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The Pete Wilson legacy in 30 pieces

Puzzling

Proof that our former mayor, Pete Wilson, used to be a funny guy. This photo was taken on August 23, 1974, his 40th birthday celebration. In the bowl, a scoop of ice cream representing every year of his life. Note the high vanilla content.
Proof that our former mayor, Pete Wilson, used to be a funny guy. This photo was taken on August 23, 1974, his 40th birthday celebration. In the bowl, a scoop of ice cream representing every year of his life. Note the high vanilla content.


1. No California politician gets more blame for the denigration of the migrant than Peter Barton Wilson, now 91, last century’s Mr. San Diego. Now, in a political year that has been inflamed by another crisis at the border, Wilson’s name — and legacy — is newsworthy again. Was the the man an architect of anti-Latino prejudice or a champion of state sovereignty? His pertinent history begins with three years as a Marine Corps platoon leader, followed by a Yale law degree (it took him four tries to pass the bar). San Diego Union journalist Herb Klein, later President Nixon’s speechwriter, encouraged Wilson to come west, where opportunities for a Goldwater Republican abounded. After a brief stint as a criminal defense attorney, he embraced politics, a career for which he seemed born, his persona nailed by a GOP pal: “coldblooded and cleareyed.” Wilson won every seat he ran for in the Golden State, except for one loss in the Republican primary for Governor in 1978. Even so, from 1966 to 1999, he was always in office: state assemblyman, San Diego mayor, two-term California Senator and two-term Governor. When Wilson retired in 1998, he’d proven himself a perennial winner, sunsetting with a 55 percent approval rating. This despite his great failure — Proposition 187.

2. The Prop 187 referendum, which passed 59 to 41 percent, would have created a state “screening system” to track undocumented migrants (“illegals” or “aliens”) who sought education, healthcare, and social services. The proposed law was never instituted; in 1998, a federal district court ruled it unconstitutional. A hearing before the appellate court was never filed by Wilson’s successor Gray Davis. Outraged voters, mostly Hispanics, believed that the proposition demonized all immigrants, with or without documents. Organized pushback branded the Republican Party in California as meanspirited, and, by Bill Clinton’s second term, the state GOP had fallen into disrepute, an electoral failure. Has been ever since.

3. These days — as everyone knows, even those who are leaving the state — many California voters have repudiated Wilsonian exclusion and, in turn, formed a Democratic juggernaut. The party has enjoyed consistent supermajorities in the state assembly and a 40-12 margin in congressional districts. But the sentiments behind Prop 187 have endured within the Republican minority, and have even helped congeal the Republican Party’s party’s more nativist, America-First elements. (In 1960, there were 9.7 million immigrants living in the United States. In 2018, there were 45 million, a fourfold increase.) The MAGA goal is to restrict the “foreign element” with walls and deportation for the undocumented.

4.  An old Mexican-American adage says: “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.” The politically crafted, 1200-mile line between us and Mexico has proven, in many ways, to be porous and all but unpoliceable. It’s also a very active exchange site for tourists, businessmen, goods, cultures, and migrants; the last, some say, as a necessary element of the U.S. labor force. The U.S.-Mexican border — at San Ysidro, Otay Mesa, and Tecate — is the busiest back-and-forth crossing in the world. Writ large, our Southern border is peerless in its attraction and its repulsion to “good people” on “both sides.”

5.  In the 1960s and 1970s — his time in San Diego — Wilson was characterized by the following reported news and opinions: “San Diego’s Outstanding Young Man” in 1968 was called “Mister Clean” and tagged as resembling a “college freshman from the 1940s,” his face wearing “an almost Wall Street pallor.” His hobby was, with his first wife, Betty, “watching the news on TV.” Neil Morgan, editor of The Tribune, faulted him “for being colorless,” but otherwise endorsed him at every turn. He didn’t live in La Jolla but in Clairemont; his collars were “button-down” and his brow was “always dry, as if tiny fans” were concealed there. His hair never touched the tops of his ears; he never stooped to the “mod shagginess” of 1970s men, and he had nothing in common with “the rebel generation.” He was “taciturn to the point of freezing.” In 1971, he was elected Mayor, having spent $175,000 of other people’s money for the $12,000-a-year job, less than the city paid bus drivers; and he did something unthinkable for party politicians — he turned down donations and political support from C. Arnholt Smith, the banker-industrialist who ruled the local GOP for decades. Some say this proved to be the beginning of the end for the local Republican party.

President Nixon (third from left) in San Francisco with Pete Wilson (second from right). Nixon encouraged Wilson to come west, where opportunities for a Goldwater Republican abounded.

6. Many Latinos, especially those of Hispanic heritage, who were here before Prop 187, identified with the small-business focus of the Republican Party. They helped Reagan, Wilson, and Schwarzenegger reign in Sacramento. It’s also true that many Hispanics voted Democrat, even though they didn’t want to. Why did they abandon Wilson? In an interview after he left office, Wilson claimed that Latinos were smart enough to know “there’s a right way and a wrong way” for immigrants to come, but they were also victims — “misinformed [and] misled . . . by the Democratic Party that they were discriminated against by racists.” Not Pete’s fault for stoking anti-Hispanic prejudice, he said: “There are few nastier smears than the charge of racism.” Wilson denies he’s ever been racist or anti-immigrant: “I value the continuing energy, drive, guts, the talent that has been brought to this country by people who came as legal immigrants.”

