Mayor Maureen O’Connor, who rode a call for growth control to electoral victories in 1986 and 1988, is sitting on the sidelines while other San Diego City Council members, her aides and civic leaders wage the battle to win passage of the city-backed slow-growth measure, Proposition H.
With just 18 days left until an election that O’Connor has called crucial to San Diego’s future, the mayor has not attended a single forum or debate on rival slow-growth Propositions H and J, nor has she delivered a single speech in support of the council’s ballot measure.
Role Being Kept to a Minimum
O’Connor has no plans to participate in those staples of election-year politicking or to appear in pro-Proposition H advertising between now and Nov. 8, her press secretary, Paul Downey, said.
In contrast, Councilman Ron Roberts, another leader of the council’s growth-management effort, has spoken to 18 groups and will make eight more appearances before Election Day, his aides said. Councilwoman Judy McCarty has appeared eight times and will take the stump at least eight more times before Nov. 8.
O’Connor has also declined an invitation to work with an organization of civic and business leaders seeking passage of Proposition H because that group receives funding from banks that own development companies, Downey said. Those development companies may come before the council seeking approval for projects, raising the possibility of a conflict of interest for the mayor, Downey said.
O’Connor said in a brief interview Thursday that organized forums and debates are not her “style” and that she is quietly talking to individuals in the city’s neighborhoods in favor of the growth-control measure she has championed at City Hall. During at least two recent appearances before larger groups, she has spoken about growth control along with other issues, Downey said.
‘I Have Been Out There’
“My style is different,” O’Connor said. “I have been out there. I’ve been very outspoken for it. I campaigned on the issue of getting something on the ballot, and I got something on the ballot.”
Although some polls suggest that voters regard O’Connor’s influence on growth issues as minimal, the mayor’s absence from high-visibility politicking on Proposition H is disappointing its backers and cheering opponents who believe the mayor is a potent political force capable of drawing large audiences--and perhaps more importantly--television cameras and press attention.
“It will be disappointing if we lose because we didn’t have the active support of the mayor,” said Herb Cawthorne, president of the San Diego Urban League and a leader of the Coalition for a Balanced Environment, the pro-Proposition H civic group. “If we win, the momentum for her leadership in implementation will be diminished. And either of those is bad.”
Roberts, who led the committee that wrote the council’s growth plan, said, “I would like to see her put some effort in and get out there. . . . I guess I’m somewhat disappointed by the personal lack of effort.”
Absence Helps, Foe of Measures Says
Mike Madigan, spokesman for a construction industry coalition seeking to defeat slow-growth Propositions B, D, H and J, said O’Connor’s absence aids his organization.
“If you’re in a position of disagreement and she’s not out there representing her position, it makes things easier,” said Madigan, spokesman for San Diegans for Regional Traffic Solutions. “To the extent that she’s not involved, she would not bring to that campaign the weight of the mayor’s office.”
Peter Navarro, a member of Citizens for Limited Growth, which is sponsoring the competing growth-control measure, Proposition J, contends that O’Connor’s lack of effort is a carefully calculated political decision.
“My theory is that she’s letting Ron Roberts take the lead on Proposition H, because, if it wins, she can take the credit, and, if it loses, she can eliminate a major political rival (Roberts) for mayor in the next election,” Navarro said.
In City Council meetings and in media interviews, O’Connor has spoken passionately for the need to rein in home building and protect the city’s topography, describing Proposition H as a “historic” plan, the passage of which is necessary to “save the entire city.”
In tough council debates on the ballot measure, she regularly voted against development interests. Two weeks ago, she teamed with Councilman Bob Filner to thwart an attempt by developers to win pre-election approval of contracts governing construction of more than 9,000 homes.
O’Connor made growth control the No. 1 issue of her victorious 1986 mayoral campaign against former Councilman Bill Cleator and listed it among the top three issues of her successful reelection bid this year. In 1986, she regularly appeared at the forums before political, civic and business groups where the growth-control measures are being debated today, appearances that she has in the past extolled as an important part of the campaign.
Silence Despite Tight Fight
But, in a contest that polls show is very tight, with a large number of voters still undecided, O’Connor has been markedly silent. The building industry has pledged to spend $1 million to $2 million to defeat Propositions H and J, as well as Propositions B and D, which would apply to unincorporated areas of the county.
O’Connor has sent Tim O’Connell, her land-use adviser, to four appearances in her stead. She has taped an interview with KNSD-TV that will be aired Thursday. A spokesman for the station said the mayor will appear for about 60 seconds during a 90-minute live discussion of the ballot propositions.
Earlier in the campaign, O’Connor and Roberts sent out letters bearing both their signatures to the city’s 35 community planning groups, offering to speak on Proposition H. A Roberts aide said the mayor has yet to accept any of the invitations forwarded from the councilman’s office.
O’Connor also has signed the ballot argument in favor of Proposition H, a factor that her aides claimed will heavily influence voters attempting to make up their minds during the final two weeks of the contest.
But those aides also said Thursday that her schedule is too jammed with other obligations to allow appearances before community groups; that the mayor has not received more than one formal invitation to appear; that she does not want to place herself in acrimonious debate with Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer, who has made 11 appearances on behalf of rival Proposition J, and that she has strong faith that voters will figure out that Proposition H is the measure they should support.
Also Quiet on District Idea
O’Connor also has not campaigned against the ballot measure to elect council members by district instead of citywide, an effort she opposes. She has made no appearances to support a Charter Review Commission ballot measure to establish an independent police review board, which O’Connor voted to place on the ballot.
Although council members agreed to stump their own districts for Proposition H, with O’Connor going into Wolfsheimer’s district, the mayor is not alone in her lack of action on behalf of Proposition H. District 6 Councilman Bruce Henderson, for example, has made no appearances on behalf of the measure and plans none before Election Day, even though he voted for it, an aide said.
Councilman Bob Filner, has spoken “three or four times” on the measure and has no further appearances scheduled, he said.
Recent polls suggest that voters consider O’Connor’s influence on the question of residential development weak at best. A Times poll released Wednesday shows that, among likely voters, 33% considered developers most influential on the growth question, followed by business leaders (18%), city residents (16%) and council members (12%). Only 3% said O’Connor has the most impact on growth issues.