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He’s effusive in describing Barlin Gorton’s influence in his life, the lobbyist he met at Election Central that night in 1983. She’s one in the cast of strong, successful women that Gorton married or dated throughout the years.

“I revel in the power of the women I’m with,” he says.

Wilson’s Big Comeback | Gov. Pete Wilson’s 1994 reelection campaign looked hopeless. His first term had been cursed. The state economy imploded and the budget suffered from a multi-billion dollar deficit. The Oakland Hills fire had burned out of control.

And the incumbent was 23 percentage points behind challenger Kathleen Brown.

Gorton, Wilson’s political architect, searched for a tough issue to press Brown on, and he found one: immigration. Its manifestation: Wilson’s support for Proposition 187. The initiative, which ran parallel to the governor’s race in 1994, denied social services, health care and education to illegal immigrants. It wasn’t a tough choice, Gorton says; time and again, it was the resounding issue that came out of focus groups.

Wilson’s campaign concocted threatening and dark commercials featuring immigrants crossing the border.

In the end, Gorton orchestrated a remarkable turnaround. Wilson won by 19 percentage points. The feat landed him the MVP award from the American Association of Political Consultants.

Wilson’s 1994 campaign became synonymous with Proposition 187, which is often cited as the catalyst in alienating Latino voters from the California Republican Party. It passed, but was ultimately challenged in court and never instituted.

Bob Mulholland, longtime California Democratic Party campaign advisor, says Gorton and Wilson made a boogeyman out of the illegal immigrant. “Gorton and Wilson knew what they were doing and milked it as much as possible,” he says. “And George Gorton should be embarrassed about that for the rest of his life.”

Clint Reilly ran Brown’s campaign. He said Wilson and Gorton thrived because of a trust borne out of their lengthy history. Consultants don’t often have the luxury of that kind of long-term relationship, Reilly said, and it helped them throughout Wilson’s various campaigns.

There were many of them. Wilson successfully ran for San Diego mayor three times, lost a governor’s race in 1978, and won two terms each as senator and governor. There was also an aborted attempt for president in 1996.

“In some ways George was almost indistinguishable from Pete Wilson and Pete Wilson was almost indistinguishable from George Gorton,” Reilly says. “It’s a little bit like Rove and Bush, a long-term relationship of trust.”

In that campaign, Gorton displayed the traits that helped him transcend the role of typical political operative. He showed open-mindedness and an ability to juggle egos and to silently sit at a table and listen without foisting his opinions on everyone else, said Joe Shumate, longtime Gorton partner, who called the 1994 campaign “the best situation in my 30 years of this nonsense.”

Issues of race and ethnicity cropped up again when Wilson primed himself for a presidential run with an anti-affirmative action message in the state of California. With Proposition 187 and the affirmative action push under his belt, the politician was accused of stoking white fears to win votes.

For Gorton, days spent living real life, not just plotting political moves, lent deeper understanding of the issue he’d worked to define for California in the campaign.

One day, after the campaign was over, a day laborer worked at Gorton’s house. He saw a framed Los Angeles Times story about Gorton, titled “Pete’s Guru.”

“He hates us,” the Latino worker said of Wilson.

“No, he doesn’t,” Gorton replied.

“Yes, he hates us,” the man repeated.

Later, the two traipsed with a case of beer to a spot under a bridge. The men cracked open the cans and discussed life as an immigrant. The worker described the Catch-22 plaguing illegal immigrants: the impossibility of obtaining car insurance without a driver’s license, yet the troubles faced when such drivers were pulled over and found to have no insurance.

Gorton went to sleep that night with an altered perspective.

To some in his political and business circles, Gorton’s the complex topic. Long-time friend and local political figure David Malcolm says Gorton’s always done the opposite of what he should do to be financially successful, not marketing himself and pulling himself from the power circles so frequently to disappear into some far-off country.

“My advice to him is always that happiness is no further away than your own nose if you know how to recognize it,” Malcolm says.

And Moore admits that the different sides of Gorton might not always seem to add up. But, he says, his father is driven by a belief in individual freedoms. “If you sit with George Gorton long enough he makes you see there’s a logical intersection between being a hippie wanderer and a free market champion,” Moore says.

The intersection of Gorton’s politics and spirituality never came as close as they did one day in 1995.

He went to Barlin Gorton’s house to pick up A.J. An unimposing man sat in her home and said little.

When Gorton left, the man offered an ominous warning to his host. “You better get him involved in our group,” the man said, “because he’s about to go visit hell.”

Tomorrow: Part II: Russia, Parkinson’s and Ninja Camping.

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Please contact the writers directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.donohue@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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