Ricardo Flores, executive director of San Diego’s Local Initiatives Support Corporation, disagrees. He tells me that among immigrants, things are “deadly worse, as witnessed in the 2019 mass murder of 22 people in an El Paso Walmart by a man who admitted he was targeting ‘Mexicans’ and wrote that his actions were ‘a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.’ Wilson’s War on Latinos continues to echo long past his days in power, in part, because of the nativist streak in white Protestant American society that at first rejected the Germans, the Irish, then the Italians, and now Latinos. Hate and demonizing ‘others’ by elected leaders who consistently fail to improve the lives of their constituents has never proved to be a legacy builder, and for Wilson this remains true.”

7. Sean Walsh, of the Wilson-Walsh law firm in Los Angeles, was Wilson’s chief of staff and remains his current law partner in Century City. The office’s website notes that the “team has decades of experience helping individuals and companies bridge the gaps between business, law, and local, state, and federal governments.” In 2023, Walsh said that “There’s no...man or woman who’s done more for the city and county of San Diego than Pete Wilson.” Though he cites Wilson as “absolutely critical” to the “influence and rise” of Hispanic power in California, some wonder whether Wilson deserves credit, or if it should be given to the Latinos who organized their legislative presence against him. It is true, however, that Wilson is one of a vanishing breed — the moderate Republican: he signed a reparations bill for the unjustly detained Japanese-Americans during WWII; he voted for a Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday; he got Ray Kroc to keep the Padres in San Diego when, miffed, the Kroc was leaving in 1973; and he jumpstarted the Gaslamp Quarter, which Robert Kittle, former editorial page editor at the Union-Tribune, called a “sweeping development plan that transformed downtown San Diego from a place of tattoo parlors and strip clubs to a vibrant urban core.”

8. As the Union-Tribune’s Michael Smolens wrote in 2020, “Wilson was Trump before Trump.” The then-President, Wilson said, “has very good judgment, and very good people around him making honest calls.” “His opposition” to immigration “is based on style,” apparently a reference to his ad hominem abuse. Wilson loved the idea of the Wall, as well as making immigration merit-based, as opposed to granting it for the sake of family reunification. Furthermore, he said that Trump’s “global leadership” had bolstered our friends and weakened our foes “because he’s been forthright and strong.” After 212,000 Americans had died of Covid, Wilson said lots more would have died had it “not been for Trump’s early action.”

9. In 1994, Latino anger over 187 produced loud, sustained protests — thousands marched and rallied at the San Diego and Los Angeles city halls. “Wilson How Long Did It Take U To Cross the Ocean,” read a sign made by a Century High School student in Santa Ana. The Mexican-American cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz stung Wilson piteously with comics featuring “Migra Mouse,” a border ICE-guard supported by Walt Disney; from the magazine La Cucaracha, one cartoon depicted the anti-immigrant spray “FRaid” with the endorsement, “9 out of 10 racist politicians prefer FRaid.” One activist said at the time, “Among my peers, Wilson’s about as much a legend as La Llorona [a vengeful ghost], El Cucuy [a child-tormenting demon], and all the other monsters our parents scared us with as children—except he was the real thing.”

Pete Wilson as mayor of San Diego in the 1970s.

10. Today, Americans are once again incensed by the notion of an ungovernable border, just in time for a presidential election. All new arrivals must be stopped! Build the wall! Barb the wire! End catch and release! Deputize citizens! Remain in Mexico! Restrict asylum. Five thousand a month tops! According to his “Presidential Transition Project,” Trump’s immigration policy includes a cap on “refugee admissions,” finishing the Wall, and “active-duty military personnel and National Guardsmen to assist in arrest operations along the border.” The new perk for the asylum seeker is the boutique option: “premium processing,” pay to stay.

11. In 1972, during Mayor Pete’s first tenure, Sheriff John Duffy issued an order to taxicab drivers in the form of a code with which to contact the police when swarthy men with no English got in the backseat. Though the order was hardly legal, Duffy argued that such culling would cut down on “bad hombres” picking up border crossers for overcharged trips to LA, and said that drivers, if they finked, would not be charged for “transporting them,” one of those rarely enforced misdemeanors. Livid, Wilson put the kibosh on it. The other border crime Wilson quashed was “thugs ...lying in wait” to exploit migrants. Wilson later described those migrants as “victims of real atrocities. I mean rape, robbery, in some cases pretty close to murder.” His dozen pro-cop brawlers “went down and cleaned that up in short order.”

12. This is the thirty-year anniversary of “Three Strikes and You’re Out.” Passed as an initiative by Californians, codified in law by the legislature, and signed by Wilson, its consequences were: 1) doubling of prisons and inmates; 2) making guard unions major donors to statewide campaigns; 3) brief reinstatement of the death penalty for child murderers and for people killed while being carjacked or serving on a jury. Strikes accumulated until the third strike got you 25 years to life. The over-punitive law has since been modified — automatic sentences limited, parole hearings granted, and lessor crimes cut from the list. Subsequently, the state inmate population has dropped from 165,000 to 95,000.

13. The border crisis never ends. Wilson, like his predecessors and successors, has faced vigilantes: Roger Hedgecock’s “light up the border” campaign; Tom Metzger, California Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, who organized the Klan Border Watch to “roundup and return” Mexicans; California employers who approved of the trade in “driver’s licenses, social security cards, and all manner of ID” sold to migrants to legitimize them as farm laborers and construction workers. Wilson acknowledged that overlooking fake documents, though under the table, was pro-business — sanctions would ruin the economy.

14. Not long before he ran for president in 1995, Wilson had throat surgery. The result was that he couldn’t speak for months, which kept him from making the normal announcement at a rally and stifled the famously uncharismatic Mr. San Diego from campaigning. A month and a day later, he withdrew with a million-dollar debt.

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15. The policies for which Wilson was praised (reasonable limits on development, merit-based incentives in promotion and education, pro-choice on reproductive rights) struck a peculiar balance with stances that antagonized voters: he was anti-collective bargaining, anti-social services for the undocumented, anti-bilingual education, antiunion, anti-collective bargaining (teachers especially), anti-birthright citizenship, and anti-LGBTQ protections in the workplace.

