Love her or not-and, admit it, the only ones who don't are the greediest, most self-centered and ignorant among you-Donna Frye, this town's very own Mother Nature, has risen from the depths of abuse and self-doubt to become perhaps the most passionate elected official San Diego has possessed in a generation.
Although city politics is sold as non-partisan, no one believes it. And yet, Democrats and Republicans alike say the same thing about the 51-year-old populist councilmember. If you're looking for accessibility, unvarnished commentary and straightforward talk, Donna is your doyenne.
“Politicians usually develop a kind of wall between themselves and the public,” notes Norma Damascek, head of advocacy and public policy for the San Diego League of Women Voters. “Everybody's trying to be your friend, because they want something. Most politicians don't even look in your eyes anymore.
“But Donna hasn't had to do that. I think so far, she has been able to maintain herself and make some good decisions about who is really her ally and who is just trying to beat her. I think it's just a gift she has. I can't explain it any other way.”
Damashek echoes a similar refrain from the gamut of San Diego's economic and political spectrum, and while the scrappy little kid from Clairemont has had her detractors throughout her life, the second-year District 6 councilmember-already the victor in two tough, even acrimonious, elections-has managed to emerge from each fight seemingly stronger and the better for it.
Born in 1952 in Pennsylvania Dutch country to an incredibly supportive mother she now lives with in Clairemont (along with her husband, surfing legend Skip Frye, and their dog, Diogenes) and a father she barely knows, the former Donna Sarvis is now synonymous with San Diego's-even the state's-environmental-activism movement, particularly when it comes to the oceans, bays and rivers that draw so many people here every year.
As Scott Barnett, head of the arch-Republican San Diego Lincoln Club and frequent council critic on budgetary matters, had to admit about the left-leaning Frye: “I truly understand and support her passion on clean-water issues. I mean her husband almost died, and that's enough to make you passionate about any issue.
“On those issues, I think Donna sees the broader picture-that if you just treat the end of pipe and say we want to divert it or treat it, that's treating the symptom but not dealing with the problem at the source. Which not only makes more sense, but under the Clean Water Act provisions, cities are going to have to deal with.”
The story goes that Frye first came to the defense of the unsuspecting public sometime in sixth grade, when she came “to the rescue of a weaker girl by punching out her assailant,” wrote acclaimed surfing journalist Chris Ahrens several years ago in an article for The Surfing Journal titled “Queens Never Make Bargains.”
Ahrens continues: “While she hasn't hit anyone in quite some time, some of her opponents might prefer a good smack in the face over being the subject of newspaper editorials, or having their names plastered, unfavorably, on bumper stickers....”
A victim of wrenching physical abuse herself in her teens, when she was raped, and later in a suffocating marriage in the '70s that included frequent beatings, Frye has taken a much more Ghandi-esque approach to the fights she has chosen since she kicked alcohol more than two decades ago and decided to chase the demons of environmental ignorance that were harming the people dearest to her-particularly her husband and the surfing community she grew up with and continues to serve as its matriarch.
Skip Frye, who at 61 continues to devote himself to the surfing culture while tempering that carefree lifestyle with deep religious beliefs, refers to Donna as “Mother Nature.”
“I don't know what I did to deserve her, but she certainly saved me. I use that nickname a lot for her, especially when she's up against the power structure,” Skip explained recently from his tucked-away surfboard-shaping shop on the south edge of Bay Park. “I kind of joke around, ‘You know, it's not nice to fool Mother Nature!'”
Those who have tried have typically been surprised that there is much more to this iconic '60s surfer girl, with her husky voice, bawdy laugh, perennial deep tan and trademark sun-streaked, center-parted hair. And as the La Jolla Light recently pointed out, her “dreamy blue eyes.”
Frye frequently points to a small plaque on a wall in her 10th-floor City Hall office, festooned with numerous awards and commendations and enviro-laden artwork on her desk and against the straw-like wallpaper that hails back to the Bruce Henderson days when he served as the council's combination court jester and social conscience. But this particular plaque, set off-center, holds much meaning for Frye. It contains a quote from Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
Some people wonder when Donna the activist will give way to Donna the politician, a word that continues to make her cringe. She despises being lumped in with the rest of the vote-swapping, ass-covering lot of political horse-traders that have ridden into town for years and years.
“That's what's fundamentally flawed about government,” Frye told CityBeat. “Government is fundamentally flawed as soon as people start doing the trading thing, where you cross the line just for this because you want that. Then it just sort of snowballs, which is why people don't trust government officials. You just feed into it and get sucked right along with it.”
At a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the re-opening of a new playground-or “tot lot,” as they're called now-behind the North Clairemont Recreation Center, Frye was ebullient over not only the hundreds of children and parents who chose to attend the midday, midweek event, but also about a victory she had pulled off earlier as a member of the San Diego Trolley board, one of her other council duties.
