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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

(page 2 of 2)

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.

Next Donna took on the owners of SeaWorld, who had put a measure on the city ballot to double their height limit so they could build a giant roller coaster. Frye (and the local Sierra Club) saw it as another example of runaway coastal development. "Most of our members living [nearby] didn't want it," recalls Jerry Butkiewicz, head of the 100,000-member San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

"Construction guys want to build things, but not ruin the environment for our kids. So I heard of this lady in the neighborhood who was pushing against SeaWorld's initiative, and it was a real David versus Goliath thing. I was surprised that it was so close (the measure passed with 50.7 percent) where she spent maybe $1,000 and they spent millions. But she has that knack to communicate to the public and to get people to support each other's issues."

In 2001 a city council seat opened up in Donna's district and she decided to go for it, becoming one of ten candidates in a special election. In addition to the surfer/beach communities, Donna won the backing of affordable-housing advocates, gay civil-rights leaders, and many others. "We were interviewing the district-six candidates at the Police Officers Association and Donna comes in," says Butkiewicz of the labor council. "She looks like a hippie, and police don't usually support hippies. But she was unbelievable, she was so good in that interview. We asked about prevailing wages, and she didn't just know the issue but had her own ideas. We came out of there going, 'Holy cow, that lady's smart!' She got the endorsement of the police, fire, labor, everyone."

"People have always underestimated Donna. She was massively outspent and no one expected her to make the runoff, much less win, but she did," says Bruce Reznik, head of San Diego Baykeeper, a group of activist sailors that tracks and sues water polluters. Reznik's introduction to the local environmental scene was a big hug from Donna at an EPA meeting. It's a story I heard repeated several times: an embrace from an exuberant stranger whose joy, smarts, and honesty convert the skeptical recipient into an ardent supporter.

Donna won her first race by a small margin and quickly became known as the maverick council member who did her homework, paid attention to public testimony, and asked tough questions, especially on environmental and development issues. This often led to her being on the short end of council votes. Nevertheless, when the 2002 election rolled around and her colleagues redrew her district to exclude most of the beach communities, she still won reelection with over 65 percent of the vote.

As a council member Donna advocated for a living-wage initiative, development of solar power, and open government, condemning Mayor Dick Murphy's "culture of secrecy" on financial issues. Her citywide credibility soared when she cast the sole vote against a plan to increase city employee benefits while underfinancing their pension accounts, a move that resulted in a $1 billion pension deficit, a downgrading of the city's credit rating, and investigations by the FBI and Securities and Exchange Commission of a possible attempt to mislead creditors.

Murphy, a moderate Republican, nevertheless ran for reelection to the nonpartisan mayor's post last year against Ron Roberts, a right-wing Republican. With encouragement from the labor council, Donna considered entering the primary, but others warned that she'd just throw the election to Roberts, who was blaming the crisis on greedy garbage collectors and advocating privatization of city services.

So she sat it out. But as the campaign progressed, more and more people began calling, encouraging her to launch a write-in campaign. "Some people say my delay was a strategy, but I really didn't want to run for mayor," she says. "It was just that the choices were so poor. I got tired of the same old, same old."

"So we're at a wedding on the beach in Carlsbad," Jerry Butkiewicz recounts with a grin, "and she leans over to me and says, 'Buck, what do you think if I ran for mayor?' So I put my hands around her neck and start choking her, saying, 'I told you to run in the primary!'"

The odds seemed daunting for her entry as a write-in candidate just five weeks before the election. But in a little over a month she raised close to $100,000 from small donors, won numerous endorsements, appeared on a series of TV debates, and held rallies drawing hundreds of people, electrifying what had been a somnambulant race. Still, the local pundits and election consultants (whom she refused to hire) made fun of her frequent calls for greater honesty and "Aloha spirit." ("Surfers have a gentle way of looking at nature," she explains. "They've been pounded so many times they respect nature.")

Right-wing talk radio jocks like ex-mayor Roger Hedgecock tried to turn her into the Hillary Clinton of San Diego, attacking both her politics and her personality.

On election day, Donna voted, went to a local cafe and to the funeral of an elderly neighbor, gathered friends and supporters at home, and then made her way down to election central. She won.

