In San Diego, a surfer-politician takes on pinstripe set

Maverick councilwoman Donna Frye roils mayor's race by becoming write-in candidate, adding drama to key election.

For the past few years, Donna Frye has been the gadfly of San Diego politics - a sort of Jesse Ventura in Levis and sweat pants.

The longtime activist turned Democratic city councilwoman has made it her cause célèbre to defy the entrenched secrecy in city government - by boycotting closed meetings and verbally accosting bureaucrats for speaking legalese. She is often on the short end of 8-to-1 votes. Now Ms. Frye is taking her tilt-at-windmills approach to a new level: She is running for mayor of the nation's seventh-largest city as a write-in candidate.

Her 11th-hour entry last week is roiling what was ironically one of the nation's most dispassionate - but important - local elections. San Diego, long considered one of the country's most livable and quiescent cities, has more recently earned a reputation, rightly or wrongly, as the Enron by the sea.

A prolonged fiscal crisis and management scandal has put America's sixth-wealthiest city on the edge of bankruptcy. The next mayor will have to dig out of a $1.17 billion pension-fund deficit amid federal probes and likely indictments of public officials going back years.

The scenario could serve as cautionary tale to dozens of US cities now dipping regularly - and dangerously, say some analysts - into their own pension funds.

Frye's entrance into the San Diego race means the debate over the city's fiscal mismanagement will take on a sharper focus and give disgruntled voters another choice on election day. Until her entry, the two candidates were the same male Republicans who faced off in 2000 - current Mayor Dick Murphy, and challenger Ron Roberts, a county supervisor.

"The whole city is now energized over a situation in which they felt helpless until now because the other two candidates are tied to the downtown establishment that had its hands in all the dealings that have brought this city into financial crisis," says Don Bauder, a financial columnist for the San Diego Reader. "Donna Frye has long been the lone voice standing up against such dealings and voters love her for it."

Long a grass-roots activist in pollution and water issues, Frye was drafted to complete an unexpired city council term in 2001, then was elected to a four-year term in 2002 with a decisive 65 percent vote. Besides bringing a maverick's view to the city's troubles, the Frye bid promises to alter the calculus of the race by drawing votes from both candidates. Pollsters are reluctant to predict which could benefit. A KGTV/SurveyUSA poll released last week showed Mr. Roberts leading Mr. Murphy 46 percent to 34 percent, with 20 percent undecided.

But because of the groundswell of popular support for Frye - and her stances against pension-fund borrowing which led to the current scandal - several analysts say she could actually win.

Reasons: There are more registered Democrats in town than Republicans. The surf-shop owner turned water activist has a natural base with environmentalists. She also has key labor support. Anger also brews among once-idle libertarian and other voters about a long string of city investments and deals that include profootball and baseball stadiums, the selling of city assets, the rise of fees (from swimming pools to sewer treatment), and the underfunding of police and fire departments.

"Based on her popularity and attractiveness to voters, it is possible she can win," says San Diego Union Tribune columnist Richard Louv. "What is unknown is [whether she can overcome] the mechanics of a write-in candidacy at the last minute."

Her success could hinge on a voter backlash against unfolding details of the city's underfunded employee retirement system. A recent report showed the city drained the fund - now at a deficit of $1.17 billion - to pay retirement benefits for current employees, while concealing its practices, leading to downgrades in the city's bond credit ratings, and investigations by the FBI, US Attorney, and Securities and Exchange Commission.

The two main contenders are positioning themselves as system reformers as well. Roberts has put forward a 12-point plan that includes opening city financial books to the public, renegotiating pension benefits, reducing mayor and council budgets, and designing a phased plan to deal with all deficient funds.

Mayor Murphy claims that pension-fund borrowing had become standard practice before his mayoral tenure. He has accepted some responsibility for the deficit and proposed his own multipronged attack, including frozen city wages, a ballot proposition prohibiting pension fund underfunding, and making the city's disclosure laws the nation's toughest.

Frye is reluctant to provide many details on how she will deal with the city's management and fiscal problems until more facts are revealed.

"I have a very simplistic agenda, which is to tell voters the truth about how we got so far off course," she says in a Monitor interview. "It's hard to really lay out solutions when you don't know the whole equation."

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