As she is oftentimes on major issues facing the City Council, Frye found herself the sole opponent of a plan by trolley management to continue shrink-wrapping bright-red trolley cars with garish paid advertisements. The board had approved the moneymaking idea for last month's Super Bowl festivities, but now staff was talking about continuing the practice, arguing that a tight budget picture justified it despite earlier assurances to the public that it was only temporary.
“In my opinion, they were ugly,” Frye said of the ads with her usual candor. “They're just awful. But when we were going back and forth on it, I said, ‘But the main reason not to do this is because we said we wouldn't.'”
It could have been a scene right out of the old Henry Fonda courtroom classic, Twelve Angry Men: board members-most current or former politicos-soon began swaying her way. And in the end, she had a unanimous vote to stop the practice, budgetary arguments be damned.
“This is probably one of the coolest things that has happened to me as far as votes go,” she chirped before scampering off to cut the ribbon and join a gaggle of excited schoolchildren on the new playground-even taking a turn down the new slide.
Mike Simonsen, Frye's chief of staff who honed his managerial skills as a backcountry firefighter and as a community rep on staff with Frye's ousted predecessor, the stock-tainted Valerie Stallings, knows the trolley board is obscure. “Nobody knows it's even there,” he confides. “But some of the decisions they make affect people's lives forever. Like watching rolling billboards run up and down the trolley line.”
But thanks to its obscurity, he explained, the trolley board seems untainted by the pull of lobbyists, at least that day. “They were all there making decisions without prejudices, just based on the information they had there,” Simonsen said. “She was able to change their minds by simply saying, ‘Remember, when we did this we said it was a one-time-only.' Well, you know politicians all the time vote for one-time-onlys and then later say, ‘Well we didn't have all the information and we need the money.' They can rationalize it.”
In this case, Frye proclaims: “People voted the right way for the right reason!”
While her opponents may accuse her of sanctimony-one hotel operator on Mission Bay, part of her District 6 purview, once reportedly called her “monomaniacal” for her devotion to protecting the local environment-even those who don't side with her on many issues give her props for her passion and stick-to-it-iveness, from issues ranging from SeaWorld's attempt to overdevelop their slice of Mission Bay Park to the tangled webs the city has found itself in over its sports teams.
“I think she's the classic example of just a regular person who got mad and got active,” said Laura Hunter, a longtime environmental voice in San Diego and director of the Environmental Health Coalition's Clean Bay campaign. “I've known her for 12 years, and you can just track her progress-from seeing the damage that was happening to her husband and her friends from ocean pollution and just being a surf-shop owner, trying to make a living and struggling by like the rest of the world.
“It was the inaction by those people we've entrusted to take care of us that motivated her. What I've always loved about her is how creative she is about raising awareness.”
Frye's creativity has long been her hallmark. In many ways a typical San Diego child, Frye came to San Diego when she was 4, after her mother, Laura, now a retired registered nurse, moved her family here in 1957 after divorcing Donna's birth father and marrying a civil-service worker, whom Frye describe as “the dad I call my dad, my birth stepdad.” Robert Sarvis passed away more than five years ago, but the councilmember and her mother still remember fondly the spontaneous trips to Disneyland the family would take Sundays after church.
“Spur of the moment, hopped in the car, went to Disneyland, then the hotel for dinner,” recalled Laura Sarvis, who at 75 still twinkles with her daughter's tenacity and sense of humor. “It was easy.”
Frye also remembers when the family moved to England when her stepdad got a job there. A lifelong lover of dance, she attended the Royal Academy of Dance as a child, where she studied ballet. “It was really sort of depressing, because they sort of told my dad that I probably wouldn't make a very good ballerina,” Frye says now. “So when we moved back to San Diego, I took up tap and jazz. Like, OK, screw the ballet!”
The family moved to the present home in Clairemont in 1962. A year later, her older brother Michael introduced her to surfing-and her love of the ocean blossomed.
On a recent visit to their Clairemont home, the pair laughed frequently and spoke frankly about the family's ups and downs. “I guess you can see we're a pretty normal, not very fancy family,” Laura said. Frye's mom collects Hummel figurines, which are neatly displayed in a small office that Skip and Donna remodeled from a spare room. Donna, too, is a collector, and she proudly showed off the numerous Disney character figurines she's gathered for years.
She pulls out a good-sized rendition of Jiminy Cricket from a glass case in her book-filled room and slides open a secret door on the base. Inside is a gold pin. The star-shaped medallion has tiny writing on it, which reads “Official Conscience.” She wears it often to council meetings, she says.
