Calling for "new life, new blood, new thought" on the San Diego City Council, Bill Cleator, the council's leading conservative who twice failed in bids to realize his boyhood ambition of being mayor, announced Wednesday that he will not seek reelection this fall.
At a news conference at Cabrillo National Monument, Cleator, who has wavered, publicly and privately, in his feelings about his political future for the past six months, expressed the hope that his decision to not seek a third four-year term in the 2nd District, combined with the impending departure of at least two other incumbents, would help rejuvenate the council.
"Frankly, I think two terms are enough," Cleator said, flanked by his wife and a handful of supporters. "I think the City Council periodically must be reinvigorated with . . . new blood. I realize that in Congress or the Legislature, seniority means so much that you can justify running for reelection on the grounds that seniority . . . offers new opportunities. But as far as the council is concerned, much of it is repetition."
Cleator's plan to leave the council when his current term expires in December means that at least one-third of the council's membership will change next year--a politically unusual turnover that could dramatically alter the council's partisan and philosophical balance, as well as Mayor Maureen O'Connor's ability to direct a council majority.
Earlier this month, Councilman William Jones announced that he will vacate his 4th District seat this fall to pursue a graduate business degree at Harvard University. The other vacancy will occur in the 8th District, where Councilwoman Celia Ballesteros pledged not to run this fall as a condition of her appointment to the seat after Uvaldo Martinez resigned last year following his guilty plea to felony charges stemming from his misuse of a city-issued credit card.
"At this point, it's anyone's guess what the complexion of the new council is going to be," political consultant David Lewis said. "It's totally up in the air."
A millionaire Point Loma businessman who succeeded O'Connor on the council in 1979, Cleator, a Republican, quickly became recognized as the leader of the conservative coalition that dominated the council on most major issues throughout the past eight years.
Fond of describing City Hall as essentially a $600-million-a-year business, with the council acting as its board of directors, Cleator consistently exhorted his colleagues to, as he once put it, "do things that make good business sense, as well as good political sense." Toward that end, he was a leader in efforts to develop Otay Mesa, which he hails as a future "employment gold mine," and defended controversial North City developments as means of providing job opportunities and needed housing.
Practicing what he preached, Cleator was especially proud of the tight-fisted example that he set in his own office, which had the lowest budget--but also the smallest staff, prompting occasional complaints that he was shortchanging his district--of all council offices throughout his tenure.
Cleator's strong pro-development record--which once prompted a council colleague to derisively label him a "cement mixer"--made him the darling of the city's politically potent business community, but also contributed to the failure of his two attempts to move from the council's offices on the 10th floor at City Hall to the mayor's suite on the 11th floor.
In the special 1983 mayoral race to elect a successor to Pete Wilson after his election to the U.S. Senate, Cleator suffered one of the most embarrassing setbacks of his political career. Initially viewed as the front-runner, Cleator failed to even qualify for the runoff, finishing third behind O'Connor and ultimate victor Roger Hedgecock in the primary.
After Hedgecock's forced resignation in the wake of his 1985 conviction on campaign-law violations, Cleator made a second bid to attain the goal that he had first dreamed of during his days as a student at Point Loma High School. However, despite Cleator's attempts to recast his image in a more environmentally sensitive manner, O'Connor easily outdistanced him, 55%-45%, last June.
Though deeply discouraged by that loss, Cleator said Wednesday that, over the past year, he "adjusted to not being mayor" and, in the process, became a frequent ally of O'Connor, who had encouraged her former adversary to seek a third term. Cleator, though, emphasized that in rejecting that mayoral advice, he was simply following the same course of action that O'Connor herself took in 1979 when she adhered to a self-imposed two-term limit and stepped down from the council.
"How does she find any fault with serving two terms and then letting somebody else come in, which is basically what she did for me?" Cleator asked rhetorically.
In anticipation of Cleator's decision, several potential candidates already have begun assessing their chances in the 2nd District, which includes Ocean Beach, Mission Hills, Point Loma, Loma Portal, Old Town, Middletown and parts of Hillcrest and University Heights.
Will Make Endorsements
Byron Wear, a partner in a local public relations and political firm and former vice chairman of the San Diego County Republican Central Committee, said Wednesday that he definitely will enter the contest. Other potential contenders include city school board President Kay Davis; Yvonne Larsen, a former city school board president and the wife of San Diego Unified Port Commission Chairman Daniel Larsen, one of Cleator's closest friends, and Scott Harvey, former director of San Diego's Intergovernmental Relations Department. Longshot Loch David Crane, a magician who ran for mayor last year, also has announced his candidacy.
Cleator said that, later this year, he plans to make endorsements both in the race to elect his successor and the other council elections. His future political activity also will involve fund-raising and other work on behalf of Vice President George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign, Cleator said.
Saying that he still has "a few more mountains to climb," Cleator, who will turn 60 next month, stressed at the news conference that he intends to "remain active in city affairs as a private citizen." In particular, Cleator said that he will "push darn hard" to try to insure that the 1990-1991 defense of the America's Cup is staged in the waters off Point Loma, and will continue to try to to bolster the city's efforts to lure the cruise ship industry here--a program he launched that now brings millions of dollars in tourist revenues to San Diego annually.
Cleator conceded that he might have more difficulty accomplishing those goals as a private citizen than as a councilman, adding that that concern initially was "really tugging me . . . on the other side" to seek a third term.
"But I'm just going to have to chance it," Cleator said. "I'll do whatever I can and be as persuasive as I can be on the issues where I feel that I have something to say."
Cleator's name has frequently been mentioned in connection with a possible appointment to the Port Commission, a position that would enable him to serve on a body intricately involved with both the America's Cup and cruise ship issues. If the council were to make such an offer, Cleator said he would have to "take a real hard look at it" before deciding to accept, though he acknowledged that a port seat "would probably be an advantage" that could maximize his impact on various issues.
After weighing his options for a third terms for months, Cleator said that he grew "grouchier and grouchier as decision day closed in." And, though he admitted having some ambivalent feelings about leaving a job that he described as "a great joy and great honor," Cleator said he is at ease with his decision.
"Once I made the decision, I found that I felt really good," Cleator said. "I think that I've made a positive contribution, and now it's time to give someone else a chance . . . Besides, Bill Cleator is still going to be around."