Pete Wilson, Governor, U.S. Senator

Is your surname Wilson?

Research the Wilson family

Pete Wilson, Governor, U.S. Senator's Geni Profile

Share your family tree and photos with the people you know and love

  • Build your family tree online
  • Share photos and videos
  • Smart Matching™ technology
  • Free!

Peter Barton “Pete” Wilson

Immediate Family:

Son of James Boone Wilson and Margaret Callaghan

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
view all

Immediate Family

About Pete Wilson, Governor, U.S. Senator

Peter Barton “Pete” Wilson (born August 23, 1933) is an American politician from California. Wilson, a Republican, served as the 36th governor of California (1991–1999), the culmination of more than three decades in the public arena that included eight years as a United States Senator (1983–1991), eleven years as Mayor of San Diego (1971–1982) and four years as a California State Assemblyman (1967–1971).

Early life

Peter Barton Wilson was born on August 23, 1933, in Lake Forest, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago. His parents were James Boone Wilson and Margaret Callaghan Wilson. His father was originally a jewelry salesman who later became a successful advertising executive. The Wilson family moved to St. Louis, Missouri when Pete was in junior high school. There, he attended the St. Louis Country Day School, an exclusive private high school, where he won an award in his senior year for combined scholarship, athletics, and citizenship. In the fall of 1952, Pete Wilson enrolled at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he received a U.S. Navy (Marine Corps) ROTC scholarship, majored in English, and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree.

After graduating from Yale, Wilson served for three years in the Marine Corps as an infantry officer, eventually becoming a platoon leader. Upon completion of his Marine Corps service, Wilson earned a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

In 1962, while working for the Republican gubernatorial candidate Richard M. Nixon, Wilson got to know Herb Klein, one of Nixon's top aides. Klein suggested that Wilson might do well in Southern California politics, so in 1963, Wilson moved to San Diego.

After passing the bar exam on his fourth attempt, Wilson began his practice as a criminal defense attorney in San Diego, but he found such work to be low-paying and personally repugnant. He later commented to the Los Angeles Times, "I realized I couldn't be a criminal defense lawyer - because most of the people who do come to you are guilty." Wilson switched to a more conventional law practice and continued his activity in local politics, working for Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful Presidential campaign in 1964. Wilson's like for politics and managing the day-to-day details of the political process was growing. He put in long hours for the Goldwater campaign, earning the friendship of local Republican boosters so necessary for a political career, and in 1966, at the age of thirty-three, he ran for, and won a seat in the California State Assembly, succeeding Clair Burgener.

Wilson was re-elected to the Assembly in 1968 and 1970, and in 1971 was elected mayor of San Diego.

Mayor of San Diego

As mayor of San Diego, Wilson guided the city as it transformed from a quiet U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps town to an international trade hub. He is credited with amending the city charter to make public safety the first and foremost responsibility of city government, and leading an effort to manage San Diego's dynamic growth and to revitalize the city's downtown area.[citation needed] He substantially cut the property tax rate and imposed a limit on the growth of the city budget.[citation needed] Wilson was largely responsible for the gentrification of the Gaslamp Quarter that transformed it from a drug-infested area to a business friendly and successful downtown.[citation needed] Wilson coined the San Diego slogan that is still widely used today: "San Diego: America's finest city".

United States Senator

In 1982, Wilson won the Republican primary in California to replace the retiring U.S. Senator S. I. Hayakawa. Wilson's Democratic opponent was the outgoing two-term Governor Jerry Brown. Wilson was known as a fiscal conservative who supported Proposition 13, although Wilson had opposed the measure while mayor of San Diego. However, Brown ran on his gubernatorial record of building the largest state budget surpluses in California history. Both Wilson and Brown were moderate-to-liberal on social issues, including support for abortion rights. The election was expected to be close, with Brown holding a slim lead in most of the polls leading up to Election Day. Wilson hammered away at Brown's appointment of California Chief Justice Rose Bird, using this to portray himself as tougher on crime than Brown was. Brown's late entry into the 1980 Democratic Presidential primary, after promising not to run, was also an issue. President Ronald Reagan made a number of visits to California late in the race to campaign for Wilson. Reagan quipped that the last thing he wanted to see was one of his home state's U.S. Senate seats falling into Democrats' hands, especially to be occupied by the man who succeeded him as Governor. Despite exit polls indicating a narrow Brown victory, Wilson edged him out to win the election. A major contributing factor may also have been a late influx of the Armenian vote in the California Governor's race between George Deukmejian and Tom Bradley.[citation needed] Many of these votes came from Fresno and the Central Valley, which are heavily Republican areas. The Deukmejian voters likely also voted for Wilson for Senator.