Asked why the fascination with all things Disney, Frye later replies in an e-mail explaining the connection:
Jiminy Cricket, companion to Pinocchio, she says, “is not untarnished, however, and a bit of a flirt. If you recall, Geppetto is a toymaker who wanted a child of his own and carved Pinocchio out of wood. In order to become a real boy, Pinocchio must prove himself to be brave, truthful and unselfish. Jiminy Cricket agrees to be the conscience of Pinocchio (but only after the ‘all-knowing Blue Fairy has batted her eyelashes at him.') If you haven't read the story, you should. It's pretty entertaining, especially when Pinocchio goes off to Pleasure Island and the bad guys turn him into a donkey.”
Frye goes on to cover the part about Pinocchio's lies and the resultant growing nose, how it gets big enough for “birds to nest in.” After mentioning Monstro the whale, Cleo the goldfish and Figaro the cat, she adds, “Last thought on this... It was the Blue Fairy who gave Jiminy Cricket the star-shaped medallion, but only after he helped Pinocchio become human.”
The analogy is not lost on Frye, an avid reader who frequently quotes philosophers. She remembers her first trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby on environmental issues, where “nobody had any facial expressions” except one senatorial staffer whom she told, “Oh my God! I'm so glad to see you!” Saying hello to everyone else seemed to draw the same response, she said: “The alien has spoken to us.”
She said the “automaton” mentality struck her “because I am very human, very imperfect!” Humor is her weapon, and “the minute I lose my sense of humor, I've gotta get out and go walk or do something to get it back, because it's the only way I stay sane. It absolutely is.”
Sometimes, life-both personally and professionally-challenged her resolve. Frye unflinchingly talks about her past. Raped as a teenager. Brutalized and raped by a possessive, insecure husband in a previous marriage during the '70s. (“There wasn't a place on my body, below my neck, that wasn't black and blue at some point,” she explained.) A penchant for large quantities of whiskey before she quit drinking more than two decades ago by taking walks instead to Mission Bay and feeding a family of ducks.
Frye will say her life turned around when she moved back to San Diego again in 1979 from Sacramento and the nightmare first marriage. With a job background that had jumped all over the map-she has worked as a maid, dance instructor, teacher's aide, sales clerk and one stint at Poor Boy Rentals-Frye settled into work as a billing clerk for a local dentist.
The following year, while living in a motel in Pacific Beach with a pet cockatiel while an apartment she intended to rent was fixed up, she decided to treat herself to a restaurant dinner. She walked over to a Mexican restaurant that no longer exists, and that's where she met longboard impresario Skip Frye.
They hit it off immediately, and they've been together ever since. Together with Skip's longtime friend, Hank Warner, the trio opened Harry's Surf Shop in late-1990. This was not your typical surf shop, with endless rows of boards and T-shirts and sunglasses. Oh, there was some retail, but most of the space was taken up by Hank and Skip's board-shaping operation. “It was definitely different,” Skip says now. “There was a lot of art, lots of pictures of surfing history on the walls.” Donna, meanwhile, ran the business end. (“Skip is such a gentle spirit,” she said. “And people were taking advantage of his generosity, like not paying for the surfboards he made 'em.”)
As Skip tells it, Donna made quick work of her responsibilities and soon started devoting more time to environmental causes. “A year or so after we got in there, she got full-on into the environmental thing,” he said. “The surfboard thing was just a side thing for her. Her main focus was environmental activism.”
The rest of the story is classic Frye lore. After noticing that Skip and his friends were getting sick from surfing in polluted ocean water, Donna began investigating.
“Remember, this was way back when no one even knew what stormwater pollution was, or at least they didn't think it was a problem,” Hunter of the Environmental Health Coalition recalled. “She just started figuring it out like a detective, like OK, there's all these people getting sick and nobody's home (oversight-wise). She started doing the swimmer health survey, and well, it's really a classic Erin Brockovich story.
“She just saw all the harm and just set about becoming an expert, and now look at her. She's one of the decision makers!”
What got her noticed, though, was the creativity of the fight she waged. She held annual Dukes and Kooks awards, handing out plaudits and jabs to the good and bad of the environmental scene. “Kooks were the losers,” Hunter said. She even handed out a Kook Award one year to the U.S. Navy for its continuous polluting of San Diego Bay.
In 1995, she formed Surfers Tired of Pollution, or STOP, using some of the profits from the surf shop to promote, cajole and finally demand action to put a halt to toxic storm-drain runoff.
Perhaps her most famous target, however, was surfing-culture poseur and Kook Award-winner Brian Bilbray, the so-called “surfing congressman” and former mayor of Imperial Beach who made a name for himself by driving a bulldozer near the polluted Mexico border.
