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.
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
March. Voters themselves appeared split over the ongoing battle which may now be heading for another decision in the courts if Frye decides to file a lawsuit by a Jan. 7 deadline.
In a Monitor interview soon after the election in her mom's small, ranch-style home where she grew up, Frye explains her rise from environmental activist to city councilwoman as being less about the city's need to change leadership or political persuasions than about changing the very nature of how city government interacts with its citizens.
"San Diego had become a place where city officials were marginalizing, undermining, underestimating and not taking its citizens seriously," she says. Frye, the owner of a local surf shop and the wife of well-known surfer Skip Frye, began lobbying city council about polluted ocean water in 1988. "They treated me as a lowlife and someone with no brain because I was from the surfing community and I saw they were doing that to others as well."
She fought to control pollution runoff from storm drains, for the monitoring of discharges and for a multimillion dollar clean up of Mission Bay. After winning battle upon battle, the Frye surf shop became a kind of gathering point for citizens with beefs to level at city hall.
She says she began to notice other patterns of avoidance by city officials. They often held hearings after members had decided key policies. "People would get up to talk and no one would be listening."
After being drafted to run for an unexpired city council term in 2001, she departed from standard operating procedures - many times declining to attend closed sessions - and was reelected for a four-year term in 2002 with 65 percent of the vote.
She attributes her popularity to her standing up for the Ralph M. Brown Act - a California law which states that the public's business shall be held in public - and holding her ground in front of lobbyists, lawyers, and others who often try to badger public officials with legalese and procedural maneuvering.
Tanned, sandy-haired, and more comfortable in jeans than dresses, Frye has been described as a firebrand - frank sometimes to a fault - as she reprimands officials in hearings for needless pontificating.
"This is a total change to the way things have been going and people are excited to see what she can do," says Michael Kearney, sitting in Nico's Taco Shop at the corner of Marina and Cushman, just a block from where Frye's husband designs custom surfboards.
Dede Vanderwe, standing outside the Coronado Hotel, dismisses her as "just a bohemian and an obstructionist... If people like her were in power, we probably wouldn't have a new stadium downtown and a growing skyline that puts us in the big league of cities."
Indeed, if she wins, the question is whether Frye can forge consensus and build coalitions. "That requires a different set of skills than she has yet demonstrated," says Steve Erie, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "That will be the challenge."