San Diego Consensus Sees Election of First Woman as City’s Mayor

Times Staff Writer

As former City Councilwoman Maureen F. O’Connor concludes her standard stump speech in this city’s special mayoral campaign, a slight smile usually crosses her face in anticipation of what she is about to say. Her opponent, Councilman Bill Cleator, who also knows what lies ahead--having heard it almost daily for the last five months--manages a wry grin of his own.

“If you elect me, you’re not losing Mr. Cleator,” O’Connor says. “He will still be on the council, and I’ll be at City Hall with him to work together on our city’s future.”

O’Connor’s political one-liner never fails to provoke laughter and applause at campaign forums. And, as the special mayoral race in California’s second-largest city enters its final days, the consensus of local political observers is that San Diegans are likely to transform O’Connor’s joke into political reality Tuesday.


Narrow Loss to Hedgecock

Three years after narrowly losing to former Mayor Roger Hedgecock, the 39-year-old O’Connor, a political moderate perhaps best known for her key role in development of the San Diego Trolley, is a heavy favorite to become San Diego’s first woman mayor. The winner of next week’s race will serve the 2 1/2 years remaining in the term of Hedgecock, who resigned last December after his 13-count felony conviction on campaign-law violations.

The former two-term Democratic councilwoman easily outdistanced Cleator in the 14-candidate Feb. 25 primary, polling 46% of the vote, compared to 30% for the second-place Cleator. Recent media polls show that a similar gap still exists between the two mayoral finalists. Faced with those grim numbers, Cleator’s backers cling to the hope that a large turnout for the Republican U.S. Senate primary could allow the GOP councilman to overtake O’Connor in the nominally nonpartisan race for the $50,000-a-year post.

To date, the mayoral race has been dominated more by bickering over the accuracy of campaign ads and the candidates’ respective financial disclosure statements than debate over substantive issues. Public apathy also is attributable, the candidates argue, to the fact that the race is San Diego’s third mayoral contest in the last three years, and to recent City Hall scandals--notably, Hedgecock’s conviction and the indictment of Councilman Uvaldo Martinez on charges stemming from alleged misuse of his city credit card.

“A lot of people have been turned off by what’s been going on at City Hall,” said Cleator, a 59-year-old millionaire businessman who is considered the leader of the conservative coalition that dominates the council on most major issues. “Plus, I think most people have just about had enough of mayor’s races for a while. It’s too bad that has to affect this race, because this is when we can start putting some of that behind us.”

‘Honor and Integrity’

Seeking to tap into that public resentment, O’Connor often pledges to “restore honor and integrity to city government” and has waged a campaign based on her guiding tenet that City Hall has all but become the private province of moneyed special interests, particularly the development industry.

“For too long, money has done the talking at City Hall,” O’Connor said. “If I’m elected, the special interests will be out and the community will be back in.” O’Connor’s campaign slogan is “Nobody’s Mayor but Yours.”

Reinforcing that theme, O’Connor has trumpeted her refusal to accept campaign contributions from developers as a means of ensuring that land-use decisions will be “based on the merits, not on who gave the most money to whom.”

She also has proposed that a council member be barred from voting for one year on any development involving companies with workers who have cumulatively donated more than $1,000 to the council member’s campaign.

The wife of multimillionaire businessman Robert O. Peterson, founder of the Jack in the Box fast-food chain, O’Connor also adhered to a self-imposed $150,000 spending limit in the primary and has pledged to spend less than $175,000 in the runoff. The limits mean that O’Connor is likely to be outspent by Cleator by about a 2-1 margin. However, it has enabled her to avoid the allegations that undermined her 1983 race, in which she was widely accused of trying to buy the mayor’s office after spending more than $560,000 of her own money and $780,000 overall.

Business Background

Cleator, meanwhile, has dwelt on his business background while characterizing City Hall as essentially a $600-million-a-year business, with the council serving as the board of directors and the mayor as chairman of the board.

“Remember that Bill Cleator was in business most of his life. Maureen O’Connor has been in public life for most of hers,” said Cleator, a partner in a local family-owned furniture business and the former president of TRE Corp., a Los Angeles-based firm that manufactures hardware and aerospace parts.

“A politician is only responsible every four years. But in business, you’re responsible every payroll and you get a report card every month. That pushes your adrenaline to a higher level.”

As proof of the dividends that his business ties can produce at City Hall, Cleator proudly cites his leadership role in attracting the cruise-ship industry to San Diego--a program that grew by more than 250% between 1983 and 1985, resulting in millions of dollars in passenger spending being added to the local economy.

Trying to stake out his own turf on the integrity-in-government issue, Cleator released his net worth statement and income tax filings, and has consistently chided O’Connor for, in his words, “not laying all the cards on the table.” In addition, Cleator has accused O’Connor of not completely reporting her husband’s myriad business holdings on various financial disclosure statements--a tactic that backfired when Cleator was forced to concede that he, too, had erred on some of his own disclosure reports.

“I’d have to say that we haven’t gotten many breaks in this campaign,” lamented Cleator campaign official Don Harrison. The stark reality facing the Cleator camp is that, as the race winds down, most local politicos expect that trend to continue on Election Day.