The Golden State's Golden Boy

How will Pete Wilson handle his first big test?

With his pale blue eyes, sandy hair and charcoal-gray suit, Pete Wilson personifies the managerial WASP. The Republican governor of California is a suburban-born Yalie, calm in demeanor, pragmatic in action. He speaks with syntax so precise he seems perpetually to be giving dictation. He's Sacramento's George Bush, without fidgets or sentence fragments. He likes dealing with the press-unlike his dour predecessor George (Dr. No) Deukmejian-and won plaudits for his eager grasp of the details of state government.

Now this paragon of cool finds himself in the hot seat. Four months into his term, Wilson faces a growing budget deficit of at least $13 billion, the largest ever in any state. To erase it he has proposed a controversial package of spending cuts and tax increases, reaching out to Democrats in a bid for coalition government. If he surmounts the crisis, Wilson could chart a new, more centrist course for the Republican Party-and launch himself on a trajectory toward the White House. If the center doesn't hold, the state could descend into political chaos. "He could come out as a hero or as a bum," says Ed Foglia, president of California's teachers' association.

So far, Wilson, 57, seems gaited for success. The wiry ex-Marine is a former mayor of San Diego who won two elections to the U.S. Senate. Last year he defeated former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein, a popular Democrat who shrewdly competed with him for the middle ground. He won with an intriguing mix of fiscal conservatism, environmentalism and social toleration: tough on crime, tough on spending, but in favor of abortion rights, welfare reform, gay rights and controls on coastal development. His approval ratings were solid during his first months in office, and GOP strategists talked him up as future presidential material. Wilson paints the coming Siege of Sacramento in grand terms. "If you subscribe to the Churchillian concept that nothing is so stimulating as a fresh set of challenges," he told NEWSWEEK, "then even Churchill would find himself abundantly stimulated here."

But Churchill never had to deal with the California Legislature. Wilson's task is to translate his new centrism into what he calls "preventive government." He wants to take money from California's vast welfare bureaucracy and use it to nip societal problems in the bud. His long list of proposals includes a prenatal and maternity-care insurance program for low-income women; a Healthy Start program that would place health and social-service units in schools; more money for Head Start; money for rehabilitating drug-addicted mothers. And last week he said that Norplant, the controversial birth-control implant, should be made available to poor women.

The chief threat to his plan comes from within his own party. To conservatives, who constitute the heart of the state GOP, Wilson's pro-choice views and his support for gay rights are outrageous. But the most explosive issue is taxes in a state where monstrous growth has strained services and budgets (chart). As the size of the predicted deficit expands, Wilson is trying to find more revenue to finance his "caring conservatism." He's now calling for $6.7 billion in new levies. He wants to increase the sales tax rather than income taxes. But any new tax is heresy to Republicans who see themselves as the custodians of supplyside gospel. "Wilson is gripped by his own self-image of reasonableness and moderation," fumes Lew Uhler, president of the National Tax-Limitation Committee.

Democrats, for now, are more supportive. "George Bush is trying to create a new world order," says liberal Assemblyman Tom Hayden. "Pete Wilson is trying to create a new domestic order." But the growing deficit could bring salvos from the left. Wilson aides say that this week's budgetary May Revise could show $2 billion in new red ink, which could mean further welfare cuts. Democrats grow antsy as the June deadline for a balanced budget nears. Says Assembly Speaker Willie Brown: "We have not had one item on which the cooperation could demonstrate itself."

The smart money in Sacramento says that Wilson will be able to cut a deal. The pragmatic quid pro quo: he may quietly play ball with the Democrats on redrawing congressional district lines for new House seats. Ironically, GOP strategists in Washington had yearned for a Wilson victory precisely so that they could protect GOP seats from California Democrats' traditionally ruthless gerrymandering.

But if Wilson gets his budget, he will have his eye on larger prizes: a Bush victory in 1992 and, perhaps, his own in 1996. California now has 54 electoral votes, one fifth of the total needed for presidential victory. So far, many Republican apparatchiks approve of Wilson's co-opt-the-Democrats strategy. "He's headed exactly where the Republican Party needs to go," says Washington GOP consultant Roger Stone. "If we follow Wilson's path, we win." If Wilson can carry the day in Sacramento, the trail he's marking could lead him back to Washington.

In 1990 California's population increased by 834,000.

The student population from kindergarten through 12th grade increased in 1990 by 193,006.

In the past five years the total number of inmates in state prisons has increased by 83 percent to 100,943.

Since 1986 the number of welfare recipients in the state has increased by 25 percent to 2.2 million.

Estimated health-care costs for the next fiscal year: $14 billion.