Short Mayoral Campaign Has 14 Candidates Scrambling

Times Staff Writer

In a brief campaign widely viewed as the end of nearly two years of turmoil at City Hall, three major candidates and 11 long shots are scrambling to fill the political vacuum created last month by the forced resignation of Mayor Roger Hedgecock.

The brevity of the seven-week campaign leading up to the special Feb. 25 mayoral primary--the city’s third mayoral race in less than three years--appears to give an early edge to former San Diego City Councilwoman Maureen F. O’Connor, a Democrat who narrowly lost to Hedgecock in 1983 and is better-known than either of her two major opponents, Councilmen Bill Cleator and Ed Struiksma, both of whom are Republicans.

Waged in the wake of Hedgecock’s demise and voters’ approval last fall of a strong growth-management initiative--two factors expected to heavily influence the candidates’ actions--the campaign for the $50,000-a-year job as mayor of California’s second-largest city will determine who serves the remaining 2 1/2 years of Hedgecock’s term. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the primary, the top two vote-getters will compete in a runoff June 3.

Although Hedgecock’s legal woes prompted widespread speculation about the possibility of a special mayoral race throughout much of 1985, that prospect did not become reality until Hedgecock resigned Dec. 10 shortly before being sentenced to one year in local custody. Hedgecock resigned after losing a bid to have his 13-count felony conviction, which stems from illegal campaign contributions, overturned because of jury-tampering allegations.

With only seven weeks between the filing deadline and the primary, the candidates and their handlers are feverishly seeking ways to telescope their efforts--notably, fund raising--to fit within the confines of what Cleator calls “an election with a short, short fuse.”

“Talk about a case of, ‘On your mark, get set, go!’ This is it!” O’Connor said. “You barely have time to even think.”

“It’s like a crash course in crisis management,” added Robert Schuman, chairman of the San Diego County Republican Party.

While O’Connor, whose other races relied heavily on extensive door-to-door campaigning, laments that the brief campaign leaves little time for what she calls “person-to-person politics,” her opponents argue that her high name recognition and personal wealth, combined with her strong grass-roots organization, are powerful assets that will be difficult to overcome in a short race.

“Maureen can complete her fund raising in the time it takes her to write a check,” said Don Harrison, a top Cleator aide. In 1983, O’Connor, the wife of multimillionaire businessman Robert O. Peterson, founder of the Jack-in-the-box fast-food chain, donated about $570,000 to her own campaign. (Cleator, himself a wealthy businessman, has promised to spend no more than $250--the city limit on contributions from individuals--of his own money in the primary.)

Peterson began divorce proceedings last summer, but the couple since has reconciled--meaning that O’Connor will again be in a position to, if necessary, underwrite her campaign. Asked whether she intends to do so, O’Connor replied, “It’s too early to tell.” However, O’Connor has asked the local Bar Assn. and Common Cause to set a “reasonable expenditure limit” for the race and has pledged not to accept donations from developers--points that she could use to try to deflect criticism if she again puts her own money into the campaign.

“I would rather be beholden to myself than to developers,” said O’Connor, who would be the city’s first woman mayor.

Both the O’Connor and Struiksma camps expect to spend about $100,000 in the primary, about half of what Cleator hopes to raise, largely through a core of about 50 major business and civic leaders who have been assigned varying quotas in soliciting contributions for the two-term councilman.

One byproduct of the short campaign, many local politicos argue, is a race in which detailed debate of substantive issues is unlikely, putting an even higher premium than normal on name identification and media imagery.

“Don’t expect a very sophisticated dialogue on a lot of heavy issues--there just isn’t the time,” said Dan Greenblat, administrative assistant to Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego) and a respected local campaign operative. “In a short race like this, the democratic process gets turned on its head, and candidates are forced to focus on two main things: raising money and getting on TV.”

Not surprisingly, the major candidates vow that issues will not be overlooked. However, their statements to date have been long on generalities and short on specifics, with much of the oratory designed to assure voters that they will help restore normality to City Hall after Hedgecock’s lengthy legal battle.

For example, Cleator, who finished third behind Hedgecock and O’Connor in the 1983 mayoral primary, pledged to “re-create an image of respect for San Diego” in announcing his candidacy.

Similarly, O’Connor has said that a major theme of her campaign will be to “make government more honorable.”

