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San Diego Union-Tribune

'He instigated a lot of hatred': Dolores Huerta, San Diegans call to remove Pete Wilson statue downtown

By Emily Alvarenga,

The statue of former Gov. Pete Wilson at Horton Plaza on Wednesday, May 24, 2023, in San Diego. (Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Community advocates calling for the removal of a downtown San Diego statue of former mayor and Gov. Pete Wilson have garnered the support of labor leader Dolores Huerta.

But the statue's owners are insistent that it won't budge.

Racial justice and gay rights groups have been calling for the statue’s removal since 2020, saying Wilson — the chief champion of a 1994 ballot measure that denied undocumented immigrants access to public education, health care and social services — had used his influence to “demonize and dehumanize” Latino and gay communities.

The life-sized bronze sculpture was subsequently removed from Broadway Circle near Horton Plaza Park but returned to its original spot two months later.

Now, Huerta says she’s supporting the movement. “He was not very nice to the Latino community, to put it mildly,” she said of Wilson. “He instigated a lot of hatred against undocumented people and against Hispanics in general.”

Huerta, 93, fought for migrant workers’ rights, organized farm workers and co-founded with Cesar Chavez the union that would become United Farm Workers of America.

Enrique Morones, who founded Gente Unida, the human rights border coalition spearheading the removal effort, has been calling for the statue's removal before the City Council since 2007 .

Now, Gente Unida is calling on San Diego Council President Sean Elo-Rivera and Councilmember Vivian Moreno as a Latina to draft a resolution to remove the statue. “Wilson’s values no longer represent our great county,” it says in a press release, adding that the statue’s removal is “long overdue.”
(Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

However, the statue is owned by the nonprofit Horton Walk and sits on private property. The city was not involved in its removal in 2020 and has no say in whether to remove it now.

Wilson did not return the San Diego Union-Tribune’s request for comment.

Steve Williams, president of Horton Walk, said in 2020 that the statue had been removed in response to concerns for its safety, calling it “a symbol of all that is great about San Diego and its unlimited future.”

“The statue is going to stay,” Williams reiterated on a recent phone call, calling Wilson the best governor and mayor the state and city, respectively, have had.

Williams lauded Wilson’s efforts as governor to balance the state budget and as mayor to redevelop downtown, which he says built San Diego’s tax base to what it is today.

Gustavo Portela, the city's spokesperson at the time, told the Union-Tribune in October 2020 that Mayor Kevin Faulconer “was disappointed to hear of the removal of the Pete Wilson statue and believes it should still be there today.”

In recent weeks, Mayor Todd Gloria's office did not respond to requests for comment on the renewed removal effort.

“Pete Wilson’s anti-immigrant, anti-Latino legacy is a stain on San Diego and California’s history,” Elo-Rivera told the Union-Tribune. “I, like many others, (am) offended every time I walk past the statue of him and would prefer it be moved. However, as a technical matter, the statue remains on private property, and the city does not have the authority to remove it from its current location.”

Sean Walsh, Wilson’s current law partner and former chief of staff, defended Wilson and the statue. “There’s no … man or woman who’s done more for the city and county of San Diego than Pete Wilson,” he said.

Walsh denied that Wilson was anti-gay or anti-Latino. “I would argue that Pete Wilson has been absolutely critical to the influence and rise of the Latino political power in California.”
The statue of former Gov. Pete Wilson at Horton Plaza on Wednesday, May 24, 2023 in San Diego, CA. (Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Wilson was mayor of San Diego from 1971 to 1983, represented California in the U.S. Senate from 1983 to 1991 and served as governor from 1991 to 1999.

To many critics, his legacy is defined by his support in 1994 of Proposition 187, which sought to cut off state services to undocumented people. The voter-approved ballot measure would eventually be ruled unconstitutional.

During his re-election campaign for governor that year, he became a champion for the measure.

He released a controversial ad on illegal immigration that featured night-camera footage of people running through the San Ysidro border checkpoint as a gravely voice narrated: “They keep coming. Two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won’t stop them, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them.”

Walsh argued that Wilson simply wanted to enforce immigration laws and supported legislation to boost legal immigration.

“People want to attack him because he has a belief that laws of this country, this state and this city need to be enforced,” Walsh said.

In recent years, Wilson has defended his support of Proposition 187, saying he would support it again in a 2017 interview with the Los Angeles Times and continuing to defend it in 2019 , saying his message to the federal government had been that it needed to take illegal immigration seriously. “What you’re going to find out is if you don’t do a better job of controlling the border, it is gonna be all over the country," he recalled saying at the time.

Wilson went on to argue that his 1991 decision to take away legislative redistricting power from the California Legislature allowed Latinos to build greater political influence.

He also said in 2020 he supported the Trump administration’s approach on immigration, singling out building the border wall and pushing for what he called a merit-based immigration system rather than one focused on reuniting families.

Yet Huerta says that more than 30 years later, it's clear Wilson’s policies did more harm than good.

“The message he created about Latinos that continues to this day — he is the grandfather of that,” said Ricardo Flores, executive director at Local Initiatives Support Corporation of San Diego, one of the organizations in support of the statue’s removal.

Flores noted that the statue sits in Horton Plaza’s “Walk of Fame.”

“This is a completely inappropriate statute — it always was and still is,” he added.

Huerta agrees that Wilson’s statue is symbolic not of his legacy but of anti-Latino discrimination.

“This racism still exists,” she said. “We’re trying to undo and overcome and get rid of it.”

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune .

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