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O’Connor Imposes $175,000 Spending Limit on Campaign

Times Staff Writer

Seeking to “restore honor and integrity to government,” San Diego mayoral candidate Maureen O’Connor on Tuesday pledged to spend less than $175,000 during the June 3 runoff campaign, signed a campaign “fairness pledge” and proposed increased disclosure of political contributions.

Saying that “political reform comes from within,” O’Connor stressed that she plans to adhere to the financial and ethical guidelines established by her three-point package, despite the fact that her opponent, City Councilman Bill Cleator, indicated that he will not.

“We’re going to chart our own course,” O’Connor said at a news conference at her campaign headquarters in Old Town. “I’m not asking Mr. Cleator to adhere to anything today. I am going to run my own campaign (and) do what I personally believe in the area of political reform.”

In a written response to O’Connor’s plan, Cleator, who finished second behind O’Connor in the Feb. 25 primary, 30% to 46%, argued that the $175,000 spending limit “is calculated to lock me into a permanent disadvantage.” In addition, Cleator dismissed O’Connor’s fairness pledge as “duplicative of the official campaign fairness code,” which both candidates signed when they took out candidacy petitions.

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Cleator’s campaign manager, Dan Greenblat, also sharply criticized O’Connor’s plan, which he described as “a way of distracting voters’ attention from the central issues by continuing this silly jousting over the rules of the game.”

The centerpiece of O’Connor’s self-described “election-reform program” is her $175,000 spending limit, which she characterized as “a fair but tight figure (that will) allow us to . . . get our message to the voters.” In the February primary, O’Connor spent about $40,000 less than a self-imposed $150,000 cap, while Cleator spent more than $270,000.

When she unveiled her primary spending limit, O’Connor characterized it as “a bold experiment . . . to end the craziness” of spiraling campaign costs--a trend to which she contributed by spending more than $780,000, including more than $560,000 of her own money, in her unsuccessful 1983 mayoral race against Roger Hedgecock. She probably will spend only about one-third as much in this campaign.

“Having been outspent by a minimum of 2-to-1 in the primary, we expect to be outspent probably 3-to-1 in the (runoff),” O’Connor said. Cleator’s aides have said that they expect to spend more in the runoff than they did in the primary, but have not specified a campaign budget target.

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Although O’Connor received only about $120,000 in contributions during the primary, the former councilwoman denied that the $175,000 limit was merely an estimate of the amount she realistically could expect to raise in the runoff.

“That’s not how I operate,” O’Connor said. “We budgeted basically what we felt we needed for get-out-the-vote (efforts), what we needed for direct mail, television and operational overhead for the office.”

David Bain, O’Connor’s campaign treasurer, added that O’Connor’s fund-raisers estimated that they could raise $225,000 during the runoff.

O’Connor, the wife of multimillionaire businessman Robert O. Peterson, did not spend any of her own money on her primary campaign and said Tuesday that she hopes to not spend her own funds in the runoff. However, O’Connor stopped short of ruling out that possibility.

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“I’m going to work very hard at not using my own money,” said O’Connor, who was widely accused of trying to buy the mayor’s office in the 1983 race. “But I’m not ruling (it) out, in the final days of the campaign, if I feel it necessary to spend my own money.”

In his two-page letter, Cleator chided O’Connor for not joining him in his pledge to limit his and his wife’s contribution to his campaign to $250, the maximum individual contribution allowed under the city’s election law. In addition, Cleator also pointed to O’Connor’s heavy reliance on her own money in the 1983 mayoral race as a major reason why he is unwilling to accept a spending limit in this campaign. There is no limit on a candidate’s contributions to his own campaign.

Noting that O’Connor spent more than three-quarters of a million dollars in the 1983 race “to take your name and your case to the voters,” Cleator added, “While you did not win that race, I believe you achieved a high name identification through that spending and a momentum which my campaign must overcome.”

“The proposal to lock me into a lower spending limit in reality is a proposal to prevent my campaign from overtaking yours,” Cleator wrote. “Therefore, I reject it.” (Cleator’s letter actually was prepared before O’Connor’s news conference, in response to the spending limit and other proposals that O’Connor outlined in general form several weeks ago.)

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In the fairness pledge that O’Connor signed Tuesday, she promised to “run a campaign free of personal attacks on my opponent or (his) family members” and to “refrain from producing or distributing false or misleading literature, commercials or other like material.” O’Connor’s campaign manager, LaDonna Hatch, and campaign consultant Dick Sykes also signed that agreement.

Cleator, however, pointed out that he signed a similar pledge when he became a candidate, adding: “There is no need to sign another one.”

In accordance with her pledge, O’Connor indicated that her campaign will give Cleator’s staff 48 hours’ notice of her campaign mailers and ads during the final three weeks of the race to help check the material for accuracy. She said she also will send the material to the city clerk’s office.

The fairness pledge also reinforces O’Connor’s oft-stated contention that political parties should not play a major role in the nominally nonpartisan mayoral race.

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“I recognize this is a nonpartisan election and shall not seek or accept support from any political party or organization,” O’Connor said in the signed statement. “If any political party attempts to spend funds on my behalf, I shall immediately insist that they cease.”

While praising the election-law reforms recently proposed by the city’s Campaign Review Task Force, O’Connor took issue with some of the panel’s recommendations--notably, one which would allow candidates to receive corporate and partnership contributions. Currently, only individuals may contribute to local candidates.

“I can think of no action which would violate the spirit and intent of election reform more than allowing corporate or partnership contributions,” said O’Connor, who co-authored the city’s campaign ordinance while she served on the City Council during the 1970s. The existing law needs to be strengthened, O’Connor said, so that the public “can have a better understanding of the cumulative impact of multiple contributions from employees and agents of partnerships or corporations.”

Under current law, only the donors of contributions of $100 or more must be identified on candidates’ financial disclosure statements. However, O’Connor, calling that provision “a giant loophole” that permits thousands of dollars in campaign contributions “to be hidden from scrutiny,” proposed that the City Council establish a $500 limit per election on undisclosed donations.

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In the last 15 months, O’Connor said, City Council candidates received “a minimum of $30,000" in such undisclosed donations. Her campaign has provided full disclosure of all sub-$100 contributions, with the exception of about $300 from donors who “absolutely insist that they want to remain anonymous,” O’Connor said.

Calling for more frequent reports on campaign contributions, O’Connor also said that she plans to release reports on her campaign finances every three weeks throughout the runoff, even though the next required report is not due until late May. During the final week of the race, O’Connor said, she will disclose her campaign contributions daily.

Greenblat said that Cleator intends to “fully report what the law requires, when it requires it,” but added, “We’re not going to play into Maureen’s hands by getting caught up in another little side issue of her own making.”

“This is just another dodge, and frankly not a very artful one, designed to dissipate everyone’s energy . . . and distract attention from the real germane issues,” Greenblat said. One such issue, Greenblat added, is O’Connor’s refusal to fully disclose all of her and her husband’s assets. In contrast, Cleator has said that he will disclose his and his wife’s financial holdings later this month.

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“To me, that’s not just another rules of the game question,” Greenblat said. “That’s the type of question of substance that makes or breaks a mayoral campaign, and it’s time we got on to those questions.”


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