WHEN SUPER POWERS SUNDAY dawned cool and overcast, the mayor fretted to one of her closest friends, a nun whom she has known since her teaching days, about the weather's effect on the turnout. "Maureen's always afraid she's going to throw a party and no one will come," Sister Jeannette Black said, chuckling as she walked beside the mayor during the event, which proved to be the biggest single-day draw in the park's history.
O'Connor need not have worried. Pausing along the park's historic Prado, O'Connor stretched her 5-foot-2 frame for a view of the growing mid-afternoon crowd and could not help but smile at what she saw. Even before the skies cleared, attendance surpassed the most optimistic predictions. "Geez, Louise!" O'Connor said, squinting as she surveyed the scene. "This is a long way from Rosary High School."
It was there in 1971 that, as a $450-a-month gym teacher and come-from-nowhere council candidate, O'Connor was pursued by a political power broker whose candidate had been eliminated during the primary. When Bob Peterson's repeated telephone calls to Rosary High began to irk the nuns in charge, O'Connor finally spoke to the man who "wanted to know about this girl that defeated his candidate."
They began dating several years later and were married in a 1977 ceremony in the south of France. It was Peterson's fifth marriage, O'Connor's first, and a match O'Connor calls "the best decision I ever made." The couple separated after her 1983 election loss, filing divorce papers before reconciling less than a year later.
Peterson is a man of diverse interests, including fabric dyeing, gourmet cooking and landscaping. He once invested in research about synthesizing firefly luminescence for medical use. Describing her husband as "truly a Renaissance man," O'Connor says he "broadened me tremendously . . . by exposing me to a world I'd never seen before." For a woman from less-than-comfortable beginnings, the marriage also has provided O'Connor with exotic vacations, designer clothing, a Mendocino retreat and a backyard lap pool behind a mansion where cooks prepare the meals. Perhaps because of her upbringing, O'Connor wears her new economic status almost self-consciously, despite the more powerful and glamorous circles in which she now travels.
Peterson encouraged O'Connor to run for mayor, and she says her husband's chronic illness has never held her back. "He didn't want this to control his life," she says, "and it hasn't." But Peterson's leukemia often keeps him from attending public functions with his wife.
"Bob's been extremely supportive," O'Connor adds. "This job would be difficult on any marriage, even without this additional problem. His health has its ups and downs, and we've just learned to live with it and keep moving ahead."
CURSING 'LOS ANGELIZATION'
O'CONNOR PRESIDES OVER a San Diego dramatically different from the city in which she grew up, or even the one that existed when she took office in 1971. During her two four-year terms on the council, San Diego began to outgrow its reputation as a sleepy Navy town near Tijuana to become one of the nation's largest cities--and one of its fastest growing: Since 1970, San Diego's population has increased 58%, to 1.1 million. Between 1983, when O'Connor first ran for mayor, and 1988, more than 70,000 homes sprouted in San Diego's unprecedented building boom.
The staggering growth rate has brought big-city problems that San Diegans curse as "Los Angelization"--traffic jams, air and water pollution, vanishing open space, crowded schools and parks--in short, a decline in the quality of life that brought many to the city in the first place.
Few question that O'Connor inherited significant challenges when she was inaugurated as mayor on July 7, 1986, to fill out Hedgecock's unexpired term. Hedgecock had spent much of his brief term absorbed in his legal battle, and his predecessor, Wilson, now the junior senator from California, had ended an 11-year tenure as something of an absentee mayor while he campaigned for higher office. The city and City Hall were reeling from a handful of corruption scandals, most notably J. David Dominelli's 1984 Ponzi scheme, which defrauded investors of $80 million.
Elected on a platform that emphasized slowing growth, O'Connor soon pushed through a landmark ordinance that for 18 months capped the number of homes that could be built citywide, though some of the city's most rapidly developing areas were exempted. Confronted by a conservative, developer-backed council majority, the new mayor also sought to convince the average citizen that he would be heard at City Hall.
"In 1986, community groups felt very strongly that developers had a lock on City Hall," O'Connor maintains. "Now the neighborhood groups feel very strongly that they're sitting at the decision-making table."