Struiksma, noting that San Diego “has been on a political roller coaster,” has stressed that he wants to help the city “brake to a stop (by providing) energetic, innovative, honest and stable leadership at City Hall.”

Former San Diego County Republican Party Chairman Allan Royster likened those statements “to what you saw in national politics after Watergate.”

“I expect we’ll hear a lot of talk about honesty and integrity,” Royster said. “Roger Hedgecock’s gone, but not forgotten.”

Also not forgotten by the candidates is San Diegans’ approval in November of Proposition A, which strengthened the city’s 1979 Growth Management Plan by requiring public approval of any development in the “future urbanizing zone,” a 25,000-acre area mostly in north San Diego set aside by the council for development after 1995.

“Growth has always been a major issue in San Diego, and to the extent that Prop. A helped underline that point, it hangs over this campaign,” said Struiksma consultant David Lewis. Lewis’ firm also ran the anti-Proposition A campaign last fall.

Indeed, each of the major mayoral contenders has sought to align himself or herself with the public’s latest pronouncement on the growth issue. Growth is always a volatile political topic in San Diego, where residents pride themselves on their city’s scenic mid-city canyons and generally unclogged freeways, and responded enthusiastically to Hedgecock’s frequent exhortations to avoid the “Los Angelization” of San Diego.

In the case of Cleator and Struiksma, both of whom opposed Proposition A, that has meant attempting to recast their strong pro-development records in a more environmentally conscious fashion.

Struiksma, in a turnaround reminiscent of that by former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. in the wake of Proposition 13’s passage in 1978, now says that he “heard . . . a clear message” in the November vote and is committed to carrying out the stringent new growth restriction.

And Cleator, a conservative whose consistent pro-development votes once prompted one of his council colleagues to derisively label him “a cement mixer,” last week proposed establishment of a task force to study ways to finance city acquisition and preservation of open space within urbanized areas.

“I don’t think Bill Cleator’s attempt to transform himself into an environmentalist is going to work any better than (California Chief Justice) Rose Bird changing her hairdo,” remarked Struiksma consultant Lewis.

O’Connor, who remained neutral in last fall’s campaign, calls Proposition A “just a reaffirmation of the Growth Management Plan that I helped pass” during her tenure on the council. Environmentalists, however, remain skeptical of O’Connor, citing her decision to remain on the sidelines last fall and her close alliance with the former mayor, U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), who became increasingly pro-development during his final years at City Hall.

Although the mayoral campaign is theoretically nonpartisan, party affiliation is expected to play a key role in the election. While Democrats hold a slight registration edge in the city--about 230,000 to 215,000--six of the eight current council members are Republicans.

With Struiksma and Cleator expected to split the traditional Republican vote, the consensus among political observers is that O’Connor is all but assured a runoff spot--and even has an outside chance at topping 50% to win outright election in the primary. However, the long-shot candidacy of Floyd Morrow, a former council member and past Democratic Party county chief, dims O’Connor’s chance for what political consultant Jack Orr terms “a knockout blow” in the primary.

A San Diego native, O’Connor emerged on the political scene in 1971 as a 25-year-old high school physical education teacher who spent only $9,000 in an upset victory that made her the youngest person ever elected to the San Diego City Council. While O’Connor still frequently invokes images of that “Cinderella” campaign, her wealth through marriage and six-figure donation to her 1983 mayoral campaign undermine her attempts to perpetuate that image.

In addition to her eight years’ service on the council, O’Connor, 39, also has served four years on both the San Diego Unified Port Commission and the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB)--giving her the longest and most diverse public background of any of the major candidates. Perhaps best-known for her instrumental role in development of the San Diego Trolley while on the council and MTDB, O’Connor also used her Port Commission seat as a forum to criticize the escalating cost of a proposed bayfront convention center.

O’Connor finished first in the 1983 special mayoral primary to elect Wilson’s successor, receiving 36% of the vote, followed by Hedgecock with 31% and Cleator with 25%. However, Hedgecock attracted the bulk of Cleator’s support in the May runoff to attain a slim 52%-48% victory. In that race, O’Connor received very strong support in minority communities in southern San Diego, areas that remain at the heart of her political base.

While O’Connor briefly considered, then abandoned, the idea of a rematch in Hedgecock’s 1984 reelection race, she has had a relatively low public profile during the last 2 1/2 years--reinforcing a widely held image in political circles that she is aloof and somewhat inaccessible. Some local Democrats have long complained that O’Connor, in the words of one party official, “resurfaces when she wants something” but does little to help the party with fund raising or other tasks between elections.

