When it comes to the divisive politics played by former Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1990s, Latino activist Enrique Morones pulls no punches-even while suffering bronchitis. Just minutes before hitting the airwaves with his afternoon talk show on KURS-AM late last week, the fiery Morones was explaining-shouting, really-his strident opposition to a private organization's plan to erect a bronze statue of Wilson near Horton Plaza downtown honoring his widely acclaimed days as San Diego's boy-wonder mayor.
Morones will freely acknowledge Wilson's prowess as the mayor who spearheaded downtown's rebirth from a seedy backwater to arguably San Diego's most successful tourist draw. But folks generally don't refer to Wilson as “Mayor” anymore-more likely it's “Good morning, Governor.” And that's the Wilson era that has Latino leaders like Morones fuming.
“When I see Pete Wilson,” Morones told CityBeat, “the first thing I think of is racism.” He noted that Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa has branded Wilson “the antichrist of the Latino community.”
Morones, letting rip with a painful-sounding cough, continued: “We cannot forget what he did with Proposition 187, how he divided the mainstream community from the Latino community and how he portrayed us like we were from another planet, like aliens!”
But the statue advocates swear they merely intend to honor Wilson the '70s mayor-not Wilson the U.S senator or the governor, a period during which he gained national prominence with his penchant for promoting ultra-conservative notions about illegal immigration and crime-fighting.
Morones doesn't buy the spin. “That's like saying you're going to honor Adolf Hitler just as an artist, or Saddam Hussein because he's got a nice mustache,” he huffed. “You can't separate parts of a person's life like that.”
Any review of Pete Wilson's political life-he's now 70 and a key component of Project Schwarzenegger-inevitably compares the young Wilson (politically astute enough to court environmentalists while cementing powerful downtown relationships) to the leaner, meaner, older Wilson (politically ambitious enough to glom onto political hot potatoes that polarize the public).
Mike Davis, co-author of the book Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, described Wilson, after his 1972 mayoral victory, as “the first [San Diego] mayor in decades who was neither political weakling nor paid henchman.”
Born in Illinois, Wilson grew up the son of an ad executive and eventually graduated from Yale and Berkeley Law School, with a three-year stint as a U.S. Marine thrown in between. Davis wrote that Herb Klein-the former communications director for President Nixon who retired recently as editor in chief of the Copley newspaper empire-“recruited [Wilson] to San Diego, where he was installed in a genteel law partnership with the influential Davies family of Chula Vista (son John would become his closest friend).”
Wilson was regarded as a centrist, a political rarity during the late '60s and early '70s, when hard-ass Goldwater Republicans generally ruled state politics. But Wilson won his first political office in 1962-as a state assemblyman-after outspending his Democratic rival by a margin of seven to one, Davis noted, a testament to Wilson's serious financial backing.
After a five-year run in Sacramento, Wilson was elected mayor of San Diego in 1972, a post he held for 11 years. A key to that initial win, Davis wrote, came in the form of support from the local Democratic leadership, notably the late Hotel del Coronado operator M. Larry Lawrence. “Certainly the endorsements of leading Democrats made it easier for Wilson to reap the university and beach vote,” Davis added.
Wilson had campaigned against the previous mayor's legacy of unchecked growth and out-of-control taxes. He held up the massive Mira Mesa development as an example of bad planning that had saddled the rest of the city with a huge tax bill to pay for services.
“Wilson demanded that developers either pay for schools or face a moratorium on new construction,” Davis wrote, adding that he also touted regional planning. Voters overwhelmingly responded to Wilson's message.
During his mayoral term, Wilson is often credited with a host of political accomplishments, most notably fighting off-at least temporarily-suburban sprawl while galvanizing support to revitalize a moribund downtown through the creation of the Centre City Development Corp. (a statue sponsor), the city's redevelopment arm that shepherded the construction of Horton Plaza and helped introduce the San Diego Trolley into downtown lore.
Steve Williams, a downtown real-estate honcho with Sentre Partners, expressed surprise that anyone could question Wilson's contributions to San Diego. Williams heads the private, nonprofit organization Horton Walk: San Diego's Walk of Fame, which has already successfully installed two statues near Horton Plaza-one honoring the so-called “father of San Diego,” Alonzo Horton, and another of Ernie Hahn, the developer of Horton Plaza.
Williams said his group thinks Wilson is worthy of bronzedom because “we see Pete Wilson as the guy that was the mayor who took the old San Diego and made people believe in a new San Diego.” Yet without prompting, Williams added, “But I know part of your story will probably be ‘Enrique Morones goes on the warpath.'”
Choice of words aside, Morones is indeed ready to haul out the troops. With a dozen or so like-minded compadres in tow, Morones appeared before the San Diego City Council Tuesday to express his outrage at the Wilson statue proposal and issue a not-so-subtle warning.
“Like our African-American brethren and the Confederate flag, like our Jewish brothers and the swastika, Pete Wilson cannot be separated from his days as mayor and his days as the promoter of Proposition 187,” Morones told the council. “He is a persona non grata in Mexico, and to many in our community a racist.”
He urged the council to derail the statue plan. “This will either be America's Finest City or its most racist,” he said, warning, “National organizations and many local groups will seriously step up the protests if you do not listen to us and put out this fire... before it starts.... The last thing I want to see is protests downtown, a boycott of Horton Plaza and the city of San Diego.”
Roberto Martinez, a long-time activist on border issues, asked the council, “Is a statue worth alienating the Chicano community?”
The council's lone Latino representative, Ralph Inzunza, immediately asked City Manager Mike Uberuaga whether the city had any sort of jurisdictional say in the statue controversy. Uberuaga said he wasn't sure but hinted that the city might not. Inzunza insisted he find out.
Many Latinos continue to regard Wilson as the face of Prop. 187, the 1994 voter-approved initiative that promised to cut services to illegal immigrants, including medical care and education. Wilson gained re-election that year after latching onto the initiative as if it were his own, but a federal judge later tossed out the proposition.
As a 1998 San Francisco Chronicle article noted as Wilson's second term as governor began winding down: “Wilson was effective in touching the nerves of older, whiter voters, susceptible to what historian and author Garry Wills calls ‘the politics of resentment' in California.”
The article also noted that Wilson-now far removed from his centrist days-was skillful in exploiting that resentment for political gain. Author Kurt Schuparra told the Chronicle that, in the end, Wilson “was better able to articulate what people should be against than what they should be for.”
Following his 1994 re-election, Wilson would subsequently attack affirmative action, teaming with close friend Ward Connerly-whom Wilson had appointed as a University of California regent-to use Prop. 209, which voters approved in 1996, “to overturn state and local government affirmative action programs,” the Chronicle said.
While attempts to reach the former governor for this story were unsuccessful, Wilson has frequently defended his controversial positions. Appearing before a group of political reporters in 1998, Wilson cast himself as the victim of a “relentless drumbeat of character assassination,” according to a Union-Tribune report of the gathering.
“Wedge issues are issues that liberals want to duck because they don't have the guts to respond to real problems and offer solutions that will be offensive to a politically correct audience,” Wilson reportedly said.
Meanwhile, Williams said his group will meet next month to fine-tune the details of the Wilson statue, which he hopes will be up by summer in Horton Plaza Park.
Morones, however, said he's just begun to fight.
“This will make the Monty Montezuma thing look like nothing,” he predicted.