For months, the question has been the favorite guessing game within San Diego political circles: Will San Diego County Supervisor Susan Golding challenge Mayor Maureen O'Connor this spring, or will she simply seek reelection to her current seat?
And Golding is perfectly content to allow the guessing to continue.
"At this point, I don't see the need or necessity of making an announcement that I'm not doing something," Golding said in an interview in her supervisorial office. "I don't think there's any more point to saying I'm not running for mayor than there is to saying I'm not running for president, governor or state senator.
"As of today, I'm running for reelection to the Board of
Supervisors. I've said that all along and have never varied from that. But I'm also listening to those who are actively and vigorously encouraging me to run for mayor. So the situation could change. There's still plenty of time to make that decision."
Whether Golding is, as she professes, genuinely undecided about her political options or is simply being coy about her intentions, the 42-year-old supervisor, now in the final year of a four-year term, is widely viewed as the only potentially serious obstacle standing between O'Connor and a reelection that otherwise could be a virtual fait accompli .
"If Golding doesn't enter the race, there may be no race," political consultant David Lewis says simply.
By conventional political standards, Golding's entry in the mayoral race, should she opt to challenge O'Connor, would be a relatively late one. O'Connor's strategic planning already is well under way and the filing deadline for the June race is only two months away.
Golding, however, argues that her unique political circumstances--notably, name recognition perhaps second only to O'Connor among local officeholders, her 1981-1983 service on the City Council, proven fund-raising ability supplemented by personal wealth and a supervisorial district that largely overlaps the city--give her "more time to play with" than the typical mayoral candidate.
'Needed to Start Yesterday'
Though Golding, half-jokingly, suggested that she could "announce the day before the (March 10) filing deadline . . . and still be viable," some of her closest advisers believe that she faces a more compressed political timetable and say they expect a decision within several weeks.
"I don't see us getting out of January with it still being an open question," said lawyer J. Michael McDade, a Golding confidante and one-time City Hall chief of staff to former Mayor Roger Hedgecock.
Fund-raiser Nancy MacHutchin added: "She perhaps could put off a formal announcement until March, but in terms of organization, she needed to start yesterday."
Meanwhile, Golding's uncertain status has increasingly fueled speculation among political observers, many of whom view the prospect of an O'Connor-Golding showdown as potentially this year's preeminent local election. For months, some county officials have jokingly referred to Golding as "Mayor Golding," and the will-she-or-won't-she question has become a staple at political gatherings.
With that heightened interest as a backdrop, Golding's actions and public comments--as well as those of O'Connor--have been constantly scrutinized for hints of a budding political battle.
When the two clashed over formation of a committee to examine new ways to honor Martin Luther King Jr. after San Diego voters last November removed the slain civil rights leader's name from a major downtown street, the dispute was widely interpreted as a political spat between two potential mayoral opponents.
"Not from my side it wasn't," Golding said.
Similarly, the fact that Golding in recent weeks positioned herself in the forefront on a number of high-profile issues, ranging from recycling and aid for the homeless to an anti-discrimination measure to protect AIDS patients and a push to hire more sheriff's dispatchers, was seen by some as a pre-mayoral candidacy publicity blitz.
"I was just doing the job to which I was elected," Golding explained. "But I can't stop others from interpreting that in other ways."
Golding admits, however, that she has spent "considerable time" weighing the advantages and disadvantages of a potential mayoral race versus a supervisorial reelection campaign.
In making the case for seeking reelection, Golding ticks off these factors: the likelihood of an easy campaign, one in which no challengers have surfaced; her desire to complete unfinished projects and her belief that her experience would enhance her already impressive legislative record in a second term, and the knowledge that, even if she chooses to stay on the sidelines in June's mayoral race, "there will be many other opportunities in the future."
Moreover, Golding theorizes that local political power may increasingly shift to the county over the next decade "because the major problems are regional ones, and the county is the only regional government." An adviser who has heard Golding offer that scenario, however, dismisses it as merely "Susan trying to convince herself that she's still challenged by the job." One key statistic--the fact that the supervisors have discretion over only 7%, or about $84 million, of the county's $1.2-billion budget, with the remaining funds allocated to programs mandated by state or federal law--is a telling indicator of the limitations of the county post, a frustration that Golding acknowledges.
Golding's argument for a possible mayoral race is simpler and more direct.
"The advantage is obvious--there's only one mayor," Golding said. "It's the seventh largest city in the nation and that office gives you the ability to motivate people and build coalitions better than you can from any other position. People are used to looking for the mayor for leadership. That's where the power is. I think anyone in public life would enjoy the problems that the mayor of a major city has to deal with."
Though unwilling to critique the Democratic mayor's record in detail, Golding, a Republican, says this about O'Connor: "People wouldn't be asking me to run unless there was some dissatisfaction with the performance."
With long-range ambitions that lie in either Sacramento or Washington, the mayor's office--and the higher public visibility that comes with it--also offers a more direct path toward those goals than Golding's current job.
But in order to attempt to move from the bayfront County Administration Center to the 11th floor of City Hall this year, Golding would have to give up her supervisorial seat. Her decision might have been easier, some of her aides suggest, if she were in the middle of her supervisorial term, giving her a "free shot" in the mayor's race. Golding, however, insists that the notion of vacating a safe seat for an admittedly tough race in which she would begin as an underdog--a contest that, if she loses, would leave her at least temporarily without a public forum--does not deter her.