16. One crisis that turned in Governor Wilson’s favor was a deficit budget of $400 million — given to him with “all the warmth and cheer of an open grave” — by the legislature in 1992. Instead of raising taxes (anathema to Republicans), he proposed cutting every program in sight (education, the most), negotiating IOUs to be honored a year later, and leaving the mess to assembly members to duke out. How did he help wrangle a deal? “I picked the eight smallest guys,” he said, “and one at a time broke their arms.” He was also hailed for reapportioning districts whose boundaries resembled “snakes and belts.” Accordingly, moderates won more seats. In addition, he passed term limits, trimming the pork bellies in Sacramento. By 1994, Wilson used his budget clout to push for 187 and further state savings. Even though that cause backfired, he won a second term (55 to 40 percent), and by then, the state was back in the black.

17. The most expansive interview Pete Wilson has done in the 25 years since he left office is one from 2019 with Gustavo Arellano, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a critic of 187. Give Wilson credit: at 86, he speaks thoughtfully, with coherent, if wordy, arguments; Biden or Trump might covet his explanatory preparedness on border issues. Arellano asked what gave birth to 187.Arellano asked. Wilson replied that in the 1990s, the federal government “not only were not doing the job adequately in terms of securing the border; to the contrary, they had mandated very expensive services upon the states, state and local taxpayers to provide . . . education, healthcare . . .. Healthcare had mushroomed.” Wilson cited federal law that, in his words, “made it possible for illegal immigrants to enter the country, 18-year-old women, pregnant, go the county hospital, have prenatal care, have delivery, post-delivery, postnatal care, and the children were, of course, citizens.” Yes, the system was severely stressed. But hospitals handled the influx. Later in the interview, Wilson rightly predicted that what was then “a problem for the border states will be one for all the states.” As for DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that renews visas for people brought here as children, Wilson opposes it: “If you recognize the DACA kids [and] grant amnesty, you encourage future illegal immigration.” He had no comment about deporting noncitizens, whether young or old. The policy for Dreamers continues to face court challenges and appeals.

Wilson had his longest hair ever during his 1981 Senate run.

18. Searching a number of libraries for biographies, I find the shelves mostly empty. U.S. Senator Pete Wilson: The First Six Years. A manuscript, Mayor Pete Wilson’s Speeches. His eight-page “Open Letter on Affirmative Action to the People of California.” An 84-page report, Governor Pete Wilson and the San Jose Mercury News: a Case Study. Chapters (covering both accomplishments and controversies) in a few California political histories. Numerous news articles and commentaries: Reporters spilled much ink about his flavorless personality. No full-length biography of Wilson has been written. Nothing — authorized or not — and no loving tribute to him in the San Diego public library system. I sometimes wonder if he existed at all, so vacant is the curiosity of writers to investigate his legacy.

19. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe case, a 5-4 decision, that access to education by children of undocumented parents was protected no matter how their parents came to the United States. The majority opinion cited the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment: Undocumented children were allowed to “live within the structures of our civic institutions.” The decision also eliminated a $1000-a-year fee parents in Texas had to pay to state schools. Cities and states instead footed the bill for pens and pencils. The Plyler case backstopped any legal challenge that arose because of 187. None ever did, in part, because denying kids an education is unconstitutional.

20. As governor in 1995, Wilson proposed ending affirmative action in University of California admissions and hiring. In defense of keeping the policy, civil rights lawyer Eva Paterson told Wilson that with Prop 187 the prior year, he’d “become the symbol of racism in the United States.” Nonetheless, two out of three regents voted with him. The decision was among Wilson’s most prophetic feats. In June 2023, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action at colleges nationwide.

21. Upon leaving office in 1999, Wilson’s high approval rating (55 percent) was the envy of any politician. It may be traceable to his blaming the poor and the vulnerable in his 1995 second inaugural address: “Welfare is to be a safety net, not a hammock . . .. The costs are simply too high for society to continue tolerating the promiscuity and irresponsibility that have produced generations of unwed teen mothers.” Morally pugnacious, Wilson gave himself the kudos: “Leadership means doing the things that you, in your heart, know need to be done. It means making people unhappy. It means making them enemies. Not that I enjoy doing that. But I’m not going to shrink from combat if, to avoid it, you’ve got to avoid doing what you know is needed.”

22. Claims the undocumented stir: they take jobs away from unemployed Americans; they never learn the language; they’re pawns or proponents of the Great Replacement Theory, making non-Hispanic Whites a minority by 2045; their caravans have received carte blanche by a secret pact between President Biden and Mexico’s President; and they’re swarming into the country, according to Elon Musk, to “vote” in 2024. They can’t vote, of course. When Democrats press fines on those who hire the undocumented (see Tyson Foods), the Republicans call foul — industrial agriculture and the meat industry will be robbed of cheap labor.

The plaque at the base of the Horton Plaza statue states that “San Diego’s success stems from the foresight of optimistic and dauntless leaders” like Mayor Pete Wilson.

23. In the fall of 2020, not long after George Floyd’s murder, the Pete Wilson statue in Horton Plaza was removed. Among Hispanic leaders who demanded its ouster was Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez. She argued, in a Union-Tribune editorial, that because of Wilson’s “inflammatory rhetoric and imagery,” demonizing every desperate Mexican or Central American coming to the U.S. to work, the vertical tribute was “glorifying his action . . . tantamount to Confederate statues.” Robert Kittle wrote that recent cancel culture, which derides Wilson’s legacy as gaslighting history, is comparable to the vilification of Father Junipero Serra for flogging Native peoples. However, Kittle said, Serra’s “critics display scant regard for his seminal contributions in bringing European civilization to the California frontier.” Within a few months, Wilson’s tall brass likeness was stood back up, nearby, on private ground.

