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Short Mayoral Campaign Has 14 Candidates Scrambling

January 12, 1986|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | Times Staff Writer

In a brief campaign widely viewed as the end of nearly two years of turmoil at City Hall, three major candidates and 11 long shots are scrambling to fill the political vacuum created last month by the forced resignation of Mayor Roger Hedgecock.

The brevity of the seven-week campaign leading up to the special Feb. 25 mayoral primary--the city's third mayoral race in less than three years--appears to give an early edge to former San Diego City Councilwoman Maureen F. O'Connor, a Democrat who narrowly lost to Hedgecock in 1983 and is better-known than either of her two major opponents, Councilmen Bill Cleator and Ed Struiksma, both of whom are Republicans.

Waged in the wake of Hedgecock's demise and voters' approval last fall of a strong growth-management initiative--two factors expected to heavily influence the candidates' actions--the campaign for the $50,000-a-year job as mayor of California's second-largest city will determine who serves the remaining 2 1/2 years of Hedgecock's term. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the primary, the top two vote-getters will compete in a runoff June 3.

Although Hedgecock's legal woes prompted widespread speculation about the possibility of a special mayoral race throughout much of 1985, that prospect did not become reality until Hedgecock resigned Dec. 10 shortly before being sentenced to one year in local custody. Hedgecock resigned after losing a bid to have his 13-count felony conviction, which stems from illegal campaign contributions, overturned because of jury-tampering allegations.

With only seven weeks between the filing deadline and the primary, the candidates and their handlers are feverishly seeking ways to telescope their efforts--notably, fund raising--to fit within the confines of what Cleator calls "an election with a short, short fuse."

"Talk about a case of, 'On your mark, get set, go!' This is it!" O'Connor said. "You barely have time to even think."

"It's like a crash course in crisis management," added Robert Schuman, chairman of the San Diego County Republican Party.

While O'Connor, whose other races relied heavily on extensive door-to-door campaigning, laments that the brief campaign leaves little time for what she calls "person-to-person politics," her opponents argue that her high name recognition and personal wealth, combined with her strong grass-roots organization, are powerful assets that will be difficult to overcome in a short race.

"Maureen can complete her fund raising in the time it takes her to write a check," said Don Harrison, a top Cleator aide. In 1983, O'Connor, the wife of multimillionaire businessman Robert O. Peterson, founder of the Jack-in-the-box fast-food chain, donated about $570,000 to her own campaign. (Cleator, himself a wealthy businessman, has promised to spend no more than $250--the city limit on contributions from individuals--of his own money in the primary.)

Peterson began divorce proceedings last summer, but the couple since has reconciled--meaning that O'Connor will again be in a position to, if necessary, underwrite her campaign. Asked whether she intends to do so, O'Connor replied, "It's too early to tell." However, O'Connor has asked the local Bar Assn. and Common Cause to set a "reasonable expenditure limit" for the race and has pledged not to accept donations from developers--points that she could use to try to deflect criticism if she again puts her own money into the campaign.

"I would rather be beholden to myself than to developers," said O'Connor, who would be the city's first woman mayor.

Both the O'Connor and Struiksma camps expect to spend about $100,000 in the primary, about half of what Cleator hopes to raise, largely through a core of about 50 major business and civic leaders who have been assigned varying quotas in soliciting contributions for the two-term councilman.

One byproduct of the short campaign, many local politicos argue, is a race in which detailed debate of substantive issues is unlikely, putting an even higher premium than normal on name identification and media imagery.

"Don't expect a very sophisticated dialogue on a lot of heavy issues--there just isn't the time," said Dan Greenblat, administrative assistant to Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego) and a respected local campaign operative. "In a short race like this, the democratic process gets turned on its head, and candidates are forced to focus on two main things: raising money and getting on TV."

Not surprisingly, the major candidates vow that issues will not be overlooked. However, their statements to date have been long on generalities and short on specifics, with much of the oratory designed to assure voters that they will help restore normality to City Hall after Hedgecock's lengthy legal battle.

For example, Cleator, who finished third behind Hedgecock and O'Connor in the 1983 mayoral primary, pledged to "re-create an image of respect for San Diego" in announcing his candidacy.

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