Washington, D.C.

How dismaying to see Pete Wilson recant.

When he was Mayor of San Diego in the 1970’s and early 80’s, he developed a nationally acclaimed affirmative action program. “It must come from the heart,” he once told the City Council, “but we must have goals to do it.” This stated the essence of affirmative action precisely and passionately. And, given this cue, his administration achieved a great deal.

I should know. I was an equal opportunity officer in San Diego from 1977 through 1980. I worked with a handful of others out of Mayor Wilson’s personnel office, and the staff struggled to carry out his orders although it was eroded by cutbacks forced by Proposition 13.

So why the reversal from a man who so passionately worked to carry out affirmative action goals well before other politicians—Democrat or Republican—jumped on board?

The Governor’s recent statements echo the view that our San Diego staff tried to combat—that affirmative action favors the “lesser qualified” over the “better qualified” and that the nation must “undo the corrosive unfairness of reverse discrimination.” He is even equating goals with quotas.

But in San Diego we never ever used the Q-word. We never set and required quotas. Why? Because unqualified hires who made mistakes would have destroyed the program that we were building.

What perceived abuses of affirmative action changed his thinking? Surely, it wasn’t our program. The municipal work force began to mirror San Diego’s population. Women and members of minority groups became police officers, firefighters, truck drivers, electricians, water-treatment-plant operators, park-maintenance workers, and lifeguards.

The city achieved balance by rooting out considerations unrelated to job performance. Among other changes, the city dropped the requirement in the firefighter test that applicants handle the ladder alone—which tended to eliminate women—when in actual firefighting it is not usually a one-person task.

Invoking Pete Wilson’s name, we recruited assiduously in the black, Hispanic, and Asian-American communities and among women. Once the first wave was hired, it helped recruit the second wave, and the city was inundated with qualified applicants, enabling Mr. Wilson to meet his goals easily.

It turned out that the policy made fiscal sense, too. In the sanitation work force, for example, we found that the unlimited weight of trash cans not only screened out most women applicants, it also led to a disproportionate rate of disability retirements—one in six—among all the drivers. The maximum weight of the cans was reduced. This prompted complaints of “lower standards,” but women were hired, and the city saved a lot of money.

A prototype sexual-harassment policy, one of the nation’s first, was introduced—sort of covertly, because there were as yet no Federal regulations. New female hires, filling jobs once limited to men, usually did not have to endure what pioneering women elsewhere did. When harassers turned up (very few for a work force of 7,000), it was usually enough to sit them down with their department heads for illumination to occur.

Today, Pete Wilson’s original vision has gotten lost. His reversal is divisive, not Presidential. If he wants to occupy the White House, he’ll need the votes of the spectrum of people who, under the affirmative action program we helped him build, made San Diego a better city.

Carla Seaquist is a playwright.