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San Diego Deeply Split as Write-In Saga Drags On

Times Staff Writer

Now is the season of discontent among activists, politicians and City Hall watchers.

The tallying of votes from last week’s mayoral election continues amid lawsuits aimed at blocking write-in candidate Councilwoman Donna Frye from defeating incumbent Dick Murphy.

The city’s labor unions are crying foul. Unionists accuse the establishment of attempting to steal the election from Frye, a labor-friendly Democrat and co-owner, with her surfer husband, of a surf shop.

On the other hand, business leaders are in various stages of dread over the prospect of Frye becoming mayor. She could become the first “strong mayor” in city history, thanks to the apparent passage of a ballot measure boosting the office’s authority.

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“The city seems to be split into camps of people who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore,” said lawyer Michael McDade, who was chief of staff to one San Diego mayor -- Roger Hedgecock -- and a kitchen-cabinet member for another -- Pete Wilson.

A neutral in this mayoral campaign, McDade has a suggestion for all sides. “Parents should take a cue from their kids: Take a timeout until they can start acting rationally, not emotionally.”

That might not occur soon.

Labor sees the biggest prize in local politics -- mayor of California’s second-largest city -- slipping away. Business leaders are worried about having a powerful enemy, with new powers to veto actions by the City Council and hire and fire top administrators.

George Mitrovich, president of the City Club of San Diego, a public affairs forum, said the business community viewed Frye “as someone who opposes all the things they are trying to do for San Diego.”

“This has become a really emotional issue,” he added. “I don’t think Donna Frye is helping by saying somebody is trying to steal the election.”

In three years on the City Council, Frye has opposed a series of land development projects, often being the lone negative vote. She battled to keep the SeaWorld theme park from expanding and has talked about reducing public subsidies for downtown redevelopment projects.

At last count, Frye led Murphy by about 2,400 votes, with upward of 50,000 write-in, absentee and provisional ballots yet to be counted. But the count might be moot.

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Two lawsuits have been filed to invalidate the election on grounds that Frye’s write-in candidacy was illegal and should not have been permitted by City Clerk Charles Abdelnour. More suits are expected.

Governance by litigation is a San Diego tradition. Lawsuits delayed expansion of Qualcomm Stadium and the waterfront convention center, and construction of downtown’s Petco Park, the Padres’ new home.

At issue in the current situation is the awkward fact that the city charter does not permit write-in candidates in a general election, but a 1999 change in the municipal code does.

The first suit, filed by business lawyer John Howard, asserts that the city charter’s ban on write-ins trumps the municipal code. He wants the registrar of voters to be blocked from further counting and a new election to be held between Murphy and county Supervisor Ron Roberts, with Frye excluded.

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A retired jurist from Imperial County has been assigned to the case after all 124 judges in the San Diego Superior Court were recused by the presiding judge. Murphy is a former judge. A hearing may be held next week.

Talk of the lawsuits has dominated the city’s radio talk shows. At a rally outside City Hall, labor union members supporting Frye held signs demanding, “Count the Vote.”

The Howard lawsuit “isn’t just against me; it’s against all of you,” Frye told the cheering crowd.

The League of Women Voters of San Diego staged a vigil outside the registrar of voters’ office in opposition to the lawsuits.

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“Any attempt to stop the process of counting all ballots is a flagrant violation of the fundamental citizens’ right to vote,” league President Kay Ragan said.

Howard said he had received several dozen e-mails and phone calls from people who supported his lawsuit, along with two dozen from people angry at him. Some were obscene, he said.

“If it matters, I feel strongly supported by people whom I respect, and scorned frankly by people I don’t give a damn about,” Howard said.

Despite San Diego’s history as a city staunchly opposed to organized labor, unions have gained some political power in recent years.

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All eight members of the City Council have enjoyed support from one or more unions. In some races, labor support is thought to have been crucial.

City law prohibits donations from labor unions -- or business groups -- to City Council campaigns.

But unions have made smart use of so-called independent committees to buy lawn signs, television advertising and bumper stickers supporting candidates they favor.

Jerry Butkiewicz, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, which endorsed Frye, said the lawsuits aimed at invalidating the election “are nothing but legal garbage.”

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“What they’re trying to do is disenfranchise 150,000 people who voted for Donna,” Butkiewicz said. “They don’t care who the people want. I think it’s a disgrace.”

The Frye phenomenon began in mid-September after weeks in which it seemed that each day brought more bad news about the city’s $2-billion pension deficit.

City consultants issued a scathing report on mismanagement by top administrators. Wall Street financial firms lowered the city’s credit rating. The dirtiest word of all began to be openly discussed as an option for city government: bankruptcy.

Frye saw her opening, and took it. The city clerk certified her as an official write-in candidate with five weeks remaining in the yawner of a campaign between Murphy and Roberts, two Republicans.

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Frye had voted against the proposal to under-fund the pension plan. She had also frequently criticized the council for discussing issues behind closed doors.

With support from labor and the environmental movement, her unlikely candidacy caught fire. Democrats have a 39% to 34% edge over Republicans in voter registration in the city.

“The timing was perfect for someone like Donna to step in and fill the void,” said Councilwoman Toni Atkins, the only council member to endorse Frye.

On the council, Frye has been on the losing end of a passel of 7-1 and 8-1 votes. (The council has nine seats, but one was left vacant by Councilman Charles Lewis’ death in August and has not yet been filled.) A common sight is Frye’s continuing to ask questions of city staff members long after other council members are prepared to vote.

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“She doesn’t play the game,” political consultant John Dadian said. “She won’t be bulldozed into doing something she’s uncomfortable with.”

For months, San Diego civic boosters have felt battered by coverage in national newspapers and on network television about the city’s financial problems. Now the media have moved on to the “surfer chick” who could be the next mayor.

“We are seeing the headlines change from bad to good, and you gotta love that,” Frye said. “It’s good for tourism. Some tourists may want to go surfing and buy surfboards.”

But some people use other surfing references to describe the latest controversy’s impact on San Diego’s reputation.

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“It’s a wipeout,” said Cynthia Vicknair, a political consultant.


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