Maybe it's because she's easing back into the roller-coaster station—her time on the council ends this week—but when she sat down on two consecutive mornings to reminisce, she was playful and full of life, letting loose her trademark robust laugh early and often.
That might sound strange to people who only know the abrasive woman who grills city staffers during public meetings, sometimes coming across as sarcastic and self-righteous.
But in her era, she was the city's most consistently principled public figure, even frustrating close friends and political allies when she thought she had to in order to stay true to her values. And she's viewed by supporters and critics alike as a remarkably hard worker.
San Diego County Taxpayers Association President and CEO Lani Lutar says in an e- mail that while her group and Frye “were not always aligned on issues, it is indisputable that she has served as an effective advocate for reliable water supply, government transparency and, more often than not, pension reform. Donna does her homework before weighing in on issues—her docket binders and budget books are highlighted and marked up with notes—something all policy wonks can appreciate and respect.”
In her two runs for mayor in 2004 and 2005, there developed almost a cult of personality around Frye—at least among devotees who were tired of the same old political same old.
“I never thought of myself as cult figure,” she says. “I just thought of myself as someone who was giving people a choice and giving them some hope and something different than business-as-usual.”
Frye took office in June 2001 as a 49-year-old clean-water activist, having founded the organization Surfers Tired Of Pollution (STOP). She'd beaten Steve Danon, then county Supervisor Ron Roberts' chief of staff, to win a special District 6 election after predecessor Valerie Stallings was forced from her seat amid scandal. Frye's agenda: Improve neighborhoods, stop sewage spills, clean up the ocean, reduce energy consumption and kick open the doors of government so that citizens could see what was going on inside.
One of her goals was to remain accessible to average people. “You didn't have to make a campaign contribution. You didn't have to kiss my ring,” she says. “All you had to do was call my office.”
Frye would become famous for casting the lone “no” in City Council votes. Among the first, she recalls, was whether or not to accept a $40-million loan repayment from the Centre City Development Corp., the agency that facilitates Downtown redevelopment on the city's behalf. Frye wanted that money for the city's general-purpose coffers but believed it was destined to help finance Petco Park, which had been approved by voters in 1998.
Frye said the City Council had a bad case of sports fever those days; she recalls former Councilmember Byron Wear handing out Cracker Jack amid a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” after a vote to issue bonds to pay for Petco Park, and the council's closed-door meetings were often dominated by talk of the city's legal position vis-a-vis the Chargers, whose owners were exercising their right to opt out of their lease at Qualcomm Stadium. That the council wasn't devoting more time to matters like employee contract negotiations and the city's financial condition would loom large later.
On Nov. 18, 2002, Diann Shipione, a member of the San Diego City Employees Retirement System's (SDCERS) board of trustees who was unknown not only to the general public but also to members of the City Council, showed up to a council meeting and asked for two items to be pulled from the docket's consent agenda, which is meant to include non-controversial matters needing no discussion. One of the items she pulled, enhancing retirement benefits for city employees, was part of a deal between the city and SDCERS that was corrupt and possibly illegal, she told the council. Shipione accidentally left a related item on the consent agenda—a proposal for the city to pump less money into the retirement system than was required to keep it financially sound.
Frye voted along with the rest of the council to approve the consent agenda en masse, forever cementing her vote to under-fund the pension system, but she was the only member to heed Shipione's warning and vote against the new benefits. In later interviews with investigators, Frye's colleagues acknowledged being convinced at the time that Shipione was an unhinged, vengeful troublemaker; however, history has vindicated Shipione as a courageous whistleblower who was dead right, and Frye continues to be praised for believing her.
Something about Shipione reminded Frye of when she used to appeal to the council on environmental issues: “I looked at her and I saw me coming down to the City Council to talk about stuff, and I thought, She doesn't have skin in the game.”
That day's agenda also included a vote on a proposed Downtown library—Frye was being vilified for hating libraries because she had grave concerns about the project. Ironically, it would be Frye nearly eight years later who'd cast the deciding vote giving final approval for the library project. Also, that day's closed-session docket included discussion of keeping secret the results of a study that determined the true costs of providing sewer service.
