In a surprise announcement during her annual State of the City speech Monday night, San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor said she will not seek reelection when her term expires in 1992.
O'Connor, who at age 25 was the youngest City Council member ever elected in San Diego and now is its first woman mayor, said she will not seek another term, so she can push for fundamental campaign and ethical reforms at City Hall.
"I think the citizens should know I won't be personally benefiting" from any of the proposed changes, which include strengthening the office of mayor in the nation's sixth-largest city, the 43-year-old mayor told reporters.
"I came in as a maverick, and I will go out as a maverick," said O'Connor, who has established a reputation of opening City Hall to the common citizen while at the same time keeping the city's business establishment and powerful residential developers, two traditionally powerful interests, at arm's length.
In the process, however, O'Connor has been criticized for running a city with complex urban problems as though it were the small town of her youth and for spending inordinate time and energy on specific pet projects--such as the recent Soviet arts festival--while ignoring other pressing problems.
As for what O'Connor will do when her term expires, the mayor said she does not know, saying only that she will stay involved in community affairs. A Democrat in a city long dominated by Republicans, O'Connor did not rule out a future in the Legislature or Congress, although she said she now has no plans to run for higher office.
Almost as soon as O'Connor made her announcement, speculation began as to who might try to succeed her and whether her lame-duck status might hurt more than help her as she lobbies for her reforms.
Several names surfaced immediately, including those of Councilmen Bob Filner and Ron Roberts. Filner, who criticized the mayor's State of the City address as having a "lack of substance to solve the real issues of the city," said he is only interested in what is happening at City Hall in 1990. He said he had no forewarning about the mayor's decision.
Roberts said that the mayor had told him she was thinking about not running for some time and that her announcement Monday night was not a surprise to him. But he said his first political priority is being reelected to the council in 1991.
Others praised the mayor for bowing out of office for the purpose of pushing change at City Hall.
Lawyer Miles Harvey, who has served as a volunteer on various City Council-appointed boards, most recently the sewer system task force, called her decision "a wise one."
"I think it's a sincere statement," he said.
Lee Grissom, head of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, a group that has seen its access to the mayoral suite at City Hall shrink since O'Connor took over, said that "the logic behind the decision is very sound. . . . She's right, if she stayed it would appear to be self-serving."
The mayor's speech differed markedly from her past State of the City addresses. For one thing, it was the first time O'Connor had delivered the annual address at City Hall. In past years, she has used outside facilities such as the Old Globe Theatre and the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater as symbols for her vision. Two years ago, she proclaimed the "Year of the Arts," followed last year by the "Year of the Child."
Before making her startling announcement not to seek reelection, O'Connor outlined a package of reforms to combat what she described as a creeping "fatigue" settling on local government. In some respects, the speech was vintage Maureen O'Connor.
In keeping with her image as a populist and maverick, the mayor bashed the politicians in Sacramento and Washington, where she has more than once been greeted as an arrogant outsider.
"We have all tried to communicate . . . to our governments in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., in several ways and on several occasions. Little or nothing worked, because little or nothing works in our capitols anymore," she said. "Our own political houses of government, at the state and national level, are near paralysis. Our governments are increasingly unresponsive to the people's needs. Our bureaucracies and statehouses have become monuments to fatigue, where the 1980s answer to everything domestic is, 'You can't.' "
In an effort to combat this view of government, O'Connor offered her reform package, which she said she wants San Diego voters to respond to in May in a special mail ballot.
The package includes all the suggestions made by the city's charter review committee, which last year's City Council substantially rejected despite a promise to put all the measures recommended by the committee to a vote.
Among those recommendations are:
- Giving the mayor veto power.
- Increasing the number of council districts from eight to 10.
- Requiring voter approval before the city can sell or exchange more than 80 acres.
- Restricting commercial development at Mission Bay Park.
- Removing the mandatory city retirement age of 65.
To those suggestions, the mayor would add several more, including having voters approve all salary increases for the City Council and mayor, setting a two-term limit on the council and mayor, imposing a spending limit on all city-elected offices and establishing a public financing system, patterned after a voluntary $1 check-off system.
In addition, O'Connor said she will push for a separate ethics package, which would include campaign disclosure and financing laws.
Among those are:
- Creating a category of "major contributors," defined as people, companies and groups that contribute more than $500 in a year to a council member.
- Requiring a council member to be disqualified from voting on a project involving a major contributor if the council member received more than $1,000 from the contributor the previous year.
- Preventing any person or company that has received a favorable decision from the council from contributing more than $500 to any council member for the next year.
- Stopping candidates from raising campaign funds until nine months before the election.
- Requiring candidates to eliminate all campaign debt within 30 days of the election.
The ethics package would provide for a range of revolving-door prohibitions, restricting council members and other city staff from becoming lobbyists on any matter they were directly involved with as a city employee or elected official.
In an effort at more campaign reform, the mayor wants restrictions placed on campaign literature and consultants, including requiring that copies of any campaign literature mailed or distributed to more than 200 voters also be sent to opposing candidates and the city clerk before it is distributed.
This effort also would require consultants doing business in the city to register with the city, and would require candidates and consultants to sign all campaign literature so they would be held accountable for its contents.
"The cure for what ails democracy is more democracy, about that I have no doubt," O'Connor said.
The reforms are so sweeping that some are sure to encounter questions about their constitutionality.
O'Connor also promised further ballot measures dealing with financial needs of the city, but she provided no details.
O'Connor's climb up the political ladder began in 1971, when, as a gym teacher at a Catholic school, she went to City Hall to complain about the treatment that a troupe of Mexican-Indian performers had received during a city celebration. She got the runaround, and thus a political career was born as an angry O'Connor vowed to seek a seat on the City Council.
Armed with a borrowed library book on political campaigning, the long-shot candidate jumped into the race, relying in part on "the Maureen Corps," a large group of student volunteers.
She won, and stayed for eight years, in time becoming part of then-Mayor Pete Wilson's inner circle, despite Wilson's Republican Party allegiance.
O'Connor left City Hall but remained active as a member of the Board of Port Commissioners and the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, helping to create San Diego's trolley line. Before she left the council, she also married Robert O. Peterson, founder of the Jack in the Box restaurant chain and a man 30 years her senior. It made her a multimillionaire.
In 1983, she lost a bitter race for mayor against Roger Hedgecock, who was eventually convicted of felony campaign disclosure violations. When Hedgecock was forced to resign in 1986, O'Connor again ran for the office and was overwhelmingly elected to complete his term.
By 1988, the "street mayor's" popularity was such that no serious opponent would run against her, and she was reelected with 60% of the vote in her first bid for a full four-year term as mayor.