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Wolfsheimer Wealth Issue Has Precedent

First of three articles on September council races.

August 25, 1989|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | Times Staff Writer

The candidate's personal wealth and her reliance on it in her bid to reach City Hall had been a political liability from the outset of the campaign. And, though she frequently tried to defuse the sensitive issue, her public comments sometimes simply worsened things.

"By spending my own money, I'll be beholden only to myself," she said. "I'd rather do that than take hundreds of contributions from special interests, as my opponent has done. This way, there will be no questions about my independence or honesty or why I vote the way I do. When I vote, people won't be lining up at the door reminding me that they gave me money. No one will wonder whether City Hall's been bought."

The year was 1983, and the candidate was Maureen O'Connor, who in her unsuccessful mayoral race against Roger Hedgecock found herself mired in a controversy similar to that now confronting City Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer.

The wife of multimillionaire businessman Robert O. Peterson, founder of the Jack in the Box fast-food chain, O'Connor spent nearly $560,000 of her money, and $780,000 overall, in her narrow loss to Hedgecock.

Like Wolfsheimer, who has spent more than $300,000 of her money in two council races, O'Connor sought to deflect her opponent's persistent criticism by implying that wealthy candidates who bankroll their campaigns are somehow less vulnerable to corruption or the influence of special-interest groups.

Mailer Spelled It Out

In a mailer headlined: "Meet a Leader Who Is Not Controlled by Special Interest Money," O'Connor wrote, "The mayor should be the protector and defender of the public interest. . . . That's why I have chosen to substantially finance my campaign for mayor with my own family money."

The issue, however, kept O'Connor on the defensive throughout the campaign, largely because of Hedgecock's adept--and often caustic--exploitation of it. A street-savvy campaigner by nature, Hedgecock missed few opportunities to refer to O'Connor as "a little rich girl," called Peterson "Daddy Big Bucks" and "Maureen's No. 1 special-interest group," and accused O'Connor of "acting like her family money is cleaner than the money of ordinary San Diegans."

Having heard O'Connor's defense, with little variation, repeated endlessly throughout the campaign, Hedgecock would sigh, then deliver his usual zinger.

"By her standard," he said, "before you could run for office, I guess you'd have to be a millionaire--or marry one."

After his 52%-48% victory, Hedgecock credited the issue with having been "an undeniably major factor" in his victory.

"Maureen's explanations were what you always get from rich candidates trying to justify buying an election," Hedgecock said. "This claim that being rich makes you purer than everyone else is insulting and inaccurate.

"Maureen said she had no special interests around her. Hell, she went home to her special interest every night!"

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