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  Sierra Magazine
  May/June 2005
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Sierra Magazine
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Making Waves
Surfer hero Donna Frye paddles into San Diego politics
by David Helvarg

Frye speaks at Surfrider Foundation's 2004 "Paddle for Clean Water." A California appeals court will consider this summer whether to count all of her votes from the last election.

It's just 7:30 on a September morning, but already hundreds of surfers line San Diego's Ocean Beach, stretching, grinning, and downing orange juice and Pop-Tarts. TV trucks with microwave masts raised for live morning-news feeds and traffic cops in patrol cars and on mountain bikes jam the foot of Newport Avenue, the palm-lined main street leading to the beach.

It's Clean Water Day, and time for the annual "paddle out" organized by Surfrider Foundation, the ocean-protection group made up of surfers and others tired of having their recreational stoke ruined by pollution-borne infections. In the middle of it all are Donna and Skip Frye. Donna is slim with straight, dark blond hair, aquiline features, and a calm blue gaze that belies a hyperkinetic activism.

Surfers, male and female, keep coming up to hug her or say hi. Skip, a stocky, sun-reddened, curly-haired grandfather, has his wetsuit top unzipped and hanging at his waist, his signature egg-shaped longboard under one arm. He places a lei made of braided green ti leaves around his wife's neck before he and some 500 other surfers paddle out into the water, forming a sinuous broken line around the quarter-mile-long pier.

Donna, an occasional surfer herself, stays on the beach to talk clean-water politics with various wonkish types. The surfers are observed from the pier by scores of anglers, mostly Hispanic and Vietnamese, here to fish for mackerel, bass, and queenfish. Gulls and pelicans perch on the scarred wooden rails, waiting for a handout or fumbled fish. The sky is quilting over with clouds; the air tastes of salt and iodine. This is the ocean at its finest, and if you were to ask the diverse crowd enjoying it who best represents its cause, many would answer "Donna Frye."

"In the surŪng world she's a stone-cold hero," says Rory Wicks, a San Diego surfer and attorney. "Now she's an international hero, but she's always been a hero to us." Wicks has represented Frye and others to make sure that all the ballots cast in San Diego's November 2004 mayoral election are counted. If they are, then write-in candidate Donna Frye will become the mayor of America's seventh-largest city.

San Diego has a reputation as a conservative Navy town with great weather. But 30 years of rapid growth have changed the dynamics. The southern white migrants who came for defense jobs during and after World War II have been joined by more liberal northern snowbirds and Hispanic workers drawn by new jobs in high-tech industries, education, and tourism. San Diego also has a strong environmental ethic, going back to the early 1900s when the city was divided between "Smokestacks and Geraniums": those who favored rapid industrialization, and those who wanted to preserve the city's Mediterranean charms.

Today San Diego's remaining charms mask troubling environmental problems. Since the 1970s, the EPA has filed numerous complaints about the city's scandalously lax sewage treatment. San Diego is the last major coastal city in the country still dumping minimally treated human waste into the ocean. In addition, numerous breaks in its 3,000 miles of sewer lines have resulted in fines, beach closures, and sick surfers.

Enter Donna and Skip. Her family moved here from Pennsylvania in 1957 when she was six. Her father was a Navy civilian employee, her mom a nurse. She had few ambitions growing up: "I just wanted to be an adult, maybe a dancer, a ballerina. I never thought of growing up to be a politician," she says, breaking into a throaty smoker's laugh. She graduated early from high school, worked as a maid, a cook, and a heavy-equipment renter. She married young and moved to Sacramento, where she drank too much and took too much physical abuse. Divorced and back in San Diego in 1980, she walked into Pancho Villa's bar in Pacific Beach and won a bet on a Rams game with Skip.
"Did you know who he was?"

She looks at me as if I were daft. "Of course!" Skip was part of the Windansea surf crew of the early 1960s made famous (even to non-surfers) by Tom Wolfe in The Pump House Gang. A one-time top competitor, Skip's also a renowned surfboard shaper, using a sander and a keen sense of flow to turn polyurethane blanks into high-value fiberglassed boards that are hugely popular on the international surfing scene.

But when he met Donna he was on the skids. "I was a mess," he confessed to Surfer magazine. "Drugs, alcohol, the whole thing. She gave me some self-confidence, you know? We had both come out of bad marriages and just grew together." Donna also quit drinking and got a job at a gas station. Later she became a technical writer while studying nights for a business degree. She tried to organize a union at her workplace, but "it was like that movie Norma Rae, with a bad ending." She worked on job discrimination for the National Organization for Women, helped Skip get his surf business organized, and was soon lured into environmental politics.

For years, Donna and Skip ran Harry's Surf Shop in Pacific Beach, just up the coast from Ocean Beach. On the low bluff outside Harry's, I watched sunbathers and surfers scattered across the sand and water beyond a bilingual sign reading "CAUTION: Storm drain water may pose an increased risk of illness. Avoid contact near outlet." This warning, as well as many like it up and down the state, is a direct result of Donna's efforts.

"Around 1994 I got very active because I was dealing with a lot of sick surfers, Skip being one of them," she recalls. "It didn't make sense. These healthy, athletic people were getting sick from pollution. What was doubly insulting is that [former Republican representative] Brian Bilbray was running for Congress against [Democratic challenger] Lynn Schenk, saying, 'Vote for me 'cause Schenk don't surf' — the implication being that Schenk didn't care about the ocean. Bilbray used the surf community to promote his own political agenda, which included working with Newt Gingrich to try to gut the Clean Water Act."

Gingrich's (ultimately failed) 1995 "reform" was written by lawyers for the oil and chemical industries with help from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Among much else, it would have suspended programs to control storm-drain runoff and waived secondary sewage treatment to eliminate fecal bacteria if the waste was discharged directly into the deep ocean. Bilbray explained his support as purely financial: "to save a billion dollars" in sewer upgrades for San Diego.

Bilbray's vote made him a target for Donna, who formed STOP: Surfers Tired of Pollution. Soon bumper stickers for STOP reading "Another Surfer Against Bilbray & For Clean Waters" started showing up on cars at area surf spots. Bilbray's pals responded with stickers reading "STOD: Surfers Tired of Donna — Truth was her first victim." Their debate played out in the PBS documentary Fender Philosophers, in the pages of Surfer magazine, and in the San Diego media. All the while Donna was lobbying city hall and attending wastewater-management classes.

"I was running for state assembly in 1996 and heard Donna was an environmental activist and owned a surf shop, so I went to meet her," recalls former assemblyman Howard Wayne. "She took me behind the store and pointed to these storm drains pouring into the surf and told me her husband and friends and customers were bathing in this toxic soup." He agreed to do something if elected; Donna campaigned for him, and after he won he invited her to Sacramento and asked her to take a crack at creating a bill. With support from her surfer/ lawyer friends, she crafted a bill that set statewide standards for water quality, required weekly testing of recreational beaches, and ordered warning signs and hotlines to inform the public if their coastal waters were polluted. It passed into law in 1997.

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Photo courtesy Scott Harrison: Surfrider Foundation, San Diego Chapter; used with permission.

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