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San Diego Mayor’s Race Takes Familiar Course

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Times Staff Writer

If there is anything unusual about the Nov. 8 special election for mayor, it may be this: It’s not very unusual at all.

Polls suggest that former Police Chief Jerry Sanders has a comfortable lead over Councilwoman Donna Frye.

He’s a Republican, former Red Cross and United Way official and born-again tax-fighter. She’s a Democrat and surf-shop owner who has dared suggest the city may need a half-cent boost in sales tax to dig its way out of the worst fiscal mess in its history.

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Even in a mini-era in which everything else at City Hall is topsy-turvy, mayoral politics seem to be following the pattern seen repeatedly in the last three-plus decades.

A moderate beats a liberal. A Republican beats a Democrat unless the Republican is tarred as a lackey of land developers. The candidate who pledges fealty to the local anti-tax orthodoxy has an advantage over one who does not.

Republican political consultant Jack Orr says Sanders will win unless he commits “an idiotic, unforgivable, highly visible, clumsy error.”

Democratic consultants won’t go quite that far but concede that time is running out and that Frye is trailing badly.

“Jerry is moving into a lead that he should be able to hold,” Larry Remer said.

Last year, as a last-minute write-in candidate for mayor, Frye outpolled then-Mayor Dick Murphy and Supervisor Ron Roberts, both Republicans.

But now even Frye’s ardent supporters are warning that unless she does something dramatic, she’s headed for defeat, an end to her improbable rise from environmental activist and self-described “surfer chick” to the brink of political power.

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After she gathered more votes than Murphy or Roberts last November, only a court ruling that some pro-Frye ballots were marked improperly denied her an upset victory.

Murphy was declared the winner but found himself politically wounded. He resigned in July, saying the city needed a new mayor elected by a majority of voters, not the victor in a three-way split.

In this year’s primary, Frye placed ahead of Sanders and Steve Francis, a Republican and owner of a firm that provides health workers to hospitals.

After becoming convinced that Sanders didn’t really mean it during the primary when he said he couldn’t rule out a tax increase, Francis endorsed him.

The Chamber of Commerce did the same. The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial page endorsed Sanders in the primary. Last week it blasted Frye for her sales-tax idea.

Frye has a smattering of Democrats, women’s groups and private-sector labor unions. Public-employee unions, criticized by both candidates for the city’s $2-billion pension deficit, are staying neutral.

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“Our members feel they’ve been abandoned by both candidates,” said Judie Italiano, president of the Municipal Employees Assn., which represents 6,000 of the city’s 11,000 employees. “Morale is low and everyone is fearful, stressed and living on medication to get through this.”

The pension deficit and related issues have pushed aside the traditional political issues of mayoral elections.

Little is heard about growth, police and fire protection, polluted beaches and whether the city should build a new stadium for the San Diego Chargers or risk losing the NFL team to Los Angeles. Little mention is made of the Cedar fire of 2003, where years of under-funding the Fire Department contributed to the loss of hundreds of homes.

Six pension board members are facing conflict-of-interest charges filed by the district attorney. A federal grand jury is hearing evidence from prosecutors that is expected to bring a new set of charges.

Adding to the sense of disarray, two ex-City Council members are awaiting sentencing after being convicted of taking bribes from a strip-club owner.

And then there’s the near daily insult-fest between the City Council and Michael Aguirre, the new city attorney. Take Friday, for instance.

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Aguirre held a news conference to accuse Murphy and others of a criminal conspiracy (Aguirre lacks the authority to file such a charge, but no matter).

Acting Mayor Toni Atkins held a news conference to say Aguirre needed to be reined in and that the council would hold a kind of “Can this marriage be saved?” session with Aguirre.

In comparison with the exchanges between Aguirre and City Council members, the Sanders-Frye contest has been low key.

He wants to use the threat of layoffs to force labor unions to agree to rollbacks. She promises to end what she believes were illegal pension boosts and to threaten the labor unions with bankruptcy.

She says layoffs and rollbacks will not be enough and that a small sales tax may be needed. He says taxpayers should not be asked to pay for the mistakes of city officials in allowing the pension deficit to soar.

“I think Councilwoman Frye’s plan brings voodoo economics to a new level,” Sanders, 55, told a breakfast meeting Friday of the San Diego County Taxpayers Assn.

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“I think city voters are a lot smarter than he does,” Frye, 53, responded.

The text makes it sound sharper than the delivery. Sanders and Frye have mastered the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable. Both are known for their cordiality. He shakes hands, makes eye contact and works a room like a professional. She likes to hug people and has an infectious laugh.

There have been San Diego mayoral races in which the candidates clearly despised each other; this is not one of those races.

A poll by DataMar Inc., a local polling firm unaligned with either candidate, showed Sanders leading Frye 47% to 40%, with 12% undecided. He led among Republicans 80% to 11%. She led among Democrats but by a smaller margin, 65% to 27%.

The loyalty of Republicans to one of their own, and Frye’s inability to win converts, has frustrated her supporters.

“Frye’s cult-like following, her base, and other people who have followed her career know why they are voting for Donna,” stated an editorial in the Gay and Lesbian Times, which supports Frye. “It’s the fence-sitters and everyday San Diegans ... that Frye must reach.”

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