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O'Connor Runs Against Image Coined by Her Opponents

February 13, 1986|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | Times Staff Writer

Six o'clock on a chilly morning outside a plant gate is perhaps not the first place one would expect to find someone who has been called, among other things, "aloof," "inaccessible" and "elitist." Yet that is where San Diego mayoral candidate Maureen O'Connor was last week, shaking hands with General Dynamics workers at an hour when most of her opponents probably were still sleeping.

On other days, O'Connor, more so than any other mayoral candidate, has spent long hours at shopping centers and walking in neighborhoods, or chatting with small groups of voters at homes throughout the city. And, through it all, the former councilwoman who hopes to be the city's first woman mayor is working hard to exorcise a demon from campaigns past and striving as much to show voters what she is not as what she is.

"One thing I'm not is aloof," O'Connor said emphatically. "That's an image created by my opponents and their consultants. That's what consultants get paid to do--find negative things to say about their opponents. But that aloofness thing isn't true, and I think the kind of campaign I'm running shows that it's not true."

True or not, that image of aloofness looms as an obstacle nearly as formidable to O'Connor as the 12 other candidates in the Feb. 25 mayoral primary--an election in which many groups, especially minorities, that gained entry to City Hall under former Mayor Roger Hedgecock are looking to O'Connor and the other would-be mayors for assurances of continued accessibility.

"People realize you're not always going to agree with them, but they want to be sure--and they have a right to expect--that they can at least reach and talk to their public officials," the former two-term Democratic San Diego city councilwoman said. "So, sure, I'm concerned that people might get a wrong impression from the things my opponents say. Unfortunately, it's easier to create an image than it is to change one. All I can do is to try to show people the real Maureen."

Whether voters have been seeing the "real Maureen" in this campaign or a crafty Populist image of her own design is a question that prompts widely divergent responses. What is undeniable, however, is that O'Connor's 1986 strategy, founded on a return to her personal and political roots, is as risky as it is different from that of her unsuccessful 1983 mayoral race.

Three years after she spent more than $560,000 of her own money and was accused of trying to buy the mayor's office, O'Connor has imposed a $150,000 spending limit on her primary campaign--less than the amount spent in many council races and about $100,000 below Republican Bill Cleator's campaign budget. Overall, O'Connor spent $780,000 on her 1983 race, in which she narrowly lost to Hedgecock, 52% to 48%.

As a result of what she calls her "bold experiment . . . to end the craziness" of spiraling campaign costs, O'Connor has been outspent on radio and television ads by both Councilman Cleator and the other leading candidate in the race, former Councilman Floyd Morrow--a disadvantage offset by the fact that she entered the campaign as the candidate with the highest name recognition. To date, she has not spent any of her personal money in the race but has refused to rule out that possibility.

To compensate for the drastic spending reduction, she has returned to the grass-roots style of politicking that in 1971 allowed O'Connor, then a 25-year-old physical education teacher at a Catholic high school for girls, to become the youngest person ever elected to the San Diego City Council--a long-shot victory that one local newspaper labeled "the biggest political upset in 10 years."

"In a different way, this race is as big a gamble as that race was," O'Connor said. "Then, the experts didn't think I could do it, period. Now, they're saying that you can't run a citywide race like mine in 1986, that you can't reach enough people unless you have a big media campaign. Well, in about two weeks, we'll know who was right."

Known as a feisty advocate for the underdog during her two council terms, O'Connor already has devoted 24 days--three in each of the city's eight council districts--to what she calls "person-to-person, one-on-one campaigning" at shopping centers, supermarkets, factories and residences. If elected, she has pledged to spend every other Saturday at City Hall meeting constituents on a "first-come, first-served" basis, and says that she would spend at least one day per month visiting neighborhoods throughout the city.

"That's why all this talk about aloofness is a joke--I'm spending more time out on the streets, talking to the public, than any other candidate," O'Connor said.

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