“The things that were said in that room and the things that were done in that room were abhorrent,” Frye says, adding that she remembers leaving her seat, “jumping up and just going crazy” over the sewer study. “They did not like that I wouldn't play ball with the Chargers, wouldn't go along with their schemes, wouldn't call Diann Shipione names—that I wouldn't buy into the inner workings of the go-along-to-get-along.”
Frye's anger over the sewer study, which showed that residential customers were partially subsidizing service for businesses, in part prompted her to begin boycotting the council's closed-session meetings until certain changes were implemented. Frye forced the public release of the sewer study in February 2004; her boycott began 25 days later and lasted three weeks. Councilmember Toni Atkins joined the boycott for one week.
Her colleagues relented in late March and agreed to temporarily make changes, such as publicly reporting in greater detail what's set to be discussed in closed session and creating transcriptions of the private meetings. The changes were made permanent in 2005. Meanwhile, sewer rates were made more equitable for residential customers in June 2004.
“As an external ‘watchdog,'” says Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers Action Network, “I've appreciated the important role that Donna has served as an internal watchdog on the council. She, like I, may not win popularity contests. But someone has got to be posing the uncomfortable questions in order for a deliberative process to really work.”
By the fall of 2004, Frye had well established herself as an insurgent inside the government—but that's when she launched her biggest attack yet. It was an election year, and Mayor Dick Murphy was facing a challenge by Supervisor Roberts, whom he'd beaten in 2000. Murphy had been severely weakened by revelations in early 2004 that city leaders had not been honest with bond investors about the city's dire financial condition.
Frye says she'd been fending off pleas from supporters who wanted her to run for mayor. “I'm, like, ‘I don't want to do that. I'm a council member. I want to be a council member. Just leave me alone. Go away. Don't bother me,'” she says.
But they persisted. And in September, in a conversation with then-labor chief Jerry Butkiewicz at a reception following the wedding of Frye's close friend, environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez, she started to relent.
“I sort of looked over and said, ‘You know what? Maybe I should run for mayor,'” she recalls. “I said, ‘You know, I'm going to think about
it, Jerry, because this could be sort of fun. A short campaign—what the
heck.' At least give people a choice, because I can't vote for either
one of those guys.”
seal the deal was the fact that in the aftermath of the Bush-Gore
hanging-chad presidential-election debacle, the county registrar was
using bubble ballots, meaning each voter would have a pencil in hand—a
key factor when someone's considering running as a write-in candidate,
as Frye was. When she realized that, she says, “I went, ‘I think the
universe is shining on me. The planets are aligning.'” She recalls
breaking the news to Murphy's chief of staff, John kern, during a lunch
meeting at the Westgate Hotel. Murphy and Roberts, both Republicans,
coveted an endorsement of a prominent Democrat like Frye. She told kern
that she had another candidate in mind: “Me.”
“The expression on his face was just beautiful,” she says.
announced her candidacy weeks before the general election and made
national news by collecting the most votes. But because 5,551 voters
misspelled her name or failed to fill in the bubble next to the write-in option, a judge gave Murphy the victory.
had been listening to the court hearing on the radio in her office. “I
just threw up my hands and I just went into my Zen state of mind, which I
think made some people angry,” she says. “They thought I was supposed
to get nuts and come out screaming and hollering. And I said, ‘Well, so
be it. That's where we're at.'” Still, her profile had risen
dramatically, and she'd become a hero to a large chunk of the citizenry.
Frye claims she didn't let it get to her head.
don't want to get sucked up into misunderstanding moments and
opportunities and then saying, ‘It's all about me,'” she says. “You
gotta understand what was happening at the time—the public outrage, the
public mistrust of government, and I was the antithesis of that. I was
the other option.”
chance would soon come, rather unexpectedly. Amid worsening scandal,
Murphy abruptly announced in April 2005, just two months after being
swoin, that he would step down in July. Frye decided immediately that
she would take another shot, this time traveling the traditional route.