In 1985, Wilson cast a key vote in favor of President Reagan's budget. Just 32 hours after having surgery to remove his ruptured appendix, Wilson arrived by ambulance at the Capitol Building shortly after midnight and was wheeled onto the Senate floor wearing blue pajamas covered by a brown velour robe. Not only was Wilson able to cast his vote in a firm voice, but he even held a brief press conference during the late-night session in which he jokingly asked reporters, "What are you all doing up this late?"

Convinced by Japanese-American farmers in Central Valley to support redress, Senator Wilson co-sponsored the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The bill was signed into law by President Reagan.

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he called for early implementation of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, a national ballistic missile defense system.

Wilson also co-sponsored the Federal Intergovernmental Regulatory Relief Act requiring the federal government to reimburse states for the cost of new federal mandates. A fiscal conservative, he was named the Senate's "Watchdog of the Treasury" for each of his eight years in the nation's capital.

In 1988, Wilson won the race for the United States Senate against his Democratic opponent, Leo T. McCarthy. After serving two years in the Senate, Wilson announced plans to run for Governor of California. In 1990, he resigned from the Senate after winning the California gubernatorial election.

Governor of California

Pete Wilson was elected Governor of California to succeed outgoing two-term Republican governor George Deukmejian, who chose not to seek a third term in 1990, defeating former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who would go on to be elected to Wilson's former U.S. Senate seat two years later. Wilson was sworn in as Governor on January 7, 1991.

As Governor, Wilson's oversaw economic recovery in California, just as the rest of the country was recovering from an economic slump. Inheriting the state's worst economy since the Great Depression, Wilson insisted on strict budget discipline and sought to rehabilitate the state's environment for investment and new job creation. During his term, market-based, unsubsidized health coverage was made available for employees of small businesses. The Wilson administration also introduced anti-fraud measures credited for reducing workers' compensation premiums by as much as 40 percent.[citation needed] Wilson was the driving force behind the 1996 legislation that deregulated the state's energy market, which was the first energy utilities deregulation in the U.S. and aggressively pushed by companies such as Enron.

Wilson also enacted education reforms aimed at creating state-wide curriculum standards, reducing class size and replacing social promotion with early remedial education. Wilson promoted standardized testing of all students, increased teacher training, and a longer school year. However, it was Wilson's uncompromising stance on reducing education spending that led to the budget impasse of 1992, leaving state workers without paychecks from July until September, when the California Supreme Court forced the Governor and the legislature to agree to terms that ended the sixty-three day stand-off.

Wilson was re-elected to a second gubernatorial term in 1994, gaining 55 per cent of the vote in his race against Democrat Kathleen Brown, daughter of former California Governor Pat Brown.

Wilson spoke at the funeral services for former First Lady Pat Nixon in 1993 and former President Richard M. Nixon in 1994 at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California. Two years later, Wilson became, to date, the most recent Governor to speak at a California gubernatorial funeral, that of former Governor Pat Brown.

For most of his time as Governor, Wilson reduced per-capita infrastructure spending for California, much as he had done as the Mayor of San Diego. Many construction projects - most notably highway expansion/improvement projects - were severely hindered or delayed, while other maintenance and construction projects were abandoned completely.

Term limit laws passed by voters as Proposition 140, and championed by Wilson in 1990, prohibited Wilson from running for re-election to a third term. At the end of his term of office, Wilson left California with a $16 billion budget surplus. He was succeeded by then-lieutenant governor Gray Davis as governor.

Proposition 187

As Governor, Wilson was closely associated with California Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative to establish a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibit illegal aliens from using health care, public education, and other social services in the U.S. State of California. Voters passed the proposed law as a referendum in November 1994; it was the first time that a state had passed legislation related to immigration, customarily an issue for federal policies and programs. The law was challenged in a legal suit and found unconstitutional by a federal court and never went into effect.

Passage of Proposition 187 reflected state residents' concerns about illegal immigration into the United States and the large Hispanic population in California. Opponents believed the law was discriminatory against immigrants of Hispanic origin; supporters generally insisted that their concerns were economic: that the state could not afford to provide social services for so many illegal residents.

