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MAKING SENSE OF MAUREEN - The Curious Politics of San Diego's Mayor O'Connor

December 10, 1989|LEONARD BERNSTEIN and BARRY M. HORSTMAN | LEONARD BERNSTEIN, Leonard Bernstein and Barry M. Horstman are staff writers for The Times' San Diego edition and BARRY M. HORSTMAN, Leonard Bernstein and Barry M. Horstman are staff writers for The Times' San Diego edition

In February, 1987, she persuaded the council to reverse its stand and begin the $2.8-billion task of cleaning up the city's sewage to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. The following year, however, the city was sued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to comply quickly enough. As a result, it faces millions of dollars in fines.

The new mayor also called for more police and a crackdown on street drug sales. This year, the council added 116 officers to the police force, slashing $5 million from other parts of the city budget to do so. To establish tighter control by the City Council, O'Connor also took the Housing Commission away from its citizen board of directors.

But as time wore on, the promising beginnings of O'Connor's tenure were replaced by her dawdling on issues and appointments, and, later, her devotion to the arts festival. O'Connor's performance on the growth issue, perhaps the city's most chronic problem, is illuminating.

Ranked by the Sierra Club as the council's most dependable environmental vote, O'Connor nevertheless failed to campaign for the City Council's 1988 permanent growth-control initiative--which had taken nearly two years to bring to the ballot--until shortly before the election. With only days to go, the mayor abruptly endorsed both the city's measure and a stricter, rival initiative placed on the ballot by a slow-growth group.

Both measures, and two more covering the unincorporated areas of San Diego County, were crushed by a nearly $3-million spending campaign mounted by developers, the most expensive campaign in city history. The council subsequently enacted a series of ordinances that accomplished some of the goals of the city's ballot measure, but not enough to satisfy some of the slow-growth advocates who helped propel O'Connor into office. O'Connor and others have said that the package of laws was the best they could get, given the City Council's composition.

But O'Connor's critics accused her of doing too little too late. "If the building industry didn't have Maureen O'Connor, they'd have to invent her," says Peter Navarro, leader of the vanquished slow-growth organization Citizens for Limited Growth. "You have a figurehead mayor who projects the illusion that she's getting things done on growth management and the environment, and that keeps the public at bay."

"Sooner or later," says Dick Dresner, a former O'Connor political consultant whom she dropped after the 1988 election, "people are going to realize that the emperor--or, in this case, empress--has no clothes."


O'CONNOR HAS MADE youth-oriented programs a priority throughout her political career, in part because she cannot have children of her own. "Everyone's dealt a deck of cards, and children didn't happen to be in mine," O'Connor says. "But I compensate for that. Being able to do something for kids is one of the real joys of this job."

O'Connor frequently visits the poor and victimized, serving as a kind of Florence Nightingale backed by the substantial resources of the government and the prestige of the mayor's office.

In July, when 9-year-old Joshua Garrett had his skull fractured by a teen-ager wielding a baseball bat from a passing car, O'Connor privately visited his hospital room, and later took Joshua and his mother home in her city car.

There, they discovered that the family's apartment had been ransacked by burglars who left it a shambles. After tucking Joshua's mother, Theresa, into bed, O'Connor spent the next four hours straightening up the apartment--washing dishes, sending her police escort out for pizza, buying groceries, making child-care arrangements for Garrett's children and demanding that the building manager fix Garrett's broken bathtub.

"She took the time and effort to do something for my family," Theresa Garrett recalls. "She didn't have to do that. She didn't have to do that at all."

This may be O'Connor at her best. She has personally painted a Boys Club wrecked by vandals and sat up for two days with a dying port commissioner. She has hauled trash, ladled food at shelters for the homeless and toured the city handing out Christmas gifts to shut-ins.

In a locally celebrated and nationally publicized odyssey, O'Connor spent two days in 1988 living on San Diego's streets disguised as a transient. Accompanied by undercover police officers and two disguised reporters, she watched drug deals, picked through encampments in the canyons of Balboa Park and washed furniture at a shelter for the privilege of taking a shower.

O'Connor's critics scorned the action as a publicity stunt, noting that the mayor's memo describing the tour focused on crime, drugs and filth, instead of homelessness. "You can't experience homelessness in two days on the street," says Frank Landerville, executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.

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