SAN DIEGO -- After a generation during which the Republican Party in this birthplace of Reagan conservatism has been the foe of government, Republican Pete Wilson said he will be "a mainstream governor" whose administration will be an active force for change.

While this seems hardly a radical ambition, it has been nearly 40 years since a Republican governor here has talked that way.

"California is a state of paradox," Sen. Wilson said in one of his first interviews since defeating Dianne Feinstein (D) for the governorship in a hard-fought race.. "We're the sixth largest economy in the world. We have vast markets, incredible science and diversified and sophisticated high-tech industries. But there's a helluva lot that's broke and needs fixing."

In need of repair, as Wilson sees it, is an educational system plagued by increasingly high dropout rates and sagging performance, a criminal-justice system that is too lenient with drug dealers while providing insufficient treatment for drug users, and a health-care system that neglects poor children.

"If you look at what's wrong with this country, it has a lot of its origins in child neglect and child abuse, broadly defined," said Wilson.

Wilson said it is vital that every California mother receive prenatal care and every schoolchild have available a complete range of medical services -- including mental-health counseling at an early age.

Bruce Bronzan (D) of Fresno, chairman of the State Assembly Health Committee, said he welcomed Wilson's interest in health care issues.

"Most of us {Democrats} feel that Wilson will be a vast improvement over {retiring Republican Gov. George} Deukmejian and much more of a hands-on, earnest person than any of the last three governors," said Broznan, who succeeded in getting a watered-down family planning measure through the legislature last year after an earlier bill was vetoed by Deukmejian.

Wilson said he favors the family planning program and thinks it highly cost-effective.

Republicans in this state often advanced programs for social reform in the heyday of progressive GOP governor Earl Warren four decades ago. But the party's commitment to government solutions was diminished in the 1960s by growing conservative hostility to the taxes necessary to pay for social programs.

This conservatism was epitomized by former president Ronald Reagan, who was elected governor in 1966 on a promise to "squeeze, cut and trim" the cost of government. Reaganism became the dominant mode of Republicanism in California and, eventually, in the country. Reaganism, although still dominant, has lost much of its spark here under Deukmejian, whom Wilson will replace in January.

While Deukmejian lacked Reagan's fervor -- or the eccentricity of Reagan's Democratic successor, Jerry Brown -- he proposed few solutions to deal with California's accumulating problems and was known for his stubborn refusal to compromise. His last years in office were marked by frequent budget stalemates with the legislature.

Wilson, 57, has often been called a drab campaigner, but he has also acquired a reputation as an activist public official. As a freshman assemblyman in the Reagan era he proposed a pioneer measure to regulate development along the California coastline. Though killed by conservatives, the bill was the precursor of similar legislation later enacted into law.

In the early 1970s, Wilson was a reform-minded mayor of San Diego. He took office at a time the city had been shaken by a series of municipal corruption scandals and pushed through ordinances requiring financial disclosure and outlawing conflicts of interest as well as one of the nation's toughest set of growth-management regulations.

Wilson always wanted to be governor. He ran unsuccessfully in 1978 and tried to run again in 1982. When it was made clear to him that conservatives preferred Deukmejian, Wilson ran instead for the Senate against Jerry Brown and defeated him. After he was reelected to the Senate in 1988, even the conservatives acknowledged he was the Republican most likely to keep the governorship in GOP hands this year.

Wilson's advisers, including his chief of staff, Bob White, and political consultant, Stuart Spencer, were not eager for him to run for governor. As Spencer recalls, he told Wilson that California was "inherently ungovernable" and that the Senate was "a lifetime job." Wilson decided to run anyway, saying he could accomplish more as governor than he could as a senator.

To accomplish anything Wilson will have to overcome formidable fiscal and political challenges. The state has a $43 billion budget and faces a $550 million deficit even if there are no new spending programs and no recession, according to a legislative estimate.

While Wilson promised to do his best to balance the budget without new taxes, he avoided making any "read-my-lips" pledge of the sort that has embarrassed President Bush.

Many in the legislature said they expect Wilson will also avoid Bush's mistake of waiting for a fiscal crisis to act. The Wilson team is already discussing whether to continue the additional quarter-cent sales tax scheduled to expire in January. It was imposed last year to cover costs of reconstruction from the October 1989 earthquake.

"A tax increase will be absolutely necessary and Wilson has to know that," said Steve Johnson, an Assembly budget expert who was an economic adviser to Feinstein and before that Majority Leader Willie Brown's chief of staff.

What will also be necessary for Wilson to succeed is a working arrangement with the flamboyant Brown, the most influential Democrat in Sacramento.

On the surface, this seems unlikely. Wilson and the legislature are likely to be at loggerheads in 1991 over congressional reapportionment, particularly with seven new congressional seats at stake. And Brown has made no secret of his irritation with Wilson for supporting Proposition 140, the measure approved by voters this month that limits the number of terms a state legislator can serve.

But Brown's anger, predicted Johnson, "will last as long as Chinese food -- Willie has never let his feelings stand in the way of policy innovation."

Wilson said voters are "fed up" with partisan bickering. "People want solutions," he said. "When there are solutions, they'll give credit to everyone who helps bring them about. When there aren't solutions, they're inclined to blame everybody."

William Hauck, a Democrat who worked for Willie Brown and is now co-chairman of a Wilson transition advisory council, has the ear of both the governor-elect and the speaker and is urging them to forge an effective working relationship to tackle social, environmental and fiscal issues that were on hold in the Deukmejian years.

Hauck, then chief of staff to a Democratic Assembly Speaker named Bob Moretti, encouraged the last productive burst of bipartisan policy-making that occurred in Sacramento. That was in 1971, after Reagan had been elected to a second term and the legislature and the governor's office were stalemated on almost every major issue.

At Hauck's suggestion, Moretti proposed that he and Reagan mute their rhetoric and negotiate face-to-face. Reagan, similarly advised by Ed Meese, took up Moretti's proposal. Their subsequent discussions are still remembered in Sacramento as one of the few occasions when Reagan dirtied his hands with the details of governance.

From the Reagan-Moretti negotiations came a significant welfare reform measure that raised grants for the neediest recipients while also cracking down on welfare fraud. They also worked out compromises on tax and education


Wilson, despite the bad feelings created by Proposition 140, is eager to try a similar approach. He said he reflects the views of a majority of Californians "who believe in strong fiscal management but also believe there are public investments you have to make."