It was a symbolic vote, at best. Two weeks ago, City Councilmember Toni Atkins introduced a measure for the city of San Diego to sign on to an amicus curiae brief pending before the California Supreme Court in support of dropping legal restrictions for same-sex marriage. Last Tuesday, the City Council split 4-4 on the motion, and it failed.
The rub: The determining vote among the anti-four was Frye, widely considered the queen of the council progressives. As such, she pitted herself directly against fellow progressive Atkinsand, given Frye's own past history of support for gay rights, herself.
Frye voted against the measure not on moral, political or even aesthetic grounds; she voted against it because she felt the public hadn't had enough opportunity to express its opinion on the issue. In trying to best serve her constituents in District 6 as well as the city at large, Frye has oftenthis observer would argue too oftenforfeited her own judgment in favor of some ill-defined vox populi. But that is part of her modus operandi. Her vote on the gay-marriage amicus motion reflects her greatest strength as a public representativeand her greatest weakness: an adherence to the letter of a principle even at the expense of her serving as an effective representative of the public interest.
Another case in point: Frye's attitude and actions toward the new city Audit Committee last year. This committee has a significant impact on the nuts and bolts of day-to-day city expenditures and provision of services. Frye wanted to be chair of the committee but Council President Scott Peters put council newbie Kevin Faulconer's name forward instead. Rather than suck it up and join the committee as vice chair, Frye, in what essentially was a 'do what I want or I'll take my jacks and go home' approach, put her own principlesshe would not be part of the same 'business as usual' politics that had gotten San Diego into the fiscal hole it's still clawing out ofabove what would have been better for the city: namely, her on the committee. Ditto her vote scuttling a prohibition on super-sized big-box stores (read Wal-Mart Supercenters), which many of her constituents, particularly in the labor community, took as a fundamental betrayal.
And now comes the gay-marriage vote.
Frye fretted that the public had not had enough time to expound on the issuean issue that has been on the table, one way or another, for more than a decade. One that has been at ground zero of the American culture war since the Massachusetts Supreme Court struck down the state constitutionality of banning gay marriages in 2004. One that San Diegans have had years to consider. Yet Frye felt that the 'people' had not had enough time to express their opinion on it.
Oh, oh, Donna. We still want to politically marry you. But please.
Frye's dilemma goes to the heart of representative democracy. How should elected representatives vote: as their conscience tells them to vote, or as their constituents tell them to vote? In the best of circumstances, the two overlap. But in the real world, that is not always the case.
The idea of representative democracyas opposed to direct democracy (let the people make the call on any issue)is based on the premise of information processing and management. If We the People had all the information needed to make a rational judgment on an issue and We the People took the time to find and understand said information, then We the People could make our own democratic collective decision on each and every issue. But We the People have lives to live, jobs to work, bills to pay and little league to attend. So we hire other peoplelike Donna Fryeto use their experience, knowledge, judgment and moral center to make the call on our behalf.
The contract is simple. If these representatives make choices that result in us living better and being happy, we keep them on the job by re-electing them. If they don't, we fire them: termination by ballot.
Winston Churchill (or maybe it was the President Jed Bartlet character on The West Wing?) once remarked that one's faith in democracy seldom survives a 10-minute conversation with the average voter. This is not an elitist sentiment. What Churchill meant was not that the masses are ignorant savages who need elite guidance to survive, but, rather, that the average person, lacking in sufficient knowledge of complicated issues, requires the services of knowledge specialists. Just like we don't remove our own appendix or defend ourselves in court, We the People need other people who have dedicated their lives to understanding the process to help us reach our collective decisions.
Frye's often admirable but also sometimes extreme commitment to doing what the people want runs the risk of demagoguery. First off, who are the 'people' who actually take the time to express themselves directly to the City Council and in open council session? Are they truly representative of 'the People' at large? Or are they just individuals with their own special interests to advance and/or enough free time and myopic dedication to make their interests known? Relying on the 'voice of the people' council members hear through e-mails, letters, phone calls and public testimony without careful consideration, reduces our political society to a sort of 'Lord of the Gadflys.'
As the great English statesman Edmund Burke said, elected representatives owe their constituents more than just their vote. They owe them their knowledge, their experience, their wisdom and, above all, their conscience. They should vote their conscience. But part of that conscience must include a realization that putting one's own high principles (as in 'I won't sully myself to engage in politics') above the good of one's constituents (as in 'but by doing a little sullying, the people get the police station or library or daycare center they need') does no public service.
Donna's vice in her nearly eight years in public service is that she will pursue principle to the extent of ineffectiveness. This was particularly manifest in the gay-marriage vote. By putting a principle above politics, Donna essentially hung Atkins, who by most measures seems to be a natural voting ally on many issues, out to dry. If usually like-minded council members such as Frye and Atkins can't agree to vote the same on an issue they both historically and politically have supported, is it any wonder that they cannot come together in voting coalitions to achieve mutual ends on more substantive and contentious issues?
Frye's commitment to personal principle and vox populi is a problematic issue that cuts across San Diego's eight council districts. The City Council seldom operates in terms of coherent voting coalitions. Instead, it routinely operates as eight individuals pursuing their separate interests, be they of personal principle or parochial district interests.
The whole 'strong mayor' push a has been driven by a nostalgia for the days when former Mayor Pete Wilson could keep a consistent voting majority going for his vision on the City Council. No one has really done that since and, as a result, the city has been adrift for the last generation. Wilson did it with a combination of consensus building, compromise and old fashioned 'I scratch yours/you scratch mine' politics. Which are precisely the concepts Frye and many others reject as so much business as usual, politics over principles. By making political decisions based on political accommodationsmaking concessions to benefit the other person's constituency in exchange for concessions to benefit your ownis not always a vice. And putting personal principles over politics is not always a virtue.
It's fine to have principles, but not at the expense of good government. Some might object to the notion that Frye or Atkins or any elected official should work behind the scenes, before a public vote, to influence how fellow lawmakers may come down on an issue. Poppycock! Do we really want the first time a council member thinks about how to vote on something to be during public session? If elected representatives think about introducing some measure and haven't at least stopped to think how everyone else may votein other words, considered the ramifications on everyone else and their intereststhey shouldn't be introducing anything in the first place.
I am a political scientist by vocation. There's a reason the political-science departments are separate from the philosophy departments. Philosophy is about what should be. Politics is about what could be.
I worry that Frye is too much of a philosopher for anyone's good, least of all that of her constituents and her own political legacy.
Carl Luna is a professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College and a lecturer on politics and international political economy at the University of San Diego. Visit his blog at politicallunacy.word press.com.