“If I’m so aloof, why do I continue to have such a strong base of support?” O’Connor said. “I think that’s just one of those inaccurate images in politics that you have trouble changing.”

Another problem that plagued O’Connor in the 1983 campaign has been eliminated through her husband’s sale of several major holdings--including an interest in the U.S. Grant Hotel site--that previously posed potential conflicts of interest that could have prevented her from voting on downtown redevelopment projects and other matters.

Although she has a close relationship with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), O’Connor is generally regarded as a moderate on local issues. In contrast, Cleator, a 58-year-old businessman first elected to the council in 1979, is considered that body’s most conservative member and leads the conservative coalition that dominates the council on most major issues.

A partner in a family-owned Mira Mesa furniture manufacturing company, Cleator is a San Diego native who returned to the city in 1975 after living in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. While living in Los Angeles, Cleator rose to become president and a director of TRE Corp., a firm that manufactures hardware and aerospace parts.

His business background and fiscal conservatism--as well as the fact that he grew up with many of the city’s current top business and civic leaders--has helped to make Cleator the favorite of the downtown business Establishment. While those ties are extremely valuable in his fund-raising efforts, they have also saddled Cleator with an “old boys’ network” image that has hampered his efforts to broaden his appeal among younger, less affluent voters.

“I see my relationship with these (business leaders) as a plus, not a negative,” Cleator argues. “These are folks who have done a lot for San Diego and who will continue to have a lot to say about where this city goes in the future. As mayor, I think it would be helpful to already have their confidence and respect.”

Asked about his strong pro-development record, Cleator replied, “I voted for most of those projects because I felt they were good projects that provided the housing and jobs we need. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about protecting the canyons and coastline and the other things that make San Diego unique environmentally. I do care about that. I’m not out . . . to pave over the city.”

Despite being philosophically similar to Cleator, Struiksma has tried to position himself as, in his words, “the man in the middle” between his two major opponents who can best “balance the needs for environmental protection with the equally urgent need to maintain a strong and vibrant economy.”

A former police officer who was easily reelected to a second four-year council term in November, Struiksma, 39, became acting mayor because he was deputy mayor, a largely ceremonial post rotated annually among the council members. Struiksma was elected to the deputy mayor’s post in December, when the council voted on committee assignments and other organizational matters.

Being acting mayor gives Struiksma added visibility that is likely to enhance the name-recognition gains that he made while running a full-force campaign against a virtually unknown opponent last fall. But the post also carries with it official duties that occupy time that otherwise could be spent campaigning.

In addition, Struiksma’s mayoral campaign got off to sputtering start when Cleator and other council members accused him of having misled them about his intentions concerning the mayoral race.

Several council members have said that Struiksma indicated late last year that, if his colleagues elected him to the deputy mayor’s post--at a time when Hedgecock’s fate still was unknown--he did not plan to run for mayor, if and when a special election became necessary. Struiksma, however, has said that he never promised not to run, but conceded that he could understand how his colleagues could “have (that) impression.”

“I think Ed’s going to find that he’s burned some bridges,” said former local Republican head Royster.

Politically prominent San Diego financier Tom C. Stickel added: “The business community will absolutely turn on Ed Struiksma if Bill Cleator goes around selling the message that he was double-crossed.”

Arguing that the squabble is “of interest only to political junkies,” Struiksma contends that the matter is “a non-issue with the public that will have no effect” on the election’s outcome. However, Struiksma has attempted to douse the political brush fire, and cut into Cleator’s support, by characterizing his candidacy as the only chance to prevent “the all-but-automatic election of Maureen O’Connor.”

Armed with polls that he contends show him running much stronger against O’Connor than Cleator would, Struiksma said he entered the race only after becoming “convinced that Councilman Cleator could not win.”

Cleator responded: “I don’t know of anyone outside of Ed’s office who believes that.”

While worried about how the two major Republicans will divide votes in the primary, some GOP leaders note that the split also is likely to prevent any candidate from surpassing 50% in the primary. And, in the June runoff, a high turnout in the Republican U.S. Senate primary could benefit either Struiksma or Cleator, these officials say.

“This is a situation that could work out for the best in the long run,” San Diego County Republican Party Chairman Schuman said.

“Then again, in politics, you never know.”