Or so it appeared. After many weeks and many lawsuits, the final tally stood at 162,364 write-in votes for Donna, 156,852 votes for Murphy, and 141,399 for Roberts. But the registrar of voters refused to count 5,551 of Donna's votes, where people wrote down her name but failed to fill in the oval bubble for the optical-scan voting machines, and Murphy was declared the winner. (Hedgecock endorsed a caller's suggestion that people wrote Donna's name in so they could look at all three candidates' names next to each other, then decided not to vote for any of them.) In the midst of the electoral debacle, the San Diego Union-Tribune ran dual headlines across its front page: "Court Voids Ukraine Election, Orders New Vote" and "Mayoral Vote Stays in Limbo."

Weeks afterward, San Diego is going through a winter cold spell with the temperature around 50. "I'm freezing," Donna says, her lanky frame layered in a long padded coat, beneath which she's wearing a red jacket, white ruffled blouse, and long black skirt with heels. Today she looks more Virginia hunt country than surfer wahine. Her city hall office is a comfortable clutter of policy papers and surf photos, including one of Skip on a longboard with Leroy, their late spaniel, riding the nose. A favorite Gandhi quote is etched on a small tablet: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win."

I walk with her down the tenth-floor hallway she shares with the other council members and their staffs. As we turn left at the elevator banks, we run into a wall of eight television cameras and 15 reporters with mikes and notebooks ready. Early in the campaign she'd burst out laughing at the sight of the journalistic pack that made her "surfer girl" candidacy for mayor a national and international story, but now she's grown used to them.

The latest frenzy is over a judge's ruling that morning that her write-in candidacy was legal and the election can now be certified. "Democracy's not just about who votes, but who counts the votes," she reminds the pack. So will she continue to challenge the current, sitting mayor even if that means more legal actions and delay? "I'm still in the hunt, which is why I'm in my hunting outfit today," she quips.

"Welcome to my world," she grins back in her office, where her staffers wait with a dozen urgent messages and a letter from a Wisconsin tourist who wants her to fix a parking ticket. We go to lunch. "How ya doin'? Hope you win!" two African-American men in their 40s call out to her on the way. "Keep the faith!" she calls back.

Back at the city council chamber, it's time for the weekly public comment period. Donna puts on her reading glasses to examine the handouts from the citizen-activists, lobbyists, and eccentrics, listening closely to each speaker while the council member next to her talks on his cell phone. One dangerous-looking fellow in a satin jacket tells about his armed standoff with the police years ago and how the cops are thugs and the mayor's a liar, closing with "Happy holidays to you, Ms. Frye, and to Skip, and may the rest of you get what you deserve."

Next Joyceline Tarr, an older woman with a walker, hobbles up to the podium. "Donna, there's no question in my mind that you should be mayor," she says before thanking the council member for coming out to see the downed branches on her street. "I pray for you every night, Donna," she concludes before sitting back down.

Much of the rest of the afternoon is taken up with recent improvements to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park; one of the council members thanks another for making it all possible. Donna pointedly asks a leader of Friends of Sunset Cliffs, the citizens' group that's worked on the coastal park for 20 years, to come back to the podium and talk about what they've accomplished. Later, Ann Swanson tells me, "I don't really know Donna. I'm surprised she asked me back up to speak." But as a longtime activist herself, Donna hasn't forgotten that real change comes from the bottom up.

Three months after the election, a state judge upheld the reelection of Mayor Dick Murphy, ruling that state law excluded the 5,551 ballots on which Donna's name was written but the corresponding bubble wasn't filled in. Attorney Fred Woocher, representing several voters who had written in Donna's name but not filled in the bubble, maintained that the judge should have considered the voters' intent, and promised an appeal.

Mayor Murphy immediately asked Donna "to accept the defeat gracefully and let's move on." She declined. "Our campaign defeated Mr. Status and Mr. Quo," Donna said, "and we're not going away until every vote is counted. Our time shall come. Patience is power."

David Helvarg is president of the Blue Frontier Campaign and author of the recently updated Blue Frontier: Saving America's Living Seas (Sierra Club Books, fall 2005).

This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.

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

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