24. Chicken or egg? Did Prop 187 drive Latinos into a Democratic bloc or are they Democrats ab ovo? Enrique Morones and Ricardo Flores state in the Union-Tribune that since Wilson’s ascendancy in 1971, the Latino population climbed from its then-12.7 percent to 30 percent now, and is forecast to top 41 percent in 2050. In 2023, registered Hispanics are 55 percent Democratic, 16 percent Republican, and 29 percent Independent. Latinos oppose illegal immigration. But historically, they resent Republicans who play the race card and target their kinsmen as criminals. Downstream from Wilson’s tenure—San Diegans and Californians have elected a U.S. senator, Assembly members, officials on the County Board of Supervisors, and mayors of Chula Vista, Oceanside, National City, and San Diego, all of Hispanic heritage. The San Diego City Council, once a stronghold of Republicans, has similarly been transformed—9 to 0 Democratic.

25. Political ads that use an “attack” or “satire” format capture our interest the most. Wilson’s thirty-second Prop 187 ad in 1994 was called “They Keep Coming.” A night-vision camera with grainy footage shows people with parcels running through traffic at the San Ysidro crossing and onto I-5. The message, which Wilson termed “a statement of fact,” is that their cicada-like dispersal will infect America’s “blood and soil.” In 2019, the California Latino Legislative Caucus released a short video, a backhanded slap against our erstwhile governor. Dozens of state and local officials expressed their gratitude to him for fueling a political revolution among Latinos, who now help Democrats rule most civic assemblies: “Our work isn’t done, but we want to say thank you, Governor Wilson. Now, on this 25th anniversary of Proposition 187, we have a roadmap for the entire country to follow. A roadmap on how to fight back against racist, xenophobic policies. Thank you, Pete Wilson. Thank you, Pete Wilson. Thank you, Pete Wilson. Oh, and happy anniversary.” Mischief mixed with gloating — one can feel the taunting of the near-extinct California Republican party in this year’s Hail Mary, Steve Garvey for U.S. Senate. Wilson called the featurette “a very snotty little commercial.”

26. According to local news sources, Mayor Pete fought “unsightly billboards;” he “insisted that Mission Valley and the Tijuana River Valley can have flood control without expensive concrete ditches;” he “worked tirelessly to entice smogless new industries to the city;” and he was “determined to deter San Diego from becoming another ‘sprawled-out Los Angeles monster.’” With suitable imprecision, he liked to claim that “San Diego has to have as much of its past in its future as possible.” But it was never about preservation. Inevitably, the city colonized the county. This is the ship Wilson steered: controlled growth, snarling everyone in the daily commute. One example was Mira Mesa — settled in stages: first, roads, infrastructure, parks, and schools, then houses and apartment buildings, mini-malls and low-rise business offices, packed-together infill, all future, no past.

In the fall of 2020, not long after George Floyd’s murder, the Pete Wilson statue in Horton Plaza was removed, his smiling nonchalance hiding a racial animus. It was returned a few months later.

27. Wilson’s Republican picks in electoral horse races have rarely won. Washouts include presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Ted Cruz as well as Meg Whitman for California governor. Last year, Wilson backed the Los Angeles conservative radio host and haranguer Larry Elder for President; he fizzled out like a Las Vegas romance. Wilson was luckier with Schwarzenegger in 2005 and Trump in 2016. In October 2020, he threw the dice again, giving the ex-President $5000, funds more for the lawyers, it turns out, than the campaign.

28. The most odious requirement of 187 was for workers at hospitals, schools, and churches to call the police or ICE if they “suspected” a Latino (Brown? Swarthy? Spanish accent?) had no papers. In other words, surveil those who interacted intimately with migrants who came to them for medical help, for education, for a faith community. California teachers and their unions abhorred this provision, which helped doom 187. Did any teacher ever alert the authorities to take their students away?

29. To grok the Wilson enigma, we must understand a fundamental fact about politics: To win — and to remain in office — politicians need to make voters want things. The thing Wilson and those in his claque got San Diegans to want was their version of the city’s expansion, which, along with a pro-business city council, made voters buy controlled or managed growth, by which sleepy ship-docked San Diego was on its way, commercially speaking, as “America’s finest city.” Election triumphs led him to believe his people desired more of his proposals. Once in the Governor’s mansion, Wilson taught his base to want what he did not want — an “invasion” of Mexicans. As quickly as his victory on 187 codified assaults on foreigners, back came the rhetorical volley, disabling Wilson’s cause. Wilson fell from a voter-approved high and took the local and state Republican guard with him. It’s a lesson in how political cycles work. When voters want something so strongly, they demonize anyone to get it. The pendulum swings back or adjusts to what’s fairer, less punitive, and (yes) more liberal. Wilson’s legacy proves that to push incessantly for what he and others deem is right misses how compromise and reasonableness are the wisest political choices.

30. But wait. The cycle may be turning again, a reversal of the reversal. Wilson is suddenly in vogue, his nobby voice echoing in our newly restored antimigrant hysteria. Ex-President Trump’s latest characterization of border-crossers is: “In some cases, they’re not people, in my opinion. But I’m not allowed to say that because the radical left says that’s a terrible thing to say.” Then, he clarified not people by labeling the “some,” “animals.” Does Mayor Pete agree that only a dictator can save America from its fear of the caravaning other into the country? If severe restrictions and roundups of the undocumented are coming, the former governor morphs into what he’s always wanted to be—a political visionary whose referendum will, at long last, have beaten back the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, “yearning to be free,” the border lamp “beside the Golden door,” extinguished for good.

