By David Helvarg
Surfer hero Donna Frye paddles into San Diego politics
It’s just 7:30 on a September morning, but already hundreds of surfers line San Diego’s Ocean Beach, stretching, grinning, and downing orange juice and Pop-Tarts. TV trucks with microwave masts raised for live morning-news feeds and traffic cops in patrol cars and on mountain bikes jam the foot of Newport Avenue, the palm-lined main street leading to the beach.
It’s Clean Water Day, and time for the annual “paddle out” organized by Surfrider Foundation, the ocean-protection group made up of surfers and others tired of having their recreational stoke ruined by pollution-borne infections. In the middle of it all are Donna and Skip Frye. Donna is slim with straight, dark blond hair, aquiline features, and a calm blue gaze that belies a hyperkinetic activism.
Surfers, male and female, keep coming up to hug her or say hi. Skip, a stocky, sun-reddened, curly-haired grandfather, has his wetsuit top unzipped and hanging at his waist, his signature egg-shaped longboard under one arm. He places a lei made of braided green ti leaves around his wife’s neck before he and some 500 other surfers paddle out into the water, forming a sinuous broken line around the quarter-mile-long pier.
Donna, an occasional surfer herself, stays on the beach to talk clean-water politics with various wonkish types. The surfers are observed from the pier by scores of anglers, mostly Hispanic and Vietnamese, here to fish for mackerel, bass, and queenfish. Gulls and pelicans perch on the scarred wooden rails, waiting for a handout or fumbled fish. The sky is quilting over with clouds; the air tastes of salt and iodine. This is the ocean at its finest, and if you were to ask the diverse crowd enjoying it who best represents its cause, many would answer “Donna Frye.”
“In the surÞng world she’s a stone-cold hero,” says Rory Wicks, a San Diego surfer and attorney. “Now she’s an international hero, but she’s always been a hero to us.” Wicks has represented Frye and others to make sure that all the ballots cast in San Diego’s November 2004 mayoral election are counted. If they are, then write-in candidate Donna Frye will become the mayor of America’s seventh-largest city.
San Diego has a reputation as a conservative Navy town with great weather. But 30 years of rapid growth have changed the dynamics. The southern white migrants who came for defense jobs during and after World War II have been joined by more liberal northern snowbirds and Hispanic workers drawn by new jobs in high-tech industries, education, and tourism. San Diego also has a strong environmental ethic, going back to the early 1900s when the city was divided between “Smokestacks and Geraniums”: those who favored rapid industrialization, and those who wanted to preserve the city’s Mediterranean charms.
Today San Diego’s remaining charms mask troubling environmental problems. Since the 1970s, the EPA has filed numerous complaints about the city’s scandalously lax sewage treatment. San Diego is the last major coastal city in the country still dumping minimally treated human waste into the ocean. In addition, numerous breaks in its 3,000 miles of sewer lines have resulted in fines, beach closures, and sick surfers.
Enter Donna and Skip. Her family moved here from Pennsylvania in 1957 when she was six. Her father was a Navy civilian employee, her mom a nurse. She had few ambitions growing up: “I just wanted to be an adult, maybe a dancer, a ballerina. I never thought of growing up to be a politician,” she says, breaking into a throaty smoker’s laugh. She graduated early from high school, worked as a maid, a cook, and a heavy-equipment renter. She married young and moved to Sacramento, where she drank too much and took too much physical abuse. Divorced and back in San Diego in 1980, she walked into Pancho Villa’s bar in Pacific Beach and won a bet on a Rams game with Skip. “Did you know who he was?”
She looks at me as if I were daft. “Of course!” Skip was part of the Windansea surf crew of the early 1960s made famous (even to non-surfers) by Tom Wolfe in The Pump House Gang. A one-time top competitor, Skip’s also a renowned surfboard shaper, using a sander and a keen sense of flow to turn polyurethane blanks into high-value fiberglassed boards that are hugely popular on the international surfing scene.
But when he met Donna he was on the skids. “I was a mess,” he confessed to Surfer magazine. “Drugs, alcohol, the whole thing. She gave me some self-confidence, you know? We had both come out of bad marriages and just grew together.” Donna also quit drinking and got a job at a gas station. Later she became a technical writer while studying nights for a business degree. She tried to organize a union at her workplace, but “it was like that movie Norma Rae, with a bad ending.” She worked on job discrimination for the National Organization for Women, helped Skip get his surf business organized, and was soon lured into environmental politics.
For years, Donna and Skip ran Harry’s Surf Shop in Pacific Beach, just up the coast from Ocean Beach. On the low bluff outside Harry’s, I watched sunbathers and surfers scattered across the sand and water beyond a bilingual sign reading “CAUTION: Storm drain water may pose an increased risk of illness. Avoid contact near outlet.” This warning, as well as many like it up and down the state, is a direct result of Donna’s efforts.
“Around 1994 I got very active because I was dealing with a lot of sick surfers, Skip being one of them,” she recalls. “It didn’t make sense. These healthy, athletic people were getting sick from pollution. What was doubly insulting is that [former Republican representative] Brian Bilbray was running for Congress against [Democratic challenger] Lynn Schenk, saying, ‘Vote for me ’cause Schenk don’t surf’ — the implication being that Schenk didn’t care about the ocean. Bilbray used the surf community to promote his own political agenda, which included working with Newt Gingrich to try to gut the Clean Water Act.”
Gingrich’s (ultimately failed) 1995 “reform” was written by lawyers for the oil and chemical industries with help from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Among much else, it would have suspended programs to control storm-drain runoff and waived secondary sewage treatment to eliminate fecal bacteria if the waste was discharged directly into the deep ocean. Bilbray explained his support as purely financial: “to save a billion dollars” in sewer upgrades for San Diego.
Bilbray’s vote made him a target for Donna, who formed STOP: Surfers Tired of Pollution. Soon bumper stickers for STOP reading “Another Surfer Against Bilbray & For Clean Waters” started showing up on cars at area surf spots. Bilbray’s pals responded with stickers reading “STOD: Surfers Tired of Donna — Truth was her first victim.” Their debate played out in the PBS documentary Fender Philosophers, in the pages of Surfer magazine, and in the San Diego media. All the while Donna was lobbying city hall and attending wastewater-management classes.
“I was running for state assembly in 1996 and heard Donna was an environmental activist and owned a surf shop, so I went to meet her,” recalls former assemblyman Howard Wayne. “She took me behind the store and pointed to these storm drains pouring into the surf and told me her husband and friends and customers were bathing in this toxic soup.” He agreed to do something if elected; Donna campaigned for him, and after he won he invited her to Sacramento and asked her to take a crack at creating a bill. With support from her surfer/ lawyer friends, she crafted a bill that set statewide standards for water quality, required weekly testing of recreational beaches, and ordered warning signs and hotlines to inform the public if their coastal waters were polluted. It passed into law in 1997.
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.”