The efforts behind Proposition 187 had long term negative effects on the California Republican Party statewide. Noting a rapid increase in the Latino participation in California elections, some analysts cite Governor Wilson's and the Republican Party's embrace of Proposition 187 as a cause of the failure of the party to win statewide elections. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only Republican to win a California gubernatorial, senatorial, or presidential election since 1994, in a unique recall election in 2003.

Still, since 1995 the following states have had similar ballot initiatives or laws passed: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma and Texas.

Policies on crime

Wilson led efforts to enact "tough on crime" measures and signed into law the popular "Three Strikes" (25 years to life for repeat offenders) As a result of the Three Strikes Law, 4,431 offenders have been sentenced to 25 years to life for strings of crime. The law required the construction of new prisons, leading some to question the role in his stance of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, a lobbying group of prison guards that gave $1.47 million to Wilson's gubernatorial campaigns.

Wilson also supported resuming the death penalty in California, after a 25-year moratorium, and he signed the death warrant for the execution of child-murderer Robert Alton Harris. Harris was executed in 1992. A total of five people were executed during his administration (the first two in the gas chamber, the latter three by lethal injection).

Energy deregulation and the roots of the California energy crisis

Wilson supported deregulation of the energy industry in California during his administration due to heavy lobbying efforts by Enron. Nevertheless, during the California energy crisis caused by companies such as Enron, Wilson authored an article titled "What California Must Do" that blamed Gray Davis for not building enough power plants. Wilson defended his record of power plant construction and claimed that between 1985 and 1998, 23 plants were certified and 18 were built in California.

Presidential campaign (1996)

Despite a campaign promise to the people of California not to do so, Wilson also unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination for President in the 1996 election, making formal announcements on both coasts. Wilson announced first in New York City, at Battery Park, with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop. He completed a cross-country tour.

The Wilson campaign had problems from the start. After deciding to run, he almost immediately had throat surgery that kept him from announcing — or even talking — for months. His campaign lasted a month and a day and left him with a million dollars in campaign debt. This debt was paid off in full in a matter of weeks.

Banking, teaching, and corporate advisory career

After leaving office, Wilson spent two years as a managing director of Pacific Capital Group, a merchant bank based in Los Angeles, California. He has served as a director of the Irvine Company, TelePacific, Inc., National Information Consortium Inc., an advisor to Crossflo Systems, and IDT Entertainment. He has been a member of the Board of Advisors of Thomas Weisel Partners, a San Francisco merchant bank. He also served as chairman of the Japan Task Force of the Pacific Council on International Policy, which produced an analysis of Japanese economic and national security prospects over the next decade entitled "Can Japan Come Back?"

Wilson is currently a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank located on the campus of Stanford University, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, the Richard M. Nixon Foundation, the Donald Bren Foundation, is the founding director of the California Mentor Foundation and is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the National World War II Museum. Wilson sits on two prestigious Federal advisory committees, the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee. He currently works as a consultant at the Los Angeles office of Bingham McCutchen LLP, a large, national law firm.

In 2003, Wilson was co-chair of the campaign of Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace Gray Davis as governor of California. On September 27, 2007, Wilson endorsed Rudolph Giuliani for U.S. President, but Giuliani later dropped out of the primary. On February 4, 2008, Wilson endorsed John McCain as a candidate for U.S. President.

In 2007, a statue of Wilson joined Ernest Hahn and Alonzo Horton on the San Diego Walk of Fame. At the unveiling, Wilson quipped, "Isn't this a great country that anyone can make a perfect horse's ass of himself at any time?" He also said, "View this statue, as I will, as a surrogate recipient of the tribute that's deserved by all of you who shared the dream, who made it come true and gave all the proud neighborhoods of San Diego the vibrant heart they needed." Two hundred sponsors donated $200,000 to build the statue. Pro-open border Hispanic groups and GLBT groups protested the unveiling.

On May 23, 2009, Wilson gave the commencement speech and received an honorary degree from the San Diego State College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts.

In 2009, Wilson became the campaign chairman of the Meg Whitman for Governor Campaign.

On January 26, 2010, Wilson wrote an opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee accusing the federal government of failure to reimburse California adequately for mandates and other costs such as illegal immigration.

Honors and awards

During and after Wilson's career, he was awarded numerous awards and honors:

The Woodrow Wilson Awards for Distinguished Public Service
The Patriots Award by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society
An honorary degree from the San Diego State College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts
The Distinguished Alumnus Award from Boalt Hall, UC Berkeley
The Bernard E. Witkin Amicus Curiae Award given by the Judicial Council of California
view all

Pete Wilson, Governor, U.S. Senator's Timeline