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Writing the Wave in San Diego

With Late Effort, Former Surf Shop Owner May Become Mayor

By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2004; Page A05

SAN DIEGO -- Donna Frye sank into an easy chair, fed a bit of roast beef sandwich to her ancient sheepdog, Diogenes, and tried to explain how she had come to be on the verge of pulling off one of the more astounding feats in modern big-city electoral history.

"Sometimes," she said calmly, as a sun-catching quartz splashed rainbows around her living room, "events sort of overtake me."

San Diego mayoral candidate Donna Frye, left, and Vice Mayor Toni Atkins this week denounced efforts challenging the legality of Frye's candidacy. (Lenny Ignelzi -- AP)

That's how it happened when she entered politics a decade ago, becoming a clean-water activist after her husband caught a bacterial infection swimming in the Pacific Ocean here. And that seems to be what happened again this month, when the former surf shop owner and first-term council member grabbed a narrow lead in the race to become mayor of the nation's seventh-largest city, just five weeks after she entered the contest . . . as a write-in candidate.

Now, as local officials slowly certify the thousands of handwritten votes and assess an unknown number of absentee and provisional ballots, many are wondering how Frye did it. Not only did she apparently trounce two well-known candidates with comfortable spots on the ballot, but she also did so as a quintessentially Californian enviro-liberal in a traditional Republican stronghold.

Yet Frye, 52, said her potential against-all-odds victory -- which faces legal challenges even if the numbers hold up -- simply reflects the public's frustration with a worsening fiscal crisis, and the culture of secrecy that she believes caused it.

"I think part of the reason it happened is the public was so tired of the business as usual," she said. "People knew who I was. They know I'll tell them the truth."

As she spoke, the "Today" show was wrapping up a shoot in the garden of her modest hillside home, and her husband, Skip -- a former U.S. surfing champion and surfboard designer -- was packing up some old photos and videos that CNN wanted to borrow. Her campaign manager was in another room juggling more interview requests as they came in by phone.

"They put makeup on me," she said in her ingratiatingly husky tones. "I never wear it. It feels so strange."

Frye has long blond hair, a serene blue-eyed gaze and a tendency to make such campaign promises as "Bring the aloha spirit back to San Diego."

She speaks comfortably and candidly of an abusive first marriage, a battle with alcoholism, a meandering early career path as a gas station attendant and technical writer, the inspiration she found as a teenager in Barry McGuire's flower-power classic hit "Eve of Destruction."

Frye loses the mellow when she discusses the problems facing the city where she has spent most of her life since the age of 5. A deficit of nearly $2 billion in the employee pension fund and retiree health benefits budget is forcing major cuts across all city services. The city's once-sterling bond rating was downgraded sharply, and both the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating.

The city's fiscal woes moved to center stage as the mayoral race got underway this year. The officially nonpartisan campaign began as a match between incumbent Dick Murphy and San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, both Republicans. Frye had spent nearly three years on the City Council as something of a loner, but she suddenly found much of the electorate looking to her for guidance. She was the only member to vote against a plan last year to underfund the pension system while increasing benefits.

"There were people calling asking who I was going to vote for. As it got closer, I couldn't give them an answer," she said.

"People were saying to me they weren't going to vote. They said they were going to write me in. I said, 'Don't do that, it won't count.' " But as more of those calls kept rolling in, she began to change her mind.

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