These are peculiar times in which San Diego voters go to the polls to again express themselves on who should be the city's mayor.
The fact that Tuesday will be the fifth time they have been called upon to vote for mayor in three years adds to the strangeness of the election and underscores the need for stability. Not only was the last mayor, Roger Hedgecock, forced from office by 13 felony convictions, but a city councilman who was among the original 14 candidates dropped out of the race when the district attorney decided to investigate whether he had falsified a city expense account. Another councilman already was under investigation for possible city credit card misuse.
Weary of elections and scandals, voters hope this time to choose someone they can live with and who will stick around for a while.
But these are also challenging times for local government. Problems such as deteriorating older neighborhoods, increased traffic congestion, and the need to promote development of Otay Mesa and Southeast San Diego while protecting precious canyons and open space don't disappear just because the City Council is distracted by political problems. Neither do the twin problems of police morale and tense relations between police and certain segments of the community. So, not only is it a time for stability, but also for firm and imaginative leadership.
Political experts say the race is really a contest between Maureen O'Connor and Bill Cleator, with the role of the others being to determine whether someone wins outright or a June 3 runoff is necessary. O'Connor and Cleator were defeated by Hedgecock in the 1983 special election, and neither felt strong enough to challenge him in 1984, even though he had to campaign while under felony indictment. When it comes to political skill and having a vision for San Diego's future--though not to the matter of integrity--both continue to suffer by comparison with the dynamic former mayor.
Floyd Morrow, a former Democratic councilman, also has run a serious race, probably spending more money in the primary campaign than O'Connor. He has picked up some support from liberals who don't like O'Connor, who also is a Democrat, and he can lay claim to some accomplishments a decade or more ago as a councilman. But he seems a politician whose time has passed, and none of the polls indicate he will threaten the front-runners.
In a sense, both leading candidates present the electorate with puzzles. O'Connor has always been an enigma to many political activists who complain that they never see her except when she's running for office. Fairly or not, her reserved nature and her virtual rags-to-riches personal story conspire to create an image that, while she may be in the community, she is not of it. O'Connor also is evasive on some of the tough questions and has not shown the leadership one might expect of a potential mayor on issues such as last year's Proposition A growth initiative and the current police pay initiative.
Cleator--until the current campaign--has always been considered a known quantity. What you saw was what you got, a decent man who said what he thought without much regard to whether everyone liked it or not. But in an effort to capture a share of Hedgecock's constituency, Cleator has tried to modify his image, showing that he would not be "a mayor for all Point Loma," as Hedgecock once ridiculed him, but rather a mayor whose door would be open to blacks, gays and environmentalists as well as to his important and conservative friends. History shows that higher office can moderate politicians, but Cleator's new openness is so new that its depth must be questioned.
Despite these unknowns, the two candidates' records in public life provide clues to how they would handle the mayor's job. Based on those records, we feel O'Connor is the more capable person to lead the city.
During her campaign, O'Connor has tried to frame the choice as being one of a slow-growth candidate versus a pro-growth candidate. Leaving aside both candidates' campaign hyperbole on the subject of growth, O'Connor's argument is a fairly good one. Though she doesn't have the environmentalist credentials of Hedgecock or Councilman Mike Gotch, she, while on the City Council in the 1970s, opposed North City West and helped then-Mayor Pete Wilson fashion the Growth Management Plan that serves as the blueprint for city development. Cleator, on the other hand, has voted for questionable developments in Fairbanks Ranch and La Jolla Valley, and generally has not been a leader in the effort to protect inner-city canyons.