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Write-in mayoral bid has fresh hope

Disputed ballots, if counted, would be enough to elect long-shot Donna Frye to be San Diego mayor.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 2004


To hear her supporters describe it, Donna Frye has a nonconformist approach to politics that's bringing ocean-fresh breezes of common sense and an open-forum spirit into city proceedings.

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To her critics, Donna Frye is a gadfly surfer-turned-activist who, in her current seat on the San Diego City Council, has often been on the short end of 8-to-1 votes.

And for all sides in this usually placid city by the sea, she is a central protagonist in a drawn-out electoral battle that will determine who will be mayor - and who will try to lead San Diego out of deep financial troubles.

After waging extraordinary last-minute campaign as a write-in candidate, Frye appeared poised to oust Mayor Dick Murphy (R) as vote counting began after three-way election Nov. 2 - a sign of voter discontent with city government.

But things got interesting as vote counting began. It became clear on many of the ballots voters had written Frye's name but failed to fill in the required oval for a write-in vote. One county judge has already rejected those ballots, but a legal challenge by Frye is still possible. And now that prospect has gained fresh momentum, as a review of the disputed ballots this week showed that she would win if these votes are counted.

Whether she wins or loses, Frye's long-shot bid is indicative of a deeper political shift in a former Republican stronghold but where Democrats now have a voter registration edge. The city retains a conservative tilt: Democrat Frye garnered just over one-third of the votes in a race against two Republicans. But many voters here also want more openness and less partisanship.

"What [Frye] is not about is ideological approaches but rather honest government ... and that, sadly, is an interesting new concept in politics these days. The whole country is hungry for it," says Richard Louv, a columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune.

Like San Francisco and Los Angeles before it - once Republican bastions that eventually trended Democratic - San Diego has been liberalizing for the past decade, analysts say.

Separately, in the past eight months, details have emerged of financial dealings going back over 20 years that have brought the city to the brink of bankruptcy. Among the criticized moves: selling public land, "corporate welfare" deals with major sports teams, misappropriation of funds, and the underfunding of basic services from police and fire to parks. A widening gap in city pension funds helped the city earn national headlines as an "Enron by the sea."

The budget woes of America's seventh-largest city have drawn national scrutiny and investigations by the FBI, the US Attorney General's Office, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

As the election drama has dragged on, Frye and Mr. Murphy have taken things in stride.

Republican incumbent mayor Dick Murphy, who was sworn in for a second term last week, is hoping for a resolution soon. The roller-coaster election has reportedly tired and ruffled a man known for his methodical approaches to policy issues and who had to be coaxed to stay in the campaign after he withdrew last