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Proof that our former mayor, Pete Wilson, used to be a funny guy. This photo was taken on August 23, 1974, his 40th birthday celebration. In the bowl, a scoop of ice cream representing every year of his life. Note the high vanilla content.
Proof that our former mayor, Pete Wilson, used to be a funny guy. This photo was taken on August 23, 1974, his 40th birthday celebration. In the bowl, a scoop of ice cream representing every year of his life. Note the high vanilla content.


1. No California politician gets more blame for the denigration of the migrant than Peter Barton Wilson, now 91, last century’s Mr. San Diego. Now, in a political year that has been inflamed by another crisis at the border, Wilson’s name — and legacy — is newsworthy again. Was the the man an architect of anti-Latino prejudice or a champion of state sovereignty? His pertinent history begins with three years as a Marine Corps platoon leader, followed by a Yale law degree (it took him four tries to pass the bar). San Diego Union journalist Herb Klein, later President Nixon’s speechwriter, encouraged Wilson to come west, where opportunities for a Goldwater Republican abounded. After a brief stint as a criminal defense attorney, he embraced politics, a career for which he seemed born, his persona nailed by a GOP pal: “coldblooded and cleareyed.” Wilson won every seat he ran for in the Golden State, except for one loss in the Republican primary for Governor in 1978. Even so, from 1966 to 1999, he was always in office: state assemblyman, San Diego mayor, two-term California Senator and two-term Governor. When Wilson retired in 1998, he’d proven himself a perennial winner, sunsetting with a 55 percent approval rating. This despite his great failure — Proposition 187.

2. The Prop 187 referendum, which passed 59 to 41 percent, would have created a state “screening system” to track undocumented migrants (“illegals” or “aliens”) who sought education, healthcare, and social services. The proposed law was never instituted; in 1998, a federal district court ruled it unconstitutional. A hearing before the appellate court was never filed by Wilson’s successor Gray Davis. Outraged voters, mostly Hispanics, believed that the proposition demonized all immigrants, with or without documents. Organized pushback branded the Republican Party in California as meanspirited, and, by Bill Clinton’s second term, the state GOP had fallen into disrepute, an electoral failure. Has been ever since.

3. These days — as everyone knows, even those who are leaving the state — many California voters have repudiated Wilsonian exclusion and, in turn, formed a Democratic juggernaut. The party has enjoyed consistent supermajorities in the state assembly and a 40-12 margin in congressional districts. But the sentiments behind Prop 187 have endured within the Republican minority, and have even helped congeal the Republican Party’s party’s more nativist, America-First elements. (In 1960, there were 9.7 million immigrants living in the United States. In 2018, there were 45 million, a fourfold increase.) The MAGA goal is to restrict the “foreign element” with walls and deportation for the undocumented.

4.  An old Mexican-American adage says: “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.” The politically crafted, 1200-mile line between us and Mexico has proven, in many ways, to be porous and all but unpoliceable. It’s also a very active exchange site for tourists, businessmen, goods, cultures, and migrants; the last, some say, as a necessary element of the U.S. labor force. The U.S.-Mexican border — at San Ysidro, Otay Mesa, and Tecate — is the busiest back-and-forth crossing in the world. Writ large, our Southern border is peerless in its attraction and its repulsion to “good people” on “both sides.”

5.  In the 1960s and 1970s — his time in San Diego — Wilson was characterized by the following reported news and opinions: “San Diego’s Outstanding Young Man” in 1968 was called “Mister Clean” and tagged as resembling a “college freshman from the 1940s,” his face wearing “an almost Wall Street pallor.” His hobby was, with his first wife, Betty, “watching the news on TV.” Neil Morgan, editor of The Tribune, faulted him “for being colorless,” but otherwise endorsed him at every turn. He didn’t live in La Jolla but in Clairemont; his collars were “button-down” and his brow was “always dry, as if tiny fans” were concealed there. His hair never touched the tops of his ears; he never stooped to the “mod shagginess” of 1970s men, and he had nothing in common with “the rebel generation.” He was “taciturn to the point of freezing.” In 1971, he was elected Mayor, having spent $175,000 of other people’s money for the $12,000-a-year job, less than the city paid bus drivers; and he did something unthinkable for party politicians — he turned down donations and political support from C. Arnholt Smith, the banker-industrialist who ruled the local GOP for decades. Some say this proved to be the beginning of the end for the local Republican party.

President Nixon (third from left) in San Francisco with Pete Wilson (second from right). Nixon encouraged Wilson to come west, where opportunities for a Goldwater Republican abounded.

6. Many Latinos, especially those of Hispanic heritage, who were here before Prop 187, identified with the small-business focus of the Republican Party. They helped Reagan, Wilson, and Schwarzenegger reign in Sacramento. It’s also true that many Hispanics voted Democrat, even though they didn’t want to. Why did they abandon Wilson? In an interview after he left office, Wilson claimed that Latinos were smart enough to know “there’s a right way and a wrong way” for immigrants to come, but they were also victims — “misinformed [and] misled . . . by the Democratic Party that they were discriminated against by racists.” Not Pete’s fault for stoking anti-Hispanic prejudice, he said: “There are few nastier smears than the charge of racism.” Wilson denies he’s ever been racist or anti-immigrant: “I value the continuing energy, drive, guts, the talent that has been brought to this country by people who came as legal immigrants.”

Ricardo Flores, executive director of San Diego’s Local Initiatives Support Corporation, disagrees. He tells me that among immigrants, things are “deadly worse, as witnessed in the 2019 mass murder of 22 people in an El Paso Walmart by a man who admitted he was targeting ‘Mexicans’ and wrote that his actions were ‘a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.’ Wilson’s War on Latinos continues to echo long past his days in power, in part, because of the nativist streak in white Protestant American society that at first rejected the Germans, the Irish, then the Italians, and now Latinos. Hate and demonizing ‘others’ by elected leaders who consistently fail to improve the lives of their constituents has never proved to be a legacy builder, and for Wilson this remains true.”

