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Mayor's Race in San Diego Shaping Up as 3-Way Battle

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

SAN DIEGO — In a brief campaign viewed here as the closing chapter to 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 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 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 Republicans.

2 1/2 Years Left in Term

Waged in the wake of Hedgecock's ouster 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 nonpartisan primary, the top two vote-getters will compete in a runoff June 3.

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."

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 a strong grass-roots organization, are powerful assets 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 Robert O. Peterson, founder of the Jack-in-the-box fast-food chain, donated about $570,000 to her own campaign.

'Too Early to Tell'

O'Connor, who would be the city's first woman mayor, has said that "it's too early to tell" whether she will again put her own money into her 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. Both the O'Connor and Struiksma camps expect to spend about $100,000 in the primary, about half of what Cleator hopes to raise.

Much of the major candidates' oratory to date has been intended to assure voters that they will help restore normality to City Hall after Hedgecock's lengthy legal battle and final conviction on charges stemming from illegal campaign contributions.

For example, Cleator, who finished third behind Hedgecock and O'Connor in the 1983 mayoral primary, has said he will "re-create an image of respect for San Diego."

Similarly, O'Connor has said that a major theme of her campaign will be to "make government more honorable."

Struiksma, noting that San Diego "has been on a political roller coaster," has stressed that he wants to help the city "brake to a stop (by providing) energetic, innovative, honest and stable leadership at City Hall."

Former San Diego County Republican Party Chairman Allan Royster likened those statements "to what you saw in national politics after Watergate."

'Gone but Not Forgotten'

"I expect we'll hear a lot of talk about honesty and integrity," Royster said. "Roger Hedgecock's gone but not forgotten."

Also not forgotten by the candidates is San Diegans' approval last November of Proposition A, which strengthened the city's 1979 Growth Management Plan by requiring public approval of any development in the "future urbanizing zone," a 25,000-acre area mostly in north San Diego set aside for development after 1995.

Growth is always a volatile political topic in San Diego, where residents pride themselves on their city's scenic midcity canyons and generally unclogged freeways and responded enthusiastically to Hedgecock's frequent exhortations to avoid the "Los Angelization" of San Diego.

Seeking to align themselves with the public's latest pronouncement on the growth issue, Cleator and Struiksma, both of whom opposed Proposition A, have attempted to recast their strong pro-development records in a more environmentally conscious fashion.

Struiksma, in a turnaround reminiscent of that by former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. in the wake of Proposition 13's passage in 1978, now says that he "heard . . . a clear message" in the November vote and is committed to carrying out the stringent new growth restriction.

Called a 'Cement Mixer'

And Cleator, a conservative whose consistent pro-development votes once prompted one of his council colleagues to derisively label him "a cement mixer," last week proposed establishment of a task force to study ways to finance city acquisition and preservation of open space within urbanized areas.

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