Some in the national media say that write-in mayoral candidate Donna Frye "came out of nowhere." Wrong. She came out of the perfect place: the sewers. Long before she was elected to the city council, she was an environmental activist who was well informed on sewers, storm drains, pollution runoff, clean water, and infrastructural matters of all kinds.
Now, Frye leads in some early polls because San Diego voters realize that politicians must start doing what they are paid to do: keep the streets, sewers, storm drains, water systems, safety equipment, and libraries in working order.
Frye ran for office only because she was frustrated at councilmembers' lack of interest in -- and refusal to bone up on -- such topics, which she considered a municipal politician's job.
Once on the council, she refused to sing along with city government's theme song, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." When confronted with deliberately obfuscated documents shoved in front of city council, she demanded that bureaucrats write plain English. She wouldn't vote for an issue unless she understood it -- one reason she was often the lone "nay" in an 8-1 vote. Critically for her career, she was the lone nay in the council's disastrous November 2002 vote to continue underfunding the pension program.
She has several core constituencies: Democrats (who narrowly outnumber Republicans in the city), organized labor, environmentalists, slow- and no-growthers, fiscal conservatives, antiestablishment activists of all kinds, and people who believe that government's job is to provide basic services, not monuments. As city services continue to deteriorate, Frye's potential vote count rises.
Her vote against the pension underfunding will help her the most, but her persistence on a sewer issue helped San Diegans the most. For many months, she insisted that the city come forward with results of a state-mandated cost-of-service study, which would show whether residents and large users were paying sewer fees proportional to their usage. "The city held it up for a long time. When it came out, it showed that residential users were essentially subsidizing the larger users," such as businesses, she says. That's why the business-cozy government was reluctant to release the results. The people then got a reduction, because if the city had not acted, the state would have withheld $266 million in revolving funds.
Because so many in Frye's constituency are politically savvy, and because voters will have writing instruments in their hands, she might be able to mount the biggest hurdle: getting people to understand how to fill in the third mayoral bubble and print her name on the adjoining line. Her biggest problem is time: absentee ballots began going out last week.
In interviews, Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians agree that she can win, although it could be tough. No matter what happens, the biggest losers are likely to be the corporate-welfare mendicants. The downtown clique may well caucus secretly and jettison either Mayor Dick Murphy or challenger Ron Roberts and bankroll one or the other to stop Frye.
"I think it is adios to the corporate-welfare crowd," says Democrat Steve Erie, UCSD professor of political science. If Frye shows strength, "It will be harder for the Chargers to get free city land in Mission Valley, although with the Padres, the fox is already in the chicken coop. Essential public services are egregiously underfunded. We need to reorder our priorities; Donna is willing to do that."
"She will get fiscally conservative voters," says Republican Scott Barnett, former head of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. "She will not be afraid to air the dirty laundry, open the process, and tell the truth." He, too, agrees that a strong Frye showing will hurt the corporate-welfare crowd. However, if her vote percentage is in single digits, she will have hurt herself, he says.
"She is for transparency; she doesn't like shell games," says Republican Carl DeMaio, head of the Performance Institute, which has made many expense-slashing recommendations that have been ignored by city hall. His organization wants to streamline city government; put a lid on spending increases; reduce labor and pension costs; set up a system in which outside bids compete with internal bids on a project; reduce corporate welfare; and have an independent auditor determine how much money is being diverted from sewer and water funds to the general fund. Frye has pledged to work with him.
"She was our champion in the audit of water and sewer funds," says DeMaio. "She would go after corporate welfare. We welcome her into the race. The entrance of Donna Frye reminds me of the forces that drove the recall [of former governor Gray Davis]."
"The people who say they will vote for Murphy are not for Murphy, but against Roberts. The people for Roberts say he is arrogant, unpleasant, impossible, but Murphy is incompetent," says Democrat Jim Mills, former president pro tem of the California Senate. He believes Frye can win if people can be educated on the write-in technique. She should oppose secrecy, corruption, and corporate welfare, he says. The fat salaries and perks of such groups as the Convention & Visitors Bureau and Regional Economic Development Corporation should be good targets, he says. Murphy's plan for a downtown library is a boondoggle. The money would be better spent on infrastructure, says Mills.
Democrat and former city councilmember Abbe Wolfsheimer-Stutz says, "People tell me, 'Finally, we have somebody to vote for.' " (Almost the exact words of Frye's slogan.) "Donna should concentrate on cleaning up city hall, getting rid of corporate welfare, not squandering taxpayers' money, getting rid of backroom deals, restoring fiscal conservatism."
"I haven't made up my mind on Donna. She has great positives and great negatives," says Libertarian Richard Rider. "On the positive side, she is the only one at city hall who knows how to say no. But on the negative side, I'm afraid that she might favor rent control and the living wage -- Berkeley-style legislation." (She doesn't favor rent control but believes companies getting city contracts should pay a living wage.)
Last week, the council voted to issue $600 million in pension-obligation bonds (three times what Murphy was talking about last summer) and also to toe the line against labor unions in upcoming contract negotiations. Once again, Frye was the sole opponent. The city shouldn't issue bonds until its long-delayed 2003 audit is out, she said. And it can't issue bonds until the criminal and civil investigations into inaccurate bond prospectuses are complete. Critics charge that in opposing the hard line against labor, she is pandering to labor's votes, although the major unions representing city employees are backing her opponents.
Says Republican Bruce Henderson, former councilmember. "Donna's vote was pro-taxpayer," he says. San Diego got into its fiscal fix by pandering to special interests. Underfunding the pension system was one of several methods to balance budgets bloated by corporate welfare. Labor can't be blamed for asking for more pay in exchange for underfunding. Besides, the egregious pension abuses -- the million-dollar lump sums in addition to six-figure monthly payments -- went to top city officials who were in the establishment's pocket. "Anybody who says all our problems were caused only by workers is playing politics."