May 11, 1992 12:00 PM

NOT LONG AGO, CALIFORNIA GOV. PETE Wilson and his wife, Gayle, entertained a guest at their Sacramento home with an impromptu duet at the piano. “I got the blues,” crooned Pete, 58. “Is he blue?” warbled Gayle, 49. “In his shoes, you’d be too.” The verses that followed listed some of the tribulations Wilson has endured since becoming Governor in January 1991. “Pestilence, drought and freeze,” he sang. “Please no more catastrophes!”

No such luck. Last week, just as California was regaining its equilibrium after a series of earthquakes, a more profound tremor struck: Riots broke out in South Central Los Angeles following the acquittal of four LAPD police officers in the beating trial of Rodney King. Within hours of the verdict, in some of the worst urban violence since the mid ’60s, at least nine people died and scores of businesses were lost to arson and looting. It was the most serious crisis so far for a man who has been buffeted by polarizing issues—and managed, in his responses to them to alienate many segments of the broad-based coalition that elected him.

The self-styled moderate Republican, supported by liberals for his pro-choice stance, is now excoriated by many of them for his veto of a gay rights bill. Conservatives, who once admired him for his prudent fiscal policies, are railing against the tax increases he has pushed through. Wilson thwarted federal attempts to drill for oil off the California coast, but environmentalists are now appalled that he is allowing developers to bulldoze the same coast, destroying the habitat of rare birds. Two weeks ago Wilson infuriated opponents of capital punishment by refusing to commute the death sentence of convicted murderer Robert Alton Harris. He has even managed to stir up the Hell’s Angels by backing a mandatory helmet law for bikers. A recent Los Angeles Times poll pegged Wilson’s approval ratings at 39 percent, down from an earlier 52 percent.

Not that Wilson wasn’t warned that he would be in the hot seat. Stuart Spencer, the GOP’s “godfather of political consultants,” reportedly advised him not to run for Governor. The pluralistic and burgeoning state, Spencer said, was ungovernable. But Wilson was undeterred, and if he regrets the decision, he hasn’t let on. “He loves to fight,” says California Journal columnist Richard Zeiger. “Don’t think that Pete is miserable. He’s not,” says Dan Walters, a syndicated columnist. “He’s a very happy guy.” Of the state’s enormous problems, an acquaintance reports Wilson saying, “Of course I can’t solve them. But I can manage them.” Says the Governor: “I’ve always wanted this job. I’m stimulated by it.”

These days the California Governor’s mansion is a modest three-bedroom home in Sacramento. (The state sold off the old mansion after Jerry Brown refused to live in it.) Apart from his family, Wilson’s only real interest is government. He works 18 hours a day, with breaks to hit the Stairmaster or treadmill, which he uses while listening to show tunes or watching TV. A bear for detail, he insists on being thoroughly briefed before every meeting. Each night he lays out his clothes for the next morning.

Which raises the question of how a man so deliberate and methodical in his personal habits could find himself in such a political mess. Here’s how: Wilson inherited a state with a multicultural and increasingly combative population, conflicts of interest between the suburban rich and the urban poor and, to jack up the tensions, a budget deficit of some $7 billion. To cut that shortfall in his first year, he pushed through $7 billion in taxes—joining forces with the Democrats over the vociferous protests of his own party. Other Governors, faced with similar problems, hailed him for calling a deficit a deficit. Said Colorado’s Roy Romer late last year: “Wilson is saying there are real problems, he’s telling the truth about them, and he’s tackling them head-on. There’s a real market for that.”

What a difference a few months make. The budget deficit grows, defying taxes (which fell short of their projected collection), and still hovers at $3 billion. So now Wilson, having already imposed levies on a host of items—newspapers, popcorn and chocolate bars, to name a few—has decided to cut social services, including 25 percent from Aid to Families with Dependent Children, for a savings of $600 million. The Democrats are screaming.

But Wilson argues that California, with its generous benefits, has become a magnet for those seeking welfare; he also contends that getting recipients off the dole is essential forgetting them into workfare programs and jobs. “In terms of what government does, it is not compassionate to create dependency in people,” he says. He talks about “preventive government” as a “potent social medicine” to break the cycles of poverty and welfare dependency. But even an admirer like Romer, a Democrat, sees little wisdom in such cuts. “Welfare may be tempting [to cut], but to set it out as the main target I don’t think is appropriate.” There are people who need help, he says, “and we cannot as a civilized society turn our back on that just because we’ve got a recession.”

Few issues have created as much controversy as Wilson’s flip-flop on a proposed rights bill for gays, another constituency with enormous clout in the state. Groups like the Log Cabin Club, an organization of gay Republicans, campaigned hard for Wilson during his tight race against former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein. But last September, after Wilson told journalists he would “very likely” sign the bill, which would outlaw discrimination in the workplace based on sexual preference, he came under pressure from the powerful right wing of the California GOP. The Governor then abruptly refused to sign the bill. Wilson argued that while he despised bigotry, he believed that the proposed law would only further burden California’s already over-regulated businesses. Since then, gay activists have dogged Wilson at almost every public appearance.

“The man is a career politician,” says Bill Bradley of New West Notes, a political newsletter. “He believes that government can be used to achieve certain things; [he’s] a social and environmental liberal but a fiscal conservative—something for everyone.” Indeed, amid the rancor, Wilson has fastidiously and confidently kept a foot on both sides of the California political divide, becoming a man in the middle in a state where, says Dan Walters, “there’s no organized vociferous base for the middle. There’s no refuge there.” Wilson almost revels in setting himself up as a target. Asked how some welfare recipients would cope with the cuts, the Governor said some mothers would have less for six-packs of beer. Pelted with fruit by gay protesters at a Stanford University speech, Wilson deftly fielded an orange and hurled it back. Says Walters: “He likes to come in and say, ‘I want to do some things, and I’m going to force you, by God, to do them my way.’ ”

Wilson was born in Lake Forest, Ill., the younger son of an advertising executive and his wife, a former model. He attended the exclusive St. Louis Country Day School after his family moved to Missouri, and went on to Yale. Wilson then joined the Marines, becoming a rifle-platoon leader. Mustered out of the corps, he entered law school at the University of California at Berkeley.

In 1968 he married Betty Robertson, a woman 12 years his senior with two children of her own. After 13 years of marriage, they divorced. “I don’t think I was a good husband in the sense that I spent too much time on the job.” Wilson had become a force in state Republican circles, serving in the state assembly and putting in three terms as the Mayor of San Diego, turning what once seemed to be a transplanted Midwestern town into a full-fledged California city.

Encouraged to run for the U.S. Senate in 1982, Wilson defeated Jerry Brown for the seat. However, his term in Washington was generally lackluster. His one moment of drama came in 1985 when he was wheeled onto the Senate floor on a hospital gurney—he had just undergone an emergency appendectomy—to cast the tiebreaking vote in favor of massive cuts in spending. In 1983 he married Gayle Graham, who had worked on his Senate campaign. In contrast to Wilson’s first wife, Gayle, who has two sons by a previous marriage, readily took to political life. Says she: “I think that is a real strength of our marriage—that we do all of this together.”

No other politician today has a résumé that lists terms as Mayor of a major city, U.S. Senator and Governor of the most populous state in the union. But if dreams of the White House occasionally flit through Wilson’s head, he doesn’t say. He insists that his only objective at the moment is to push ahead as Governor. “Tough times require tough choices,” he has said. And he is adamant. “I do not intend to be a caretaker. I am going to be an activist Governor.” To some of his ever more numerous critics, that may sound more like a threat than a promise.


STANLEY YOUNG in Sacramento

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