Mayor's Race in San Diego Shaping Up as 3-Way Battle

Times Staff Writer

In a brief campaign viewed here as the closing chapter to 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 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 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 Republicans.

2 1/2 Years Left in Term

Waged in the wake of Hedgecock's ouster 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 nonpartisan primary, the top two vote-getters will compete in a runoff June 3.

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."

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 a strong grass-roots organization, are powerful assets 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 Robert O. Peterson, founder of the Jack-in-the-box fast-food chain, donated about $570,000 to her own campaign.

'Too Early to Tell'

O'Connor, who would be the city's first woman mayor, has said that "it's too early to tell" whether she will again put her own money into her 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. Both the O'Connor and Struiksma camps expect to spend about $100,000 in the primary, about half of what Cleator hopes to raise.

Much of the major candidates' oratory to date has been intended to assure voters that they will help restore normality to City Hall after Hedgecock's lengthy legal battle and final conviction on charges stemming from illegal campaign contributions.

For example, Cleator, who finished third behind Hedgecock and O'Connor in the 1983 mayoral primary, has said he will "re-create an image of respect for San Diego."

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."

'Gone but Not Forgotten'

"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 last 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 for development after 1995.

Growth is always a volatile political topic in San Diego, where residents pride themselves on their city's scenic midcity canyons and generally unclogged freeways and responded enthusiastically to Hedgecock's frequent exhortations to avoid the "Los Angelization" of San Diego.

Seeking to align themselves with the public's latest pronouncement on the growth issue, Cleator and Struiksma, both of whom opposed Proposition A, have attempted 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.

Called a 'Cement Mixer'

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 (Elizabeth) Bird changing her hairdo," remarked Struiksma consultant David 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, Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson, who became increasingly pro-development during his final years at City Hall.

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 subsequent marriage to the wealthy Peterson and the six-figure donations that she made to her 1983 mayoral campaign undermine her attempts to perpetuate that image.

In addition to her eight years on the City Council, O'Connor, 39, serve four years each on the San Diego Unified Port Commission and the Metropolitan Transit Development Board--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 the transit development board, O'Connor also used her Port Commission seat as a forum to criticize the escalating cost of a proposed bay front convention center. She lost the 1983 race to Hedgecock by a margin of 52% to 48%.

Ted Kennedy Backer

Although she is a long-time supporter of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has also appeared here to boost her campaigns, 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, leads the conservative coalition that dominates the council on most major issues.

A partner in a local family-owned 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 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 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.

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."

Former Police Officer

A former police officer who was easily reelected to a second four-year council term last November, Struiksma, 39, became acting mayor--thereby gaining added visibility--when Hedgecock resigned. Struiksma moved into the seat by virtue of being deputy mayor, a largely ceremonial post rotated annually among the council members.

However, 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 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."

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

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 getting 50%-plus 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 Robert Schuman said. "Then again, in politics, you never know."

In addition to O'Connor, Cleator, Struiksma, the candidates are Floyd Morrow, who served three terms on the City Council before being unseated in 1979 and is past Democratic Party chief; 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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