US mid-term elections: Jailer Pete set to lock out his rival

Click to follow
THICK WALLS and electric fences leave no doubt about the function of the building being erected on the outskirts of Susanville, a small town in northern California. It is yet another prison.

But the maximum-security establishment also stands as a monument to one of America's more versatile and mysterious politicians - Pete Wilson, the governor of California, who is seeking to return to office in one of the most closely followed of next month's mid-term elections.

In the past four years, Mr Wilson has become America's most enthusiastic jailer, presiding over an unprecedented prison-building boom. His policies are one reason why officials predict that the Golden State's prison population will rise to 230,000 by the end of the decade - nearly twice today's total. And, unsavoury though this may seem, it has helped salvage his political career.

A year ago, Mr Wilson seemed to be doomed. He had lower popularity ratings than any other first-term Californian governor since polling began. His tenure had been punctuated by disasters - fires in Oakland, Laguna Beach and Malibu; several large earthquakes, floods, recession, and the Los Angeles riots. The state was feeling unloved and God-forsaken and, perhaps unfairly, laid much of the blame on him.

Since then, however, he has staged one of the more remarkable comebacks in American politics. After trailing 23 points behind his Democratic challenger, Kathleen Brown, the state treasurer, he is now well ahead. Once again he is being touted as a possible name on the Republican ticket to challenge President Clinton in 1996.

His revival owes much to the shortcomings of his opponent's campaign, marred by internal feuds and indecision. Unlike her brother, Jerry, and father, Edmund 'Pat' Brown - both former governors - Kathleen Brown has lacked focus, and has only recently begun to display any sign of the skills that made her family one of the country's foremost political dynasties.

But it is also a measure of Mr Wilson's extraordinary ability to reinvent himself according to his political needs. When he was elected governor, it was as a moderate Republican who offered a 'kinder, gentler' alternative. Mr Wilson was pro-choice, courted the 'gay vote', and talked about improving the environment, education, prenatal care for low-income mothers, and rehabilitation for cocaine addicts.

But a new, harder, persona has emerged. Although he raised taxes, he has also cut welfare. College fees have gone up by more than half; education spending has slipped, and California has some of the most draconian anti-crime legislation in US history. Under 'three strikes, you're out' laws, criminals with two serious or violent offences on their records face 25 years without parole if they commit a third felony - no matter how trifling. Thus the new prisons.

Mr Wilson has also embarked on a virulent campaign against the state's 2.1m illegal immigrants. Armed with statistics, he claims that they cost at least dollars 3bn ( pounds 1.9bn) a year. He has come out in support of an almost certainly unconstitutional public ballot which, if passed, would deny them education, benefits, and health care. The compassionate figure of 1990 has been forgotten; on to the stage has leapt Pete Wilson, scourge of the criminal classes and Mexican border-runners.

Mr Wilson's ability to rewrite his script so brazenly is a reflection of California's curious brand of politics. With 32 million people in an area larger than Germany, candidates for state-wide office rarely bother going door-to- door in search of votes. Instead they are marketed like soap powders, or Hollywood movies. The party system is traditionally weak, and the electorate apathetic and poorly informed.

Despite 28 years in public office - as a state assemblyman, mayor of San Diego, and two-term US Senator - the majority of Californians know little about Mr Wilson beyond what they learn from his television ads. Unlike some of his glitzier predecessors, who include Jerry Brown, and Ronald Reagan, he is unburdened by caricature, and can be easily recast to suit the mood of the day. Those who do know Mr Wilson tend to characterise him as dull. He is considered a humourless plodder, an ex- Marine and Yale graduate from Illinois who has a lawyer's love of detail but is uncharismatic. He has few close friends, although he is respected for his political skills, learnt from his mentor, Richard Nixon. This is perhaps unsurprising, given his appetite for work: he needs only five hours' sleep a night.

Kathleen Brown has also tried to play to the public mood, concentrating rather unconvincingly on her own get-tough policies. Last week she scored her first notable victory by trouncing a tongue-tied Mr Wilson in their only televised debate to date, but her victory was tarnished by controversy.

She revealed that one of her daughters was the victim of a date rape. This was meant to show that she, like Mr Wilson, was serious about cracking down on criminals. But the Wilson camp saw it as a cynical ploy. It was political expediency - something which their candidate would never contemplate.

(Photograph omitted)