Lights up on next act of San Diego's drama
By Peter Hecht -- Bee Capitol Bureau
Published 2:15 am PDT Wednesday, July 20, 2005
SAN DIEGO - A gusty bay wind whips her hair with a fury worthy of the financial and political storm engulfing California's second-largest city. "So much for the new mayor-do," quips Donna Frye, a leathery-skinned surf shop owner, environmentalist and populist candidate vowing to restore "ethics, honesty and accountability" to City Hall.
Frye, 53, is leading in the polls over former San Diego Police Chief Jerry Sanders in a crowded field for Tuesday's special election to select a new mayor to rescue a scandal-plagued city government.
As she strides in the swirling gusts, shaking hands with supporters at Civic Center plaza, she is just one protagonist in a tortuous, multi-act epic: San Diego's version of "On the Waterfront."
Act One is the story of a shimmering city that blossomed on San Diego Bay in an urban renaissance of castlelike hotels and apartment towers, a new baseball stadium and hip downtown villages brimming with restaurants, boutiques and street life.
Act Two is a tale of backroom deals and alleged corruption as San Diego officials underfunded employee pension plans by $1.4 billion while sweetening retirement perks for 11,000 municipal workers, paying $206 million toward the ballpark and investing hundreds of millions more in the downtown redevelopment. Five former pension board members and one current member face criminal felony conflict-of-interest charges.
Act Three is the story of Frye's quixotic write-in campaign for mayor in 2004 that stirred an election furor akin to the hanging chad of the 2000 presidential race. Frye, who entered the mayoral contest five weeks before the November runoff, outpolled incumbent Dick Murphy by 2,205 votes. But she lost when 5,547 ballots of people who wrote in her name were disallowed because they failed to mark a required bubble on their ballots.
"She is the favorite now because she has a rock-solid base of support from liberals in the city who believe she was robbed," said John Nienstedt, president of Competitive Edge Research, a San Diego polling firm. "They see her as the anointed one: the savior who is going to bring a breath of fresh air to City Hall."
Frye has a second chance because of what happened in Act Four of San Diego's civic drama. With the city government teetering on economic collapse and facing FBI and Securities and Exchange Commission investigations for alleged financial malfeasance, Murphy abruptly announced his retirement early in his second term and left office Friday.
And Monday, City Council members Ralph Inzunza and Michael Zucchet, the acting mayor, were convicted on unrelated charges of taking illegal payoffs from a strip club owner who wanted a law allowing closer contact between patrons and nude dancers. Councilwoman Toni Atkins was named temporary mayor pro tem. Zucchet resigned his council seat Tuesday. Inzunza says he intends to do the same.
"I think it's very unfortunate that San Diego is now seen as a political disgrace," Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, D-San Diego, said before the verdicts. "We have indicted City Council members. We have a mayor - who is a former judge - resigning under the cloud of a political scandal. And the city is in financial lockdown."
Voters, intensely following the unfolding events, now can only hope that Act Five - the special mayoral election - will provide a conclusion to lead San Diego out of unrelenting scandals and a fiscal morass.
Frye, a City Council member who became active in local politics after her husband, surfing legend Skip Frye, got sick from seawater polluted with urban drainage, is bidding to become San Diego's first Democratic mayor since 1992.
She is criticized by some business leaders as a no-growth obstructionist to the city's urban renewal. But she was the only member to vote "no" in a closed session in 2002 when Murphy and the City Council increased employee retirement benefits as a concession to municipal workers for continuing to underfund their pension plans.
That decision is now widely blamed for creating a massive pension shortfall that plunged the city into a financial mess, threatening sweeping cuts in services.
"Her 'no' vote is her get-out-of-jail-free card for responsibility for the pension scandal," said University of California, San Diego, political science professor Thad Kousser.
Frye's top challenger is former Police Chief Sanders, who is campaigning on a résumé of turning around troubled organizations. He boasts of restoring confidence in a police department once beset with corruption, rising crime and low morale and of resolving financial problems of the local United Way and American Red Cross while serving as chief executive officer and chairman, respectively.
Sanders was recruited by some Republican Party and business officials as an "Anyone but Donna" candidate to counter Frye, whom opponents derided as a liberal surfer unfit to lead the city.
"I decided it was too important to allow the city to fail," said Sanders, whose supporters hail a recent poll showing he would beat Frye in a two-candidate race should he force her into a November runoff.
In hot pursuit is Steve Francis, a former Nevada Assembly speaker and health care executive who has raised $1.8 million - $1.25 million from his own money - and outspent both Frye and Sanders by 6-to-1. Francis, who vows to cut the city labor force and give the work to private companies, is wagering his personal fortune in a siren call to reform a city "controlled by labor unions."
Meanwhile, candidate Pat Shea, a lawyer who helped guide Orange County through the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history, says San Diego is in such dire financial shape that the city should file for bankruptcy protection as well. "I don't have a message that people want to hear, but it is the way out," he said at a recent mayoral debate.
Nearly 60 percent of local residents believe that people around the country have a worsening impression of San Diego, according to a recent poll. That is worrisome news to business leaders, including architects of a three-decade redevelopment that has lured $5.6 billion in private investment - plus $871.5 million in taxpayer money - to remake the center city.
It wasn't long ago that county jail inmates accounted for most of downtown San Diego's population and the blighted district was known for nude bars and roughneck taverns catering to sailors from Navy ships docked in the bay.
In the last two years alone, private investors have bankrolled $3 billion in development - including a housing boom around Petco Park, the San Diego Padres' gleaming new stadium - expected to lure 90,000 new residents to downtown.
"There is such a contrast between what is going on politically with the city and the redevelopment that is running on all cylinders," said Peter Hall, president of Centre City Development, a nonprofit corporation contracted by the city to spearhead the downtown resurgence. "I liken it to the 'Tale of Two Cities' - it was the best of times; it was the worst of times."
Judy Italiano, president of the 6,000-member of Municipal Employees Association, one of four city worker groups, said San Diego's elected officials made disastrous financial decisions because they were mesmerized by the downtown renewal.
"Like many politicians, they looked at that fat pension system and said, 'We'll pay it down the road. What's the harm?' " said Italiano, whose employee group also faces criticism for the financial meltdown. "They were blinded by the growth."
Every major mayoral candidate is now preaching austerity - from cutting services to laying off administrators and workers or rolling back the city's investment in redevelopment.
For Frye, there is another matter: a sense she's entitled to be mayor after losing to Murphy in last November's write-in fracas and ensuing court battles that made San Diego the Palm Beach of the West.
"This time, they'll let me serve," Frye said determinedly as she mingled with citizens outside City Hall.
"People voted for me - and then their votes didn't count. They were disenfranchised," she said. "The mayor fought and fought to discount their names. And after all that, he just quit - and walked away from it all."