Write-In Wave May Carry Her to Victory
When her husband, surfing legend Skip Frye, got sick from surfing in polluted water, Donna Frye decided to get political.
She went to the City Council and asked that it fix the leaky sewer system and reduce the amount of dirty runoff from city streets into the ocean. She was taken aback by the response.
“Skip was really sick, but it was like the council didn’t care about him and the other surfers,” she said.
The council’s snub pushed Frye, who was then managing her husband’s surfboard business, into activism. She founded Surfers Tired of Pollution, or STOP; took her case to the press; became a regular at council meetings -- and in 2001 was elected to the City Council from a beach district.
Now, a decade after the initial rebuff, Frye, 52, may be on the verge of becoming mayor of San Diego, a rise through the political ranks that has been both improbable and meteoric.
Her insurgent write-in candidacy caught the imagination of voters angry at the financial debacle and mismanagement at City Hall.
Joining the race only six weeks before election day, she may have outpolled two establishment candidates who had been campaigning for months, if not years: Mayor Dick Murphy and county Supervisor Ron Roberts.
Election workers are still examining write-in votes as well as absentee and provisional ballots -- a process that may take weeks. Murphy loyalists still believe he may overcome Frye’s 3,800-vote margin as officials sift through 250,000 write-in, absentee and provisional ballots. Still, for a woman often derided as a “surfer chick,” her saga is remarkable.
San Diego political insiders think a surfing metaphor is in order.
“Donna is the classic populist politician,” said consultant Cynthia Vicknair, unaligned with any of the candidates. “She caught the wave of disgust among voters about what has been happening in the city.”
If success is going to change Frye, she isn’t letting on. She remains her breezy, informal self. She likes to hug. In postelection appearances, she wore a plumeria lei.
“We’re going to bring back the aloha spirit to San Diego,” she explained in her soft, ever-cordial voice.
In many ways Donne Frye is the quintessential San Diegan: Her father was a civilian employee of the Navy. The family lived in the working-class neighborhood of Clairemont. She studied dance in hopes of becoming a ballerina.
The family lived for two years in England, but the lure of balmy San Diego, particularly its laid-back beach communities, was irresistible.
She earned a community college degree and later a bachelor’s degree in business administration from National University. An early marriage was rocky. She says her first husband was physically abusive. She became an alcoholic.
She met Skip Frye in 1980, just after her divorce. Their first date was watching a San Diego Chargers game on television. They’ve been together ever since but waited a decade to get married; they have no children together although Skip has three children from a previous marriage.
She credits Skip with helping her get sober.
“He never yelled at me,” she said. “He would just get up and leave when I got drunk and not call me for several days. I felt I didn’t want to lose him and I didn’t want to end up dead.”
In the years before she turned to politics and the environment, her resume varied: office manager for a dentist, technical writer for ship repair manuals, short-order cook, hotel maid, gas station attendant, heavy-equipment rental manager. “I’ve been at a lot of nontraditional jobs for a woman,” she said.
Her annoyance at the City Council over the pollution problems plaguing surfing spots led her to become a regular speaker during the public comment portion of council meetings. She joined a Democratic assemblyman to get a state clean-water act passed.
She accused then-Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Chula Vista) of abandoning his fellow surfers by backing changes in federal clean-water laws. A like-minded sculptor produced a bust of Bilbray standing in a toilet bowl, which Frye displayed at the surf shop.
In 2001, she was elected to the City Council in a special election to fill a midterm vacancy. Her opponent was a top aide to Roberts, who received heavy support from the Republican Party. Her political ire had been raised when her husband’s surfboard business lost its lease and had to move inland.
In the early stages of the mayoral race, Murphy and Roberts vied for her endorsement, but she remained neutral. When a cascade of bad news about the $2-billion pension deficit hit in September, Frye announced her write-in candidacy, catching the mayor and his challenger by surprise.
As polls showed her gaining, a San Diego business leader paid for a newspaper advertisement suggesting that her experience and education could not match that of Roberts, an architect, or Murphy, a Harvard MBA and former judge.
“I think sometimes people have a tendency to make demeaning remarks about the surf community,” she said.
On the City Council, she has often been a lone voice. She favored distributing clean needles to drug addicts to stop the spread of disease. She led a losing fight against the expansion of Sea World theme park as intrusive on Mission Bay. Hers was the only vote against the scheme to underfund the pension plan.
“She’s taken a very contrarian viewpoint,” said Michael Stepner, a professor at the New School of Architecture in downtown San Diego and a longtime city planner.
In a political world of guile and favor-trading, Frye has her own style.
“What you see is what you get with Donna,” said lobbyist John Dadian. “When she disagrees with you, she tells you up front and never changes.”
There is little doubt a Donna Frye-led city government would have its own tone, particularly given that the next mayor will inherit added powers after the apparent passage of the city’s “strong mayor” ballot measure.
“San Diego is a city with a history of being a status quo, mainstream, behind-the-scenes place,” said Councilman Toni Atkins, the only council member to endorse Frye. “Donna stands out like a sore thumb. She’s so down to earth, so matter of fact, and she doesn’t mind asking questions. That irritates some people.”
Her last-minute mayoral bid gathered support from environmentalists and labor unionists. Although the office is nonpartisan, political affiliation is always a factor; Murphy and Roberts are Republicans, Frye is a Democrat.
If Donna Frye is the hard-charging activist, Harry “Skip” Frye, 63, is beach mellow.
In 1968, a blown radical cutback cost him the U.S. Surfing Championship to Corky Carroll, although Skip Frye is quick to note that surfing is not really about competition but about achieving inner peace and harmony with nature.
In surfing circles, a handmade Skip Frye long board has the same status as a Stradivarius among the fiddle crowd. When the Padres met New York Yankees in the World Series in 1998, the two mayors made a civic bet on the outcome.
For the then-San Diego mayor, there was only one thing that was San Diegan enough to be put up as part of the bet: a surfboard made by Skip Frye.
Donna and Skip live with her 77-year-old mother in the same Clairemont house where Donna grew up. Her father died five years ago.
Frye does not drive, so her husband takes her to City Hall each morning. “It gives us a chance to talk,” she said. If elected mayor, she will get a city car; a police officer will be her driver and bodyguard.
Whether she will get to be known nationwide as the mayor of California’s second-largest city is still unknown. But in San Diego, particularly near the beach, her identity is set for life.
“I knock on doors all the time and people say, ‘I know you, you’re married to Skip Frye,’ ” she said with a slight laugh. “I will never overshadow Skip.”