O'Connor Enters Race for Mayor : 3 Main Contenders Round Out Crowded Field in Primary

Times Staff Writer

Maureen O'Connor, repeatedly recalling her 1971 debut on the San Diego political scene as a 25-year-old "Cinderella" candidate who spent only $9,000 to win a City Council seat, officially entered the race for mayor Friday.

O'Connor, a former two-term councilwoman, narrowly lost the 1983 mayoral election to Republican Roger Hedgecock in a high-stakes race that saw her spend $683,000 of her own money. During her announcement Friday, O'Connor concentrated on stressing the grass-roots movement that propelled the former Rosary High School physical education teacher into a position as one of the city's most prominent politicians. Since her defeat, O'Connor has not been active in politics.

Addressing a group of supporters, she asked, "Remember back in 1971, when I was called the Cinderella candidate? And when you were called volunteers of the kiddie corps? When we pledged not to accept over $250 from individual contributors before it became law?"

But while she said she would adhere to a campaign spending ceiling if the local Bar Assn. and Common Cause could agree on a "reasonable expenditure limit" and promised not to accept campaign donations from developers, O'Connor made no commitment to limit her own spending.

"It's too early to tell," said O'Connor, who was raised in a middle-class, longtime San Diego family and married Robert O. Peterson, the multimillionaire co-founder of the Jack in the Box restaurant chain. "I would rather be beholden to myself than to developers . . . because development projects should be based on what's right for San Diego, and not on campaign IOUs."

O'Connor also served on the Port Commission, where she was critical of the escalating cost of the convention center, and on the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, where she was instrumental in the development of the San Diego Trolley.

She is the top Democratic contender to replace Hedgecock, who was forced to resign last month before his sentencing on perjury and conspiracy charges. Other prominent Democrats, including Councilman Mike Gotch and Assemblywoman Lucy Killea, decided not to enter the race.

Two longtime leaders of the council's Republican, pro-development voting bloc, acting Mayor Ed Struiksma and Councilman Bill Cleator, are her best-known opponents in the Feb. 25 primary.

Struiksma said in announcing his candidacy that O'Connor was the front-runner in the race, and that he was running because he was "convinced that if I am not a candidate, the moderate and conservative voters of this city will lose their representation in the mayor's office." He said he was "convinced Councilman Cleator could not win."

Cleator finished third, behind Hedgecock and O'Connor, in the 1983 mayoral primary.

O'Connor said, "I'm the best candidate," but would not speculate on whether she should be considered the favorite to win the primary. If none of the candidates receives more than 50% of the primary vote, the top two finishers will compete in a June 3 runoff, a strong possibility with three well-known candidates in the race.

Struiksma and Cleator have promised not to spend more than $250 of their own money on their respective primary campaigns and asked O'Connor to make a similar pledge. O'Connor responded by asking her opponents not to accept money from developers, which they declined to do.

O'Connor said the theme of her second bid for mayor was to "make government more honorable" because it was the "No. 1 issue facing the city."

While O'Connor is the only leading Democrat in the field, Struiksma and Cleator have stressed that they would not be conceding her any votes from the minority and slow-growth coalitions that supported her previous campaigns. In 1983, O'Connor out-polled Hedgecock by more than 7-to-1 in precincts south of Interstate 8, but was soundly defeated in the northern sections of the city. She lost after getting 48% of the vote to Hedgecock's 52%.

Unlike her opponents, O'Connor did not mention Proposition A, the slow-growth initiative approved in November. Cleator and Struiksma, who opposed the ballot measure, have since pledged to implement it. O'Connor never publicly announced her position on the proposition.

O'Connor said she was not yet ready to take a stand on the proposed police pay-raise initiative on the June ballot, which promises to be a major campaign issue. Sponsored by the Police Officers Assn., the initiative asks voters to mandate a one-time, across-the-board pay raise for city police to make their salaries equal to the average pay earned by officers for the California Highway Patrol and the four largest police forces in the state. It is estimated the raises could be as high as 17%, at a cost to the city of $10 million. Cleator has not yet taken a position, while Struiksma strongly indicated he would oppose the measure.

In all, 14 candidates have qualified for the primary ballot, the City Clerk's office reported Friday, just after the 5 p.m. filing deadline. In addition to O'Connor, Cleator and Struiksma, the candidates are Floyd Morrow, who served three terms on the City Council before being unseated in 1979; John Kelley, a businessman; Loch David Crane, a self-described "professor of composition magician;" Nicholas Walpert, a businessman; Ralph Peters, an engineer; Warren Nielsen, a businessman; Rose Lynn, a City Hall gadfly and self-described "ombudscientist;" Vernon Watts, a carpenter; Robert McCullough, an environmental designer; Arthur Helliwell, who is retired, and Mary Christian-Heising, a political scientist.

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