"That would only make things easier if you believe that being out of office is a catastrophe, and I don't believe that," said Golding, who stepped down from the council in early 1984 to briefly serve as deputy director of housing in the Deukmejian Administration. "I did a lot of things to make a living before I ran for public office, and after having served in office for as many years as I have, my opportunities would be even better. So being out of office holds no terrors for me. It's really not in the equation of whether I should run for mayor or any office."
Moreover, some advisers have told Golding that giving up her supervisorial seat to run for mayor could be transformed into a political asset by demonstrating her commitment and willingness to take a risk. Combined with the fact that Golding will have served her full supervisorial term, that factor also could help dispel criticism that she faced in the past as a job-hopper, a charge that stemmed from her move from the City Council to Sacramento, then back to San Diego to run for the Board of Supervisors within a two-year period in the mid-1980s.
'Susan Is a Realist'
A more serious consideration--and the one that, more than any other, gives Golding pause as she ponders a potential mayoral campaign--is the question of whether she, or anyone else, has a realistic chance to defeat O'Connor, who has built tremendous public popularity in the 18 months since winning a special June, 1986, election to succeed Roger Hedgecock after his forced resignation in the wake of a 13-count felony conviction on campaign-law violations.
"Above all else, Susan is a realist, and if she can't find a way to make it happen, she won't be there on the starting line," consultant Lewis said.
The consensus within political circles is that, barring a major blunder, O'Connor may be all but unassailable in her bid for a full four-year term--a belief bolstered by various poll results. Recent polls conducted by O'Connor consultant Dick Dresner showed the mayor trouncing both Golding and City Councilman Ed Struiksma, whose name also is occasionally mentioned in connection with the June mayoral primary, by 30%-plus margins. According to the same polls, more than 70% of San Diegans approve of O'Connor's performance in office, and her personal popularity registers in the mid-80% range, Dresner said.
"It's clearly Maureen's race to lose, which leaves her opponents waiting and hoping for a serious mistake," Dresner said. "But you can never say anyone in politics is untouchable, because I've seen too many 'untouchable' candidates get touched by the voters. Still, it's a very comfortable position."
Golding herself, who says other polls paint a more favorable picture of her prospects, dismisses the surveys as "much too early to be of any significance."
"If I didn't think it was a reasonable option, I wouldn't even be considering it," Golding said. "I haven't lost (in previous races) and I don't like the idea of losing. No matter what I run for, I don't intend to lose."
And, as lawyer McDade, a veteran of numerous past local campaigns, points out: "Until there is a substantial challenge to O'Connor, we'll never know just how popular or strong she really is . . . . And Susan has the kind of record that might highlight (O'Connor's) weaknesses."
During her three years at the county, Golding has gained a reputation as a tireless, incessantly inquisitive--sometimes excessively so, critics contend--supervisor who has assumed a leadership role on a wide range of issues.
One of her major legislative coups occurred early in her term, when she toppled a proposal to lease the two bayfront parking lots flanking the county building to a private developer to build a luxury hotel, restaurants, shops and two office towers. Proponents hailed the plan as a means of generating needed revenue without raising taxes, but Golding and others argued that the financial benefits would have been outweighed by destruction of the picturesque waterfront site.
Through Golding's insistence, county budget documents have been revised to spotlight areas where the supervisors could exercise discretion rather than simply enact mandated programs, and the board's weekly agendas were streamlined. She also has led the charge on programs from foster child care and environmental guidelines to opposition to offshore oil drilling and improvements in the coroner's office.
Though skeptics sometimes accuse Golding of stretching herself too thin, she insists that she has "always followed through on everything I started," and even critics express grudging admiration for the breadth of her legislative accomplishments.
That record, Golding supporters argue, could serve as an effective counterpoint to what they--and many other business and civic leaders--view as O'Connor's sometimes listless leadership and relatively modest legislative score card.
Even some of Golding's strongest partisans, however, concede that while O'Connor is often criticized within political circles for her leadership--or lack thereof--the issue appears to have done no harm to her standing with the general public.
"A lot of people in the know are dissatisfied with the mayor, but the populace seems to like her as long as she continues to hop on the back of garbage trucks and paints boys clubs," a GOP activist said, referring to two public appearances by the mayor.
O'Connor, meanwhile, made it clear that she is not fearful of Golding's potential candidacy--or, for that matter, that of any other possible opponent. Describing herself as "confident but not cocky," O'Connor said she believes her record--highlighted by adoption of stricter growth management controls and the "opening up of City Hall"--will establish the framework for the mayoral campaign.
"Regardless of who runs, the issue is going to be, 'Why change?' " O'Connor said. "Is the mayor doing a good job? If she is, what's the impetus to change? Frankly I'm proud of my record and I think people appreciate the stability they see at City Hall."
In preparation for her reelection campaign, Golding said that she raised about $80,000 last year and has four fund-raisers scheduled during the next month. Like some of her other actions, Golding's campaign treasury and her aggressive fund-raising schedule also have raised eyebrows, particularly because she lacks a serious supervisorial opponent and the funds could be used in a mayoral race.
'It Isn't Ethical'
"That might be legal but it isn't ethical," Golding said of the potential conversion of past contributions to a mayoral race. Before doing so, she added, she would seek authorization from past contributors.
Political considerations aside, a Golding-O'Connor race also would be marked by some ticklish personal overtones, because their respective multimillionaire husbands--Richard Silberman and Robert O. Peterson--are former business partners who, among other dealings, were co-founders of the Jack in the Box fast-food chain. In addition, Silberman, a prominent Democrat who was director of finance under former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., supported O'Connor in her past campaigns--a happenstance that Golding noted wryly is "unlikely to occur" in the future.
"It would make things interesting, but things like that happen in politics," Golding said. "But, no, the husbands wouldn't have to leave town."