Meanwhile, when Murphy left office, Deputy Mayor Mike Zucchet took over as acting mayor. Three days later, his tenure ended when
he was convicted on federal charges involving an alleged scheme to
overtua city law prohibiting touching between strippers and
case caused a rift between Frye and Zucchet, who had previously been
good friends and political allies. Zucchet was hurt when Frye declined
to stand by him publicly in 2003 as U.S authorities were mounting their
case against him and Councilmembers Ralph Inzunza and Charles Lewis.
“That really upset him a lot,” Frye says.
I understand that, and I'm sorry about that, but I did not know what
they had or had not done, and I just tried to stay out of it.
“I don't get involved in FBI investigations,” Frye says. “I had no desire to challenge the FBI.”
says she was hurt, in turn, when Zucchet declined to support her
boycott of closed-session meetings. “I remember Michael Zucchet saying in
public, on the microphone, because I was boycotting closed session,
that I should resign, that I should be kicked off the City Council,” she
says. “I was shocked. It's, like, somebody you thought you knew. [I
was] amazed by the change. And maybe that's how it was all along and I
just didn't see it. Maybe I saw what I wanted to see.”
For his part, Zucchet has no recollection of saying Frye should resign and says he'd be surprised if anyone could prove that he did.
any case, it was Frye who said, during her first run for mayor, that
Zucchet should leave office. She also didn't support Murphy's move to
make Zucchet deputy mayor, which put him in line to be mayor when Murphy
and Zucchet, now the general manager of the union representing the
city's whitecollar workers, both say they are friendly with one another
these days. However, Frye adds, “I don't think he feels close to me, and
I'm sure his family probably hates me, and I certainly understand that.
But Michael's a grownup, and I'm a grownup, and I think we've both
Tjudge he same month Zucchet was convicted (a later
overturned the jury's verdict on most counts and prosecutors declined
to re-try him on the remaining counts, clearing him completely), Frye
won a special primary mayoral election, besting her top two Republican
challengers, Jerry Sanders and Steve Francis. But she lost for a second
time when Sanders beat her in the general election.
the end of the day, my message was much harsher than Jerry's,” Frye
says. “Jerry's was a nurturing-father, ‘I'll solve your problems'
message. And mine was: ‘We're really in big, big trouble, and I might have to ask you for
Frye and Sanders worked cooperatively for about six months, as
she remembers it, until Frye became a burr under the new mayor's saddle,
constantly asking for finance documents amid independent and federal
investigations. She believes the Mayor's office cut her off from
information. That's when, she says, she hunkered down and went into
don't want to talk to me, they're not going to answer my questions,
they're not going to get me the documents—it's gonna be a rocky road,”
she recalls thinking. “And so, the thing I could do at that time is I
could go hold press conferences or whatever, because God knows I had the
ability to do press. Or, I could just say, ‘You know what, I'm going
to step back a little bit and watch these guys get a better feel for
who they are and what they're going to do.'”
Folks in the Mayor's office
likely had some choice words for Frye behind closed doors, and in 2007,
so did her supporters in the labor community. That's when she switched
her vote on an ordinance that would have banned Wal-Mart Supercenters in
San Diego. She voted yes when the ordinance was passed by the City
Council, but when Sanders vetoed it, Frye flipped and cast the vote that
overturned the measure, infuriating her labor friends.
community was predominantly opposed to that ban, in District 6. And
they were mad,” Frye says. “They were under the impression that we were
going to shut down the two Wal-Marts that happened to be in my district, and they were freaking out. And you have to listen to that.”
was certain to capitalize on angry misperception and overturn the ban
in an election, despite labor's willingness to do battle, Frye reasoned.
And if the measure drew pissed-off conservatives, it could endanger two
Democrats running for City Council at the time in moderate districts,
Sherri Lighter and Marti Emerald.
says she also was skeptical that Wal- Mart would propose Supercenters
in San Diego any time soon, and if it did, they could be fought on a
site-specific basis. Since then, no Supercenters have been proposed, and
Lightner and Emerald won their elections.
