San Diego's new woman mayor faces refurbishing job on city's political image. O'Connor's confidence rests on eight years as City Council member

This city inaugurated a new mayor last night in a harborside ceremony that many hope marked the beginning of a new political order that will remove the stains of recent political scandal. Maureen Frances O'Connor, 39, daughter of a former prizefighter and wife of a prominent American fast-food baron, became the first woman ever to hold the top elective post in San Diego's 136-year history.

She also became the first Democratic mayor in this Republican stronghold in 15 years.

Her party's leaders are ecstatic about her prospects for the future. But Ms. O'Connor, who in 1971 at age 25 became the youngest person ever elected to the San Diego City Council, warns them not to become overzealous.

``I'm a woman. I'm a Democrat. But I'm a mayor of a city,'' she says, pointing out that the office, by law, is nonpartisan. ``I don't feel like any hot political property.''

That position is consistent with the main theme of her campaign. O'Connor won her new job with a relatively low-budget effort, a volunteer staff, and an avowed refusal to cater to land developers, the most monied of the special interests that lobby local governments in southern California.

She spent many hours shaking hands at grocery stores and shopping malls, promising to wrest control of City Hall from those able to purchase influence.

For her inauguaral, O'Connor invited an estimated 2,000 campaign volunteers, 1,000 contributors, and 1,000 or so others. When, late last week, it appeared that almost 5,000 people planned to attend the ceremony, she broke with tradition and moved it from City Hall to a downtown pier on San Diego Bay.

``We're returning City Hall to the community,'' an aide close to O'Connor said of the celebration. ``It's outdoors. It's open to all. . . . It's the San Diego version of the [Statue of ] Liberty celebrations.''

The inauguration of the new mayor comes at a time when San Diegans find little to applaud in city government. Mayor O'Connor succeeds Roger Hedgecock, a maverick Republican who narrowly defeated her in the 1983 mayoral election. Mr. Hedgecock was forced from office in December following his conviction on 13 felony counts of violating campaign finance laws during that contest.

San Diego's image has also been tarnished of late by allegations that two city councilmen misused their expense accounts. Prosecuters dropped their case against one but are pursuing 28 felony counts against the other councilman.

O'Connor declines to comment in detail on Hedgecock's fall from power. But previous public comments on the matter indicate that she believes justice has been done both Hedgecock and San Diego.

Her 1982 loss to Hedgecock was the only one in O'Connor's 15-year political career. She first burst onto the San Diego political scene in 1971 -- a 25-year-old gym teacher from an all-girls Roman Catholic high school. She led a ``children's crusade'' through the city's streets and defeated an oponent who was the choice of San Diego's Republican establishment.

Once elected, O'Connor became closely allied to San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, now a US Republican senator.

She numbers among her council accomplishments overseeing construction of the trolley line between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, ``on time and under budget'' and coauthorship with Mayor Wilson and others of the city's growth-management plan and its campaign-finance ordinance.

Late in her second term on the City Council O'Connor married Robert O. Peterson, found of ``Jack-in-the-Box'' restaurant chain.

In 1979, honoring a campaign promise made in 1971, she declined to seek a third term.

When Wilson was elected to the Senate in 1982, O'Connor opposed Hedgecock for the vacant mayor's chair. It was a bitter campaign. While Hedgecock was secretly financing his campaign with at least $130,000 obtained from a now-imprisoned investment swindler, he was criticizing O'Connor for attempting to purchase City Hall with more than $500,000 obtained from her husband. This year O'Connor avoided that type of criticism by spending only $500 of Mr. Peterson's money and by observing a voluntary campaign-spending limit of $325,000.

As mayor, says O'Connor, she will seek inactment of an ordinance that will disqualify City Council members from voting on measures that affect their major contributors.

``That may be difficult,'' she says. ``They [council members] depend on people who do business [with the city] and developers to fund their campaigns. . . . It may take time. You can't move into City Hall and change the tone and the policies overnight.''

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