7. Sean Walsh, of the Wilson-Walsh law firm in Los Angeles, was Wilson’s chief of staff and remains his current law partner in Century City. The office’s website notes that the “team has decades of experience helping individuals and companies bridge the gaps between business, law, and local, state, and federal governments.” In 2023, Walsh said that “There’s no...man or woman who’s done more for the city and county of San Diego than Pete Wilson.” Though he cites Wilson as “absolutely critical” to the “influence and rise” of Hispanic power in California, some wonder whether Wilson deserves credit, or if it should be given to the Latinos who organized their legislative presence against him. It is true, however, that Wilson is one of a vanishing breed — the moderate Republican: he signed a reparations bill for the unjustly detained Japanese-Americans during WWII; he voted for a Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday; he got Ray Kroc to keep the Padres in San Diego when, miffed, the Kroc was leaving in 1973; and he jumpstarted the Gaslamp Quarter, which Robert Kittle, former editorial page editor at the Union-Tribune, called a “sweeping development plan that transformed downtown San Diego from a place of tattoo parlors and strip clubs to a vibrant urban core.”

8. As the Union-Tribune’s Michael Smolens wrote in 2020, “Wilson was Trump before Trump.” The then-President, Wilson said, “has very good judgment, and very good people around him making honest calls.” “His opposition” to immigration “is based on style,” apparently a reference to his ad hominem abuse. Wilson loved the idea of the Wall, as well as making immigration merit-based, as opposed to granting it for the sake of family reunification. Furthermore, he said that Trump’s “global leadership” had bolstered our friends and weakened our foes “because he’s been forthright and strong.” After 212,000 Americans had died of Covid, Wilson said lots more would have died had it “not been for Trump’s early action.”

9. In 1994, Latino anger over 187 produced loud, sustained protests — thousands marched and rallied at the San Diego and Los Angeles city halls. “Wilson How Long Did It Take U To Cross the Ocean,” read a sign made by a Century High School student in Santa Ana. The Mexican-American cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz stung Wilson piteously with comics featuring “Migra Mouse,” a border ICE-guard supported by Walt Disney; from the magazine La Cucaracha, one cartoon depicted the anti-immigrant spray “FRaid” with the endorsement, “9 out of 10 racist politicians prefer FRaid.” One activist said at the time, “Among my peers, Wilson’s about as much a legend as La Llorona [a vengeful ghost], El Cucuy [a child-tormenting demon], and all the other monsters our parents scared us with as children—except he was the real thing.”

Pete Wilson as mayor of San Diego in the 1970s.

10. Today, Americans are once again incensed by the notion of an ungovernable border, just in time for a presidential election. All new arrivals must be stopped! Build the wall! Barb the wire! End catch and release! Deputize citizens! Remain in Mexico! Restrict asylum. Five thousand a month tops! According to his “Presidential Transition Project,” Trump’s immigration policy includes a cap on “refugee admissions,” finishing the Wall, and “active-duty military personnel and National Guardsmen to assist in arrest operations along the border.” The new perk for the asylum seeker is the boutique option: “premium processing,” pay to stay.

11. In 1972, during Mayor Pete’s first tenure, Sheriff John Duffy issued an order to taxicab drivers in the form of a code with which to contact the police when swarthy men with no English got in the backseat. Though the order was hardly legal, Duffy argued that such culling would cut down on “bad hombres” picking up border crossers for overcharged trips to LA, and said that drivers, if they finked, would not be charged for “transporting them,” one of those rarely enforced misdemeanors. Livid, Wilson put the kibosh on it. The other border crime Wilson quashed was “thugs ...lying in wait” to exploit migrants. Wilson later described those migrants as “victims of real atrocities. I mean rape, robbery, in some cases pretty close to murder.” His dozen pro-cop brawlers “went down and cleaned that up in short order.”

12. This is the thirty-year anniversary of “Three Strikes and You’re Out.” Passed as an initiative by Californians, codified in law by the legislature, and signed by Wilson, its consequences were: 1) doubling of prisons and inmates; 2) making guard unions major donors to statewide campaigns; 3) brief reinstatement of the death penalty for child murderers and for people killed while being carjacked or serving on a jury. Strikes accumulated until the third strike got you 25 years to life. The over-punitive law has since been modified — automatic sentences limited, parole hearings granted, and lessor crimes cut from the list. Subsequently, the state inmate population has dropped from 165,000 to 95,000.

13. The border crisis never ends. Wilson, like his predecessors and successors, has faced vigilantes: Roger Hedgecock’s “light up the border” campaign; Tom Metzger, California Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, who organized the Klan Border Watch to “roundup and return” Mexicans; California employers who approved of the trade in “driver’s licenses, social security cards, and all manner of ID” sold to migrants to legitimize them as farm laborers and construction workers. Wilson acknowledged that overlooking fake documents, though under the table, was pro-business — sanctions would ruin the economy.

14. Not long before he ran for president in 1995, Wilson had throat surgery. The result was that he couldn’t speak for months, which kept him from making the normal announcement at a rally and stifled the famously uncharismatic Mr. San Diego from campaigning. A month and a day later, he withdrew with a million-dollar debt.

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15. The policies for which Wilson was praised (reasonable limits on development, merit-based incentives in promotion and education, pro-choice on reproductive rights) struck a peculiar balance with stances that antagonized voters: he was anti-collective bargaining, anti-social services for the undocumented, anti-bilingual education, antiunion, anti-collective bargaining (teachers especially), anti-birthright citizenship, and anti-LGBTQ protections in the workplace.

