Anger from the Latino community directed at a downtown San Diego statue memorializing former San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson has surfaced once again.
National labor activist Dolores Huerta recently joined the call for the Wilson statue on Broadway Circle to be taken down. Statewide, Latino political leaders have demonized Wilson, who also served as Governor of California, for his hard-sell support of anti-immigration Prop 187.
Wilson supported Donald Trump’s campaign to build border walls and was also a detractor of affirmative action (once again in news headlines). And the LGBTQ community has also called for removal of Wilson’s statue from downtown.
In addition to the Broadway Circle statue, The San Diego Sun has researched the history of another monument–erected just blocks away–that also pays tribute to Wilson. Many believe the second statue is a likeness of the former mayor, though its owners claim it is not.
For Pete’s sake.
First, the primary controversy. A bronze, bigger-than-life-sized statue that’s definitely Wilson was installed in 2007 on private property near a Panera Bread restaurant across the street from the former Horton Plaza mall.
Enrique Morones has been protesting the statue’s existence since its installation.
“If this was a Confederate flag or a swastika they would take it down, even if it’s on private property,” says Morones, founder and executive director of Genta Unida, a human rights border coalition. “But it’s like Latino voices don’t matter.”
Morones says Wilson “did some great things” as mayor of San Diego. But Morones believes Wilson “crossed over to the dark side” when he went on to higher office.
Wilson served as mayor from 1971-83. He was a United States Senator from 1983-91 and governor from 1991-99. He ran unsuccessfully for President in 2000.
Boosted by Wilson, Prop 187 dialed back the inclusion of California’s unauthorized immigrants. It barred them from schools, health care and other social benefits. California voters passed it in 1994. It was later struck down as unconstitutional.
Wilson’s rhetoric served to galvanize the state’s Latino political leaders. Two years ago, on the 25th anniversary of the repeal of Prop 187, the California Latino Legislative Caucus created a celebratory video.
That snarky, 3-minute video features labor leader and former State Assemblywoman from San Diego Lorena Gonzalez, along with two dozen state politicians. In the video, they co-read a letter to Wilson.
One of those politicians is then-State Assemblyman and now-San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria. In the video, Gloria thanks Wilson for creating “…a roadmap on how to fight back against racist and xenophobic policies…”
Is Gloria still following that roadmap? His communications team did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The Sun reached out to all nine members of the San Diego City Council. Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe’s office respectfully declined to comment. Councilmember Jennifer Campbell’s office promised a statement but did not send one. The others did not respond.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported this statement from council president Sean Elo-Rivera: “Pete Wilson’s anti-immigrant, anti-Latino legacy is a stain on San Diego and California’s history. 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.”
The statue was temporarily removed in 2020, reportedly for its own safety from anticipated vandalism. It was later reinstalled. Steve Williams, president of Horton Walk, is on record saying the statue will remain. He called it “a symbol of all that is great about San Diego and its unlimited future.”
Former Wilson chief of staff Sean Walsh, a law partner with Wilson, has also publicly and adamantly defended the placement of the statue.
“There’s no…man or woman who’s done more for the city and county of San Diego than Pete Wilson,” Walsh told the Union-Tribune. “…People want to attack him because he has a belief that laws of this country, this state and this city need to be enforced.”
Just three blocks from the Horton Walk statue is another Wilson tribute that has garnered less attention.
It stands on a public sidewalk at the Broadway entrance (near Front Street) to The Sofia Hotel. This statue depicts a man in a suit, standing at the same diminutive height as Wilson, with similar build, parted hair and visage.
The statue man–installed in 2008–is pointing with one hand and is holding an issue of San Diego Magazine in the other.
A plaque placed on an adjacent brick wall reads: “The Sofia Hotel and her staff dedicate this sculpture to The Honorable Pete Wilson, Ernie Hahn and Jerry Trimble.” The plaque further reads: “For their extraordinary vision and perseverance in creating the blueprint for a renewed downtown San Diego, executed by the Centre City Development Corporation and The San Diego City Council.”
There’s no getting around the fact that the statue resembles Wilson. I called The Sofia Hotel and was told the statue is of “the old mayor of San Diego.” To double check, I went into the hotel and asked four front desk staffers. All agreed that it was Pete Wilson.
I emailed Ernie Hahn, eponymously named grandson of the developer Ernie Hahn mentioned on the plaque. He wrote that he thinks the Sofia statue is of Wilson.
Former San Diego Magazine publisher Jim Fitzpatrick also is under the impression it’s Wilson. (Disclosure: I worked at SDM when Fitzpatrick owned the city magazine.)
“As I recall, either the Sofia Hotel or the statue artist simply asked our permission to have the magazine in Pete’s hands,” Fitzpatrick wrote in an email. “I gladly gave them permission with no payment involved. It was good exposure.”
Despite public opinion and the confirmations from hotel staffers, Sofia Hotel general manager Andrea Winslow says the statue is not a representation of the city’s former lightning-rod mayor. Winslow adds that the hotel owns the statue.
The sculpture was created by a New Jersey-based company headed by late artist J. Seward Johnson. (His company also produced the 25-foot-tall “Unconditional Surrender” statue at downtown’s bayside Tuna Harbor Park.)
A spokesperson for the Seward Johnson Atelier says the Sofia Hotel statue was not created in Wilson’s image. Rather, she says it’s a casting called “That a Way,” first built in 1984 and modeled after a New Jersey man.
“That a Way was not made to resemble former mayor Pete Wilson,” according to a statement from the Seward Johnson Atelier. “Any resemblance is coincidental…The casting in San Diego was purchased in 2008 and there was a special custom request for inclusion of the magazine shown.”
As far as Genta Unida’s Morones is concerned, the Sofia Hotel statue is a representation of Wilson.
“His name is on the plaque,” he says. “The Sofia should put the statue inside the building. Same with the other statue. Take it out of a public place. Around the country, they took down Christopher Columbus statues. Here in San Diego, they took down the statue of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate leader. Let’s have some common sense. Let’s pay attention to Latino issues.” SDSun