent and I think there will be a real rebellion.

You have seen in other states when paycheck protection has been enacted and the financial participation by members of the teacher’s union in those states have fallen dramatically.

CW: When you did the recession budget you were forced to cut and to tax. Is it politically viable the Schwarzengger now to do the same thing?

PW: He has limited powers and that is exactly what 76 is all about. Once again, he is attempting that I attempted to do. It is not dissimilar to the ballot measure that we had on in the 1992 election. It was welfare reform and budget and we managed to make it single subject.

CW: You got worked over pretty good for trying to do a power grab.

PW: Oh yeah, and that’s the same argument that you hear now. It’s also the answer to your question. What do you do to deal with a structural deficit that is created by statues which have been adopted separately at different times all of which create a priority for their particular recipients.

I knew when I took office that I had to cut $7 billion in spending. What I didn’t know but suspected was that it was going to get worse and it did. It doubled from January to July. And the Democrats said we thought you were way out of line and now we see that you weren’t and now we are willing to meet you halfway. The Republicans in the Assembly and I think in the Senate as well, were unwilling to make further cuts because the further cuts would have been made in education ad I think they were terrified of the teacher’s union.

When I spoke to them I said if you don’t want a tax increase there will have to be further spending cuts and when I asked who would be willing to support a motion to suspend Proposition 98, among this caucus full of born-again tax-fighters, Prop 13 babies, one hand went up.

CW: McClintock?

PW: No

CW: Not a bad guess though.

PW: Not a good one either.

CW: Fair enough

PW: The point is there does have to be a mechanism–and I think 76 provides for a very reasonable procedure because it gives the Legislature the opportunity to make the curative cuts in a rational way that will distribute them fairly. And only in the event of their default does the alternative come into the play that the governor can do so unilaterally without their approval.

CW: What is the spillover from a hard-fought ballot initiative campaign like this? There was certainly one in 94, but that accompanied your landslide reelection. What happens on November 9th in terms of the tenor and the tone of how this gets done in Sacramento?

PW: Well, I think that however bruised people’s feelings might be, they have to get over it. They have to do their job. You point out that in the 94 election we had a spirited contest, but when it was over I had four more budgets to do. We were actually on time for one. We passed balanced budgets all four years because even then the constitution even then required explicitly that the governor submit a budget in which expenditures and revenues are in balance. I simply insisted upon it. They knew from the first term that I was not going to change. We undertook many of the things the governor is doing now. He has put on one ballot many of the things that I put on several.

Not when you’re outspent 10 to one with a saturation campaign that sets out to deliberately sets out to mislead and deceive the public, as was the campaign against paycheck protection in 1998, when they ran two television spots, one of which told the public that if they supported Proposition 226 it would prevent union members from making a voluntary contribution to the charity of their choice. The second lie was even more outrageous, when they told the public that if they supported 226 it would compel the public disclosure of police officers home addresses, thereby putting them and their families in jeopardy, which was not only a flat falsehood but doing so was under existing state law a felony, and 226 did nothing whatever to change that.

CW: Governor, should Governor Schwarzenegger have responded earlier in the year? One of the issues that has come up is that in April and May, he did not respond aggressive to the attacks, the ads that were out there from the teachers unions and others about these issues. Isn’t it basic campaign strategy that you need to respond when you’re attacked? There was a hiatus here of weeks when nothing happened and that seems to still be playing out now. He’s down in the polls. How do you think his strategy worked for him or against him during that period.

PW: Well, I think that he knew that he was going to be terribly outspent in the special election campaign, so he had to make a tactical decision whether or not to respond then of instead husband his fiscal resources and wait until he could see the whites of their eyes in the fall. You can criticize either decision, but I happen to think he was probably right. He knew that he would suffer some damage, as certainly I did. I was trashed by the teachers union in my first term.

CW: Only in the first? I seem to remember some in the second.

PW: Well, in the second, they didn’t have the same opportunity. I wasn’t running for reelection. And they did oppose Proposition 8, which appeared on the 98 ballot. But again, they knew we didn’t have much in the way of resources to respond, so I think they didn’t have to make too much of an effort. They could clearly outspend us, and did so.

CW: Near we are going to have a gubernatorial election. Does doing you day job become complicated by that political reality?

PW: In an election year? Yeah, I think it does, although it also gives the governor some leverage. He is a candidate himself. But so are the people who are providing the obstacles to gaining closure on the budget. And they are, I think, willing to be obstructionist only for so long until suddenly it occurs to them that they may be undermining their own support. I think you see the same thing at the federal level, and it’s true regardless of which party is in power in the White House if the opposite party is in power in the Congress. There is only so much courage, it seems, when people are facing election.

CW: Is initiative the proper way to do this?

PW: The initiative process is also a mixed bag. It’s right to have it, I think Hiram Johnson in bringing recall, referendum and the initiative process to California was absolutely correct. It is a remedy for legislative default and it is a remedy for legislative malfeasance. And it can be abused and has been by people of different philosophies, and money is sadly much too important. That’s the chief problem with the initiative process, and we’ve certainly seen that there are people who are relying on the superiority of their financial resources and have been guilty of blatantly unethical and misleading tactics, and sometimes they succeed. Fortunately not always.

CW: Do you think that there is an awareness among voters about ballot box budgeting, and that voters may begin rejecting some of these initiatives, even to fund popular programs?

PW: I think so, and I hope so. I think that there are priorities in the minds of voters. I think if you look at how the state government has spend their tax dollars over the period of many, many years, well before Proposition 98, the lion’s share has always gone to education. The public and most of the people who represent them in the Legislature agree that it is a very needed and worthwhile investment. And that’s still true. And it would be with or without 98.

There is a great deal more criticism of the quality they are purchasing, but not of the need for education as a primary value and primary asset that California must ha
ve to produce good citizens and a competitive economy. But you can’t make everything a priority without having a tax increase and I think people will understand that. Certainly they should.

The problem is that these things appear on the ballot one by one. And when the appeal is made, and there isn’t a clear understanding by the people who are voting on an issue that it is one of many guaranteed demands on the state treasury, then they make the mistake of not thinking as hard as they should about what the total tax bill is going to be.

Again, if you have a public employee union, and I’m thinking of the fact that the teachers’ union historically, until the tribal casinos, been the major giver in state elections, you see the people who are dedicated to the growth of government and the growth of budgets urging further growth and further expenditure, then you’ve got a very serious problem. You may not have a fair fight in terms of the ability to conduct the debate publicly.

CW: Do you see this notion of shareholder protection happening next year?

PW: It’s a false analogy. In California, if you want to be a teacher or a public employee of almost any kind, you are essentially required to join the union. It’s not voluntary to be a union member if you are a state employee.

It is entirely voluntary to be a shareholder, and if you don’t like the way the company is being run, or how the management is operating your company, you can sell the shares right now. So, that’s a fundamental difference.

If you’re looking for an analogy as the opponents of 75 have been, then compare what would happen what would happen to private sector employers if they tried to do the same thing to their employees that the public employee unions do with their members. They have essentially obtained the permission to take money out of the paychecks of public employee union members. If a private-sector employer sought to do the same thing to build up a massive political warchest like that of the teachers union, they would be guilty of violating the law and they would go to jail.

CW: So, what’s in the future for you politically?

PW: I give some advice pro-bono and give as much as I can not-pro-bono to private sector clients. But politically, I will probably still be giving it away to a favorite few, and continue to be a pain in the butt to a great many.

[Running for mayor of San Diego again] was one political opportunity that has been offered but I had commitments that would not permit me to accept that.

CW: Does that mean your wife would kill you?

PW: Something like that.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: