November 9, 2004, Tuesday Late Edition - Final

Section A Page 15 Column 1 Desk: National Desk Length: 1179 words




Riding a Write-In Wave to the Brink of City Hall


By JOHN M. BRODER; Chris Dixon contributed reporting for thisarticle.




San Diego, long ago dubbed America's Finest City by its boosters,may soon have America's gnarliest mayor.


Donna Frye -- city council member, environmentalist, gadfly, surfshop owner and wife of Skip Frye, the legendary surfer and surfboardshaper -- is clinging to a small lead in the mayor's race as cityofficials painstakingly tally tens of thousands of write-in andprovisional ballots.






The result may not be known for days or even weeks, and legalchallenges are likely.


But if Ms. Frye wins, it will shred the political culture of SanDiego, the nation's seventh-largest city, and deliver a jolt to itsbusiness establishment, which generally supported the re-election ofMayor Dick Murphy, a Harvard-educated, middle-of-the-road formerSuperior Court judge. A third candidate, Ron Roberts, a conservativeSan Diego county supervisor, trailed in the voting and conceded lastweek.


The mayoral race is nominally nonpartisan, but Ms. Frye is aDemocrat and Mr. Murphy and Mr. Roberts are Republicans.


Ms. Frye, 52, entered the race as a write-in candidate just fiveweeks before Election Day, running a populist campaign against whatshe called gross mismanagement of the city's finances and excessivesecrecy in government.


Ms. Frye said she had joined the race at the urging ofconstituents and activists who were troubled by multibillion-dollardeficits in the city's public employee pension and retiree healthcare accounts and a laissez-faire attitude in city hall. She was theonly person on the eight-member council last year to vote against aplan to increase benefits to city workers and retirees and tounderfinance the pension accounts. That plan led to the city'scurrent financial crisis and a sharp downgrading of its creditrating. The city must find millions of dollars in budget cuts to getthe money to strengthen the pension accounts.


The United States Attorney's office and the Securities andExchange Commission are investigating the pension fund matter. Thedebacle has already tarnished the image of the city, which some arenow calling Enron-by-the-Sea.


As of Monday, Ms. Frye had 136,458 votes, or 35 percent, to Mr.Murphy's 132,728, or 34 percent. Some 162,000 ballots remain to becounted. The new mayor will take office on Dec. 6, if the votecounting and any litigation are finished.


''This is just an amazing story,'' she said in an interview in hercity hall office on Monday morning. Her blond hair cascaded down theback of a conservative gray pantsuit. Her piercing blue eyes twinkledfrom her weather-beaten face as she described the reaction of thecity fathers when she announced her candidacy.


''They portrayed me as an environmental wacko, and they justlaughed at me,'' she said. ''It really is a new day in San Diego. Thepublic is going to take back their city.''


Ms. Frye added: ''That's what they have to get over. It doesn'tbelong to them. It belongs to the people. They need to get overthemselves.''


An added twist is that Mayor Murphy and San Diego businessinterests sponsored a successful ballot initiative to change thecity's head of government from a city manager to a strong mayor.


The change will give the next mayor, who most people at the timeexpected to be a re-elected Mr. Murphy, stronger powers to handlecity finances, personnel policies and contracts, starting in 2006.Ms. Frye opposed the measure, saying it was poorly written and lefttoo many legal questions unanswered.


Mr. Murphy, in brief remarks to reporters on Monday, said that hewas gaining votes as the counting went on but that it was too soon topredict a winner. ''In my opinion,'' he said, ''it would be best foreveryone to complete the vote count before considering legaloptions.'' Supporters of the mayor have hinted at a possible legalchallenge to Ms. Frye's candidacy and to the validity of some of thewrite-in ballots.


Ms. Frye, a recovering alcoholic who said she left an abusivemarriage 25 years ago, began her unlikely political odyssey a decadeago when her husband and several other local surfers contractedserious bacterial infections. The Fryes determined that the illnesseswere probably caused by pathogens dumped into the ocean from leakysewer pipes. She formed a group called Surfers Tired of Pollution, orSTOP, and browbeat city and state officials to clean up the water.


She dogged Brian Bilbray, who then represented the area inCongress, to push for quicker action on the sewage dumping. To makeher point, she put a toilet with a life-sized effigy of Mr. Bilbrayemerging from it in the doorway of the surf shop she and her husbandown.


Her campaign eventually won passage of new water-monitoringstandards and sparked construction of a new drainage system to moreeffectively protect the beaches from sewage, agricultural runoff andmotor oil. Ms. Frye was elected to the city council in 2001 in aspecial election and re-elected in 2002.


The walls of her office are covered with pictures of Skip Fryesurfing and awards from state and national environmentalorganizations. She also has a small plaque with her favorite sayingfrom Gandhi: ''First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, thenthey fight you and then you win.''


Ms. Frye has not won the mayor's office yet, but she has alreadyupended San Diego politics, said Steven Erie, a political scientistat the University of California, San Diego.


Ms. Frye was among the first to call attention to the city'sfiscal meltdown, and she has not been shy about using her perch onthe city council to assail city officials who she believes have givenaway the store to the city's sports franchises and real estatedevelopers, Professor Erie noted.


''With a new form of government and potentially Donna Frye asmayor, we are looking at a regime change here,'' he said. ''Now theliberals will be saddled with dealing with the fiscal mess.''


Skip Frye, 63, who was working on one of his prized customlongboards on Monday, said that the possibility of his wife becomingmayor was ''kind of surreal.''


''I'm just a simple surf guy,'' he said. ''Surfing still doesn'tget its due as far as respect. In the old days, I could see that,because it was a bunch of rough people. But now it's doctors andlawyers, and maybe even a mayor.''



Images: Photo: Donna Frye, an environmentalist, gadfly and surfshop owner, is leading as the votes are counted for mayor of SanDiego. She entered the race as a write-in candidate just five weeksbefore the election. (Photo by Jack Smith for The New York Times)