“One of the things I learned a long, long time ago is that at the end of the day, you have
to say, ‘What am I trying to accomplish?'” Frye says. “And then you
have to say, ‘How likely am I to achieve that based on the current
strategy?' And if the answer is almost zero, it's probably not a good
place to go.”
pundits like to neatly compartmentalize Democratic officeholders as
shameless union shills, but Frye, long an ardent supporter of unions,
confounded that narrative time and again. In addition to the Wal-Mart
vote, she voted four times between 2005 and 2008 against employee
compensation increases that she believed the city couldn't afford.
“Some of these things were not defensible,” she says.She
didn't exactly enjoy irritating the unions, but she wouldn't hesitate
to do so when she believed they were overreaching. “You gotta tell your
friends not to walk in front of the bus,” she says. “You yank 'em back,
and if they want to keep walking—no more you can do.”
leader Lorena Gonzalez calls Frye “one of the most thoughtful and
intelligent Council members to serve San Diego. While we have not always
agreed on the best way to reach a certain goal, I believe she has
always wanted to do what was right for San Diego's workers.”
Much of Frye's tenure was marked
by her at-times contentious relationship with male authority
figures—Mayors Murphy and Sanders and Scott Peters, the City Council's
first leader after San Diego switched to an executive-mayor form of
governance. Frye was disappointed with Peters—and, to a slightly lesser
extent, Ben Hueso, who succeeded Peters as council president—for not
establishing the city's legislature as equal to the mayor's executive
branch. She wanted the council to pursue a bold agenda rather than
simply react to the mayor's agenda.
(Peters points out that when he became council president in 2006, job
No. 1 was implementing financial reforms. Indeed, Frye credits Peters
for leading the council through a rough period. In turn, Peters lauds
Frye's insistence on getting important questions answered. “The city was
fortunate that she was on the council,” he says.)
would punish Frye by not allowing her to chair powerful council
committees. Peters made her chair of the Natural Resources & Culture
Committee but denied her a chance to chair a new Audit Committee, a
position she wanted badly.
It's perhaps ironic, then, that circumstances thrust Frye into positions of leadership toward the end of her council career.
past June, she was the swing vote on approving the Downtown library.
She could have killed it because the project wasn't fully funded, but
she voted yes. “It's sort of like when Diann Shipione showed up and
said, ‘There's something really wrong here'; conversely, when [library
fund-raiser] Judith Harris showed up and said, ‘I'm going to get this
done,' I believed her,” Frye says.
in late July, she cast the deciding vote against putting a sales-tax
hike on the ballot, only to help craft a compromise measure that also
included financial-reform benchmarks. Finally, in October, after being
furious about a vote of the state Legislature to allow continued
redevelopment in Downtown San Diego— because it nullified a local study
of the citywide
impacts of more redevelopment—she made the best of it by working with
Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher, who sponsored the state bill, to
schedule a series of public meetings on its effects.
What she's been doing lately isn't any different than what she's always done, Frye says.
have a lot of solutions,” she says. “It's just that when I called
Nathan Fletcher, he actually returned my phone call and said, ‘Yeah, I
could use your help.'
“You can only be successful in offering solutions
if people are going to allow them to occur.”
But, City Councilmember Tony Young told CityBeat recently that he has watched Frye mature.
absolutely have grown,” Frye agrees. “I'm much more focused. I'm much
more able to see where I can get in there and actually maybe have an
opportunity to fix it.”
says things don't upset her as much as they used to, “and I'm not sure
that's a good or a bad thing. I sometimes worry about shutting down too
much and being able to just sort of have someone do something really
awful to me and 20 minutes later just go, Meh. Done with that. Shutting down certain feelings worries me.”
her, a recent brouhaha over where to put a winter homeless shelter was
bittersweet. She believed a good location had been identified in Barrio
Logan after a series of meetings had failed to produce an agreement. But
Councilmember Carl DeMaio, cast the deciding vote against the Barrio
Logan site, and Frye believed DeMaio was using an issue so important to
the city's poorest citizens as an opportunity to grandstand.
“I was holding on for dear life,” she says, and trying “to not just burst into tears.”
Frye talked about how upset she was at DeMaio, her eyes began to water
and she choked up a little because it reminded her that she still cares
as much as she always did.
why the homeless thing was so hard but so good for me,” she says,
“because it said, ‘You haven't lost that part of you.'”
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.