16. One crisis that turned in Governor Wilson’s favor was a deficit budget of $400 million — given to him with “all the warmth and cheer of an open grave” — by the legislature in 1992. Instead of raising taxes (anathema to Republicans), he proposed cutting every program in sight (education, the most), negotiating IOUs to be honored a year later, and leaving the mess to assembly members to duke out. How did he help wrangle a deal? “I picked the eight smallest guys,” he said, “and one at a time broke their arms.” He was also hailed for reapportioning districts whose boundaries resembled “snakes and belts.” Accordingly, moderates won more seats. In addition, he passed term limits, trimming the pork bellies in Sacramento. By 1994, Wilson used his budget clout to push for 187 and further state savings. Even though that cause backfired, he won a second term (55 to 40 percent), and by then, the state was back in the black.

17. The most expansive interview Pete Wilson has done in the 25 years since he left office is one from 2019 with Gustavo Arellano, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a critic of 187. Give Wilson credit: at 86, he speaks thoughtfully, with coherent, if wordy, arguments; Biden or Trump might covet his explanatory preparedness on border issues. Arellano asked what gave birth to 187.Arellano asked. Wilson replied that in the 1990s, the federal government “not only were not doing the job adequately in terms of securing the border; to the contrary, they had mandated very expensive services upon the states, state and local taxpayers to provide . . . education, healthcare . . .. Healthcare had mushroomed.” Wilson cited federal law that, in his words, “made it possible for illegal immigrants to enter the country, 18-year-old women, pregnant, go the county hospital, have prenatal care, have delivery, post-delivery, postnatal care, and the children were, of course, citizens.” Yes, the system was severely stressed. But hospitals handled the influx. Later in the interview, Wilson rightly predicted that what was then “a problem for the border states will be one for all the states.” As for DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that renews visas for people brought here as children, Wilson opposes it: “If you recognize the DACA kids [and] grant amnesty, you encourage future illegal immigration.” He had no comment about deporting noncitizens, whether young or old. The policy for Dreamers continues to face court challenges and appeals.

Wilson had his longest hair ever during his 1981 Senate run.

18. Searching a number of libraries for biographies, I find the shelves mostly empty. U.S. Senator Pete Wilson: The First Six Years. A manuscript, Mayor Pete Wilson’s Speeches. His eight-page “Open Letter on Affirmative Action to the People of California.” An 84-page report, Governor Pete Wilson and the San Jose Mercury News: a Case Study. Chapters (covering both accomplishments and controversies) in a few California political histories. Numerous news articles and commentaries: Reporters spilled much ink about his flavorless personality. No full-length biography of Wilson has been written. Nothing — authorized or not — and no loving tribute to him in the San Diego public library system. I sometimes wonder if he existed at all, so vacant is the curiosity of writers to investigate his legacy.

19. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe case, a 5-4 decision, that access to education by children of undocumented parents was protected no matter how their parents came to the United States. The majority opinion cited the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment: Undocumented children were allowed to “live within the structures of our civic institutions.” The decision also eliminated a $1000-a-year fee parents in Texas had to pay to state schools. Cities and states instead footed the bill for pens and pencils. The Plyler case backstopped any legal challenge that arose because of 187. None ever did, in part, because denying kids an education is unconstitutional.

20. As governor in 1995, Wilson proposed ending affirmative action in University of California admissions and hiring. In defense of keeping the policy, civil rights lawyer Eva Paterson told Wilson that with Prop 187 the prior year, he’d “become the symbol of racism in the United States.” Nonetheless, two out of three regents voted with him. The decision was among Wilson’s most prophetic feats. In June 2023, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action at colleges nationwide.

21. Upon leaving office in 1999, Wilson’s high approval rating (55 percent) was the envy of any politician. It may be traceable to his blaming the poor and the vulnerable in his 1995 second inaugural address: “Welfare is to be a safety net, not a hammock . . .. The costs are simply too high for society to continue tolerating the promiscuity and irresponsibility that have produced generations of unwed teen mothers.” Morally pugnacious, Wilson gave himself the kudos: “Leadership means doing the things that you, in your heart, know need to be done. It means making people unhappy. It means making them enemies. Not that I enjoy doing that. But I’m not going to shrink from combat if, to avoid it, you’ve got to avoid doing what you know is needed.”

22. Claims the undocumented stir: they take jobs away from unemployed Americans; they never learn the language; they’re pawns or proponents of the Great Replacement Theory, making non-Hispanic Whites a minority by 2045; their caravans have received carte blanche by a secret pact between President Biden and Mexico’s President; and they’re swarming into the country, according to Elon Musk, to “vote” in 2024. They can’t vote, of course. When Democrats press fines on those who hire the undocumented (see Tyson Foods), the Republicans call foul — industrial agriculture and the meat industry will be robbed of cheap labor.

The plaque at the base of the Horton Plaza statue states that “San Diego’s success stems from the foresight of optimistic and dauntless leaders” like Mayor Pete Wilson.

23. In the fall of 2020, not long after George Floyd’s murder, the Pete Wilson statue in Horton Plaza was removed. Among Hispanic leaders who demanded its ouster was Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez. She argued, in a Union-Tribune editorial, that because of Wilson’s “inflammatory rhetoric and imagery,” demonizing every desperate Mexican or Central American coming to the U.S. to work, the vertical tribute was “glorifying his action . . . tantamount to Confederate statues.” Robert Kittle wrote that recent cancel culture, which derides Wilson’s legacy as gaslighting history, is comparable to the vilification of Father Junipero Serra for flogging Native peoples. However, Kittle said, Serra’s “critics display scant regard for his seminal contributions in bringing European civilization to the California frontier.” Within a few months, Wilson’s tall brass likeness was stood back up, nearby, on private ground.

