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Racial conflict tinges Calif. governor's legacy

As his tumultuous eight years as governor draw to a close Monday, Pete Wilson leaves a mixed legacy: economic and educational rebirth amid social conflict.

Wilson began with a reputation as a moderate Republican as mayor of San Diego and in the U.S. Senate. But he may be remembered most for the backlash against him by Hispanics who felt that Proposition 187, his 1994 attempt to curtail state benefits for illegal immigrants, was racially motivated.

Wilson has insisted he had fairness, not racism, on his mind when he backed Proposition 187. He also said he wanted to end racial discrimination _ not perpetuate it _ when he sponsored Proposition 209 in 1996 to abolish racial preferences in state jobs, contracts and college admissions.

But Hispanics, a growing political force in California, remain alienated by what Democratic Gov.-elect Gray Davis describes as Wilson's "divisive eight-year era of wedge-issue politics." And overwhelming Democratic victories this past year in California are a result.

"There has been an unceasing effort to sell Latino voters a false image," Wilson said in an interview. "It is not only unfair to me and Republicans, it is grossly unfair to them, because they have been . . . deceived and misled, persuaded that they are surrounded by racists."

But the 65-year-old Wilson, who briefly sought the Republican nomination for president in 1996 and hopes to run again in 2000, can't escape all responsibility for that impression.

In the battle to repeal state preferences, Wilson relished going toe-to-toe in the national media against civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.

And the most lasting image of his political career is a grainy black-and-white television commercial in 1994 showing illegal immigrants running frantically through a border crossing while an announcer warns, "They keep coming."

Under Wilson, however, the state regained 800,000 jobs it lost in the recession, plus 900,000 more. Today, California's economy is stronger, more diverse and thriving despite turmoil in its biggest export markets in the Far East.

Economic recovery brought higher state tax revenues, which Wilson directed into targeted tax cuts to encourage more business development and improve schools.

He reduced class sizes by one-third for more than 1-million children in early elementary grades, increased spending per pupil by 32 percent and supported a successful $9.2-billion education bond in 1998 _ the largest ever by any state.

Wilson won re-election by a landslide in 1994. But criticism of his backing of Proposition 187 persists today.

"I think, unfortunately, he will be remembered only for 187 and 209," Senate President Pro Tem John Burton said.