Calif. Gov. Pete Wilson fights a variety of fires ON POLITICS



LOS ANGELES -- During the wildfires that swept through Southern California, a familiar figure on local television screens was Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, clad in blue denims and picking his way through the debris of burned-out houses at Laguna Beach, Malibu and other coastal towns.

For an incumbent whose state is still mired in economic distress -- and himself in the public opinion polls -- the extensive television exposure was a political windfall. Being seen responding to human tragedy and needs never hurts any politician, although there has been some sniping at the timing of his responses and his failure last year to test a Canadian plane, called "the super scooper," that can lift 1,600 gallons of ocean water in seconds and drop it on a fire.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Wilson's well-televised concern, or any actions he has taken or will take, can save him from the obvious anti-incumbent wave that appears to be raging through the electorate like those wildfires through expensive Southern California real estate. As he contemplates a run for a second term next year, two prominent Democrats -- state treasurer Kathleen Brown and state insurance commissioner John Garamendi -- are poised to challenge him.

Beyond the general economic malaise that has struck defense-oriented California, Wilson must cope with a badly decayed public education system and a flood of illegal immigrants across the Mexican border that severely taxes the state's public education resources along with its health care and welfare apparatus.

In the Nov. 2 elections, Wilson, as well as Brown and Garamendi, opposed the controversial school voucher that was snowed under by 2-to-1. The scheme, to use public education money to pay for students to go to private schools, many of them run by religious fundamentalists or conceivably created by education amateurs, was simply too costly and scary for most voters. It even frightened off business interests who traditionally bankroll conservative proposals, leaving the field to the heavy-spending teachers' unions fighting it.

The controversy did, however, elevate the condition of California's public schools as a major issue. Many voters who opposed the voucher plan also expressed deep dissatisfaction with the existing system, once regarded by many as the best in the nation. Recent national testing, though, placed California in a tie with Mississippi for the lowest student reading skills.

Days before the voucher vote, Wilson came out with a five-point plan including higher education standards, teachers' merit pay, new classroom technologies, bureaucratic cuts and attacks on drugs and guns in the schools. Democrats dismissed the plan as old hat and reminded voters of Wilson's failed effort in his 1992 education budget to cut $2.3 billion by delaying the start of the kindergarten year.

Brown has since come up with her own reforms that would upgrade high-tech and vocational education to make students "job-ready for the 21st century" and restore California as a magnet for new business -- a way of dealing with the slumped economy as well as the education slide. She also proposes "disciplinary schools" to which first-time student drug or gun offenders would be assigned for up to a year.

Immigration enters into the equation because Wilson says the burden of educating the children of illegal immigrants cuts deeply into spending for the education and other needs of legal residents.

He wants the federal government to pick up the costs for failing to seal off the borders with Mexico and proposes a constitutional amendment denying American citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants. Brown calls such ideas "barbaric" but Wilson notes that "we're not providing for our own needy poor" because of the burden.

Wilson's immigration proposals temporarily lifted his sagging approval ratings, but they have dropped again, to 31 percent in the latest Los Angeles Times poll. But he observes that all California politicians are faring poorly in the polls as a result of the economic doldrums and expresses confidence that once the economy turns up, so will his ratings.

In the meantime, he is busy trying to put out fires, political and otherwise.

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