On Feb. 7, 1995, the Union-Tribune published a letter to the editor written by Congressman Bilbray in which he proclaimed: “I have voted for and have been involved in more efforts to promote clean water and clean, safe beaches than any politician or surfer I know.” Elected by a slim margin to Congress in 1994, the Republican Bilbray couldn't have known what was in store for him. As Frye wrote at the time, “It didn't take long to research Bilbray's voting record in Congress. He was one of [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich's flunkies and took his marching orders from him....”
Upon further review, Frye discovered that Bilbray's environmental voting record was so putrid that the League of Conservation Voters had given him a “big fat zero” out of a possible score of 100. Bilbray griped that the rating was biased, but the pounding had only begun. Soon, the media picked up on Frye's campaign, which included a Frankenstein cutout that displayed Bilbray's voting record and a singing toilet in the surf shop that had a likeness of Bilbray's head coming out of the bowl (she would later adapt the toilet for other environmental foes, such as her former political opposite on the council, the recently termed-out Byron Wear).
In 1997, Surfer magazine invited Bilbray and Frye to an informal debate, when Frye toasted the congressman with the following comment about Bilbray's self-proclaimed “good intentions”: “One good day of surf doesn't make up for a 20-year flat spell.”
The pair posed for a picture that Frye keeps framed to this day. The photo shows a smirking Bilbray, in white shirt and tie, next to the more flamboyantly attired Frye, who is seen holding two fingers in bunny-ear fashion over the congressman's head.
Unprofessional, you say? Well, Frye says she had a reason. Fearing that Bilbray might use the photo to convince voters that Frye was a supporter, she decided to put her own stamp on the picture to assure that wouldn't happen.
“I was really upset that he was gutting the Clean Water Act,” she explained. “I was fearful that [the photo] would end up in some campaign brochure with me sitting there looking buddy-buddy with Brian. I had to do something.”
Adds her mom with a chuckle: “Oh yes, she's always 10 steps ahead.”
A year later, Bilbray was voted out of Congress.
The lesson is as true today as it was then, says Simonsen, her chief of staff. “Don't ever try to bullshit her. If you do, she'll just step it up a notch, wanting to get that information even more than before. She intimidates some people because she is so smart, she reads everything and she makes sure that she understands it.”
Since becoming a member of the City Council, she has had her office conduct its own review of the Charger trigger threat (“The conclusion seemed to be that they can't trigger,” Simonsen said), opposed the pilfering of the city's retirement system, which is now on the brink of financial collapse, been the voice of environmental credibility on the council and been given kudos by the mayor for her efforts in rescuing the San Diego River from urban devastation.
As with anyone so determined, Frye indeed has her detractors, including many coastal developers, hotel owners and bar operators-the latter not because of her own self-imposed sobriety but rather due to the preponderence of liquor licenses in Pacific Beach, which her husband now refers to as “one big bar.” It was her outspokeness on the matter, in fact, that got Harry's Surf Shop booted out of its longtime location after the landlord failed to convince Frye to keep quiet on his plan to redevelop the property into a hotel with yet another bar.
She also brings her own quirks to City Hall. Having never owned a driver's license (“I tried driving, and I didn't like it”), Skip typically drops her off and picks her up from work. Wherever she goes, Frye carries bottles of iced tea in her oversized carryall. To focus before work, she gardens every morning in her backyard.
Frye is uncharacteristically coy when discussing her relationship with the mayor, which got at least a token boost at the last State of the City address. Frye discovered that she and the mayor's daughter share similar ramrod-straight, center-parted hairstyles. “We kind of bonded over that,” Frye said with a hearty laugh. “I'm just trying to find things we have in common.”
While some City Hall observers believe Murphy has treated Frye rudely on occasion, she will only allow that “rudeness, like many things, is in the eye of the beholder. Is it rude to regularly remind the same councilperson of the time when it is their turn to speak? Or is it simple a courteous gesture to let someone know what time it is? Let's just say it is interesting.”
Mayor Murphy, in a statement released by his press secretary, had this to say about Frye: “Although Donna and I do not always agree on issues, I respect her sincerity and diligence in representing her constituents.”
Little wonder that some political observers suggest that Frye would be a formidable mayoral opponent to the current version of bland punctuality. Says Damashek of the League of Women Voters: “I think people do ask about her running for mayor, because they are so hungry for somebody who seems to listen, who seems to care about the public interest. Our current mayor seems a throwback to the '50s, all fairness and balance with no strong positions on anything in life.
“Donna has very real, strong positions about the purpose of being a politician, which is to serve the public and try to increase the public benefit and good.”
Lloyd Uber, a longtime Clairemont resident who attended the tot-lot ceremony, echoed a common sentiment of the surfer-girl-turned-councilmember: “She hasn't always voted our way. Not happy with that, but I think she's probably the most independent person on the council.”
And the greatest perk for the document-ravenous Frye?