24. Chicken or egg? Did Prop 187 drive Latinos into a Democratic bloc or are they Democrats ab ovo? Enrique Morones and Ricardo Flores state in the Union-Tribune that since Wilson’s ascendancy in 1971, the Latino population climbed from its then-12.7 percent to 30 percent now, and is forecast to top 41 percent in 2050. In 2023, registered Hispanics are 55 percent Democratic, 16 percent Republican, and 29 percent Independent. Latinos oppose illegal immigration. But historically, they resent Republicans who play the race card and target their kinsmen as criminals. Downstream from Wilson’s tenure—San Diegans and Californians have elected a U.S. senator, Assembly members, officials on the County Board of Supervisors, and mayors of Chula Vista, Oceanside, National City, and San Diego, all of Hispanic heritage. The San Diego City Council, once a stronghold of Republicans, has similarly been transformed—9 to 0 Democratic.

25. Political ads that use an “attack” or “satire” format capture our interest the most. Wilson’s thirty-second Prop 187 ad in 1994 was called “They Keep Coming.” A night-vision camera with grainy footage shows people with parcels running through traffic at the San Ysidro crossing and onto I-5. The message, which Wilson termed “a statement of fact,” is that their cicada-like dispersal will infect America’s “blood and soil.” In 2019, the California Latino Legislative Caucus released a short video, a backhanded slap against our erstwhile governor. Dozens of state and local officials expressed their gratitude to him for fueling a political revolution among Latinos, who now help Democrats rule most civic assemblies: “Our work isn’t done, but we want to say thank you, Governor Wilson. Now, on this 25th anniversary of Proposition 187, we have a roadmap for the entire country to follow. A roadmap on how to fight back against racist, xenophobic policies. Thank you, Pete Wilson. Thank you, Pete Wilson. Thank you, Pete Wilson. Oh, and happy anniversary.” Mischief mixed with gloating — one can feel the taunting of the near-extinct California Republican party in this year’s Hail Mary, Steve Garvey for U.S. Senate. Wilson called the featurette “a very snotty little commercial.”

26. According to local news sources, Mayor Pete fought “unsightly billboards;” he “insisted that Mission Valley and the Tijuana River Valley can have flood control without expensive concrete ditches;” he “worked tirelessly to entice smogless new industries to the city;” and he was “determined to deter San Diego from becoming another ‘sprawled-out Los Angeles monster.’” With suitable imprecision, he liked to claim that “San Diego has to have as much of its past in its future as possible.” But it was never about preservation. Inevitably, the city colonized the county. This is the ship Wilson steered: controlled growth, snarling everyone in the daily commute. One example was Mira Mesa — settled in stages: first, roads, infrastructure, parks, and schools, then houses and apartment buildings, mini-malls and low-rise business offices, packed-together infill, all future, no past.

In the fall of 2020, not long after George Floyd’s murder, the Pete Wilson statue in Horton Plaza was removed, his smiling nonchalance hiding a racial animus. It was returned a few months later.

27. Wilson’s Republican picks in electoral horse races have rarely won. Washouts include presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Ted Cruz as well as Meg Whitman for California governor. Last year, Wilson backed the Los Angeles conservative radio host and haranguer Larry Elder for President; he fizzled out like a Las Vegas romance. Wilson was luckier with Schwarzenegger in 2005 and Trump in 2016. In October 2020, he threw the dice again, giving the ex-President $5000, funds more for the lawyers, it turns out, than the campaign.

28. The most odious requirement of 187 was for workers at hospitals, schools, and churches to call the police or ICE if they “suspected” a Latino (Brown? Swarthy? Spanish accent?) had no papers. In other words, surveil those who interacted intimately with migrants who came to them for medical help, for education, for a faith community. California teachers and their unions abhorred this provision, which helped doom 187. Did any teacher ever alert the authorities to take their students away?

29. To grok the Wilson enigma, we must understand a fundamental fact about politics: To win — and to remain in office — politicians need to make voters want things. The thing Wilson and those in his claque got San Diegans to want was their version of the city’s expansion, which, along with a pro-business city council, made voters buy controlled or managed growth, by which sleepy ship-docked San Diego was on its way, commercially speaking, as “America’s finest city.” Election triumphs led him to believe his people desired more of his proposals. Once in the Governor’s mansion, Wilson taught his base to want what he did not want — an “invasion” of Mexicans. As quickly as his victory on 187 codified assaults on foreigners, back came the rhetorical volley, disabling Wilson’s cause. Wilson fell from a voter-approved high and took the local and state Republican guard with him. It’s a lesson in how political cycles work. When voters want something so strongly, they demonize anyone to get it. The pendulum swings back or adjusts to what’s fairer, less punitive, and (yes) more liberal. Wilson’s legacy proves that to push incessantly for what he and others deem is right misses how compromise and reasonableness are the wisest political choices.

30. But wait. The cycle may be turning again, a reversal of the reversal. Wilson is suddenly in vogue, his nobby voice echoing in our newly restored antimigrant hysteria. Ex-President Trump’s latest characterization of border-crossers is: “In some cases, they’re not people, in my opinion. But I’m not allowed to say that because the radical left says that’s a terrible thing to say.” Then, he clarified not people by labeling the “some,” “animals.” Does Mayor Pete agree that only a dictator can save America from its fear of the caravaning other into the country? If severe restrictions and roundups of the undocumented are coming, the former governor morphs into what he’s always wanted to be—a political visionary whose referendum will, at long last, have beaten back the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, “yearning to be free,” the border lamp “beside the Golden door,” extinguished for good.

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