Wednesday, July 27, 2005 | Councilwoman Donna Frye easily grabbed first place in Tuesday’s primary election but failed to attract the majority needed to win the vacated Mayor’s Office outright, setting the stage for a November runoff election against the second-place finisher, former police chief Jerry Sanders.

Sanders, who found his support in moderates and the downtown establishment, edged out businessman and fellow Republican Steve Francis for the opportunity to advance to the runoff. The former police chief received 27 percent of the votes compared to Francis’ 23.5 percent.

Frye won 42.3 percent of the votes. None of the other eight candidates drew more than 2.5 percent.

“I like it,” Frye said of her showing. “This has been an incredible evening and I thank the people of San Diego for their support.”

Francis, who smashed local spending records by pouring in at least $1.7 million of his own fortune, called Sanders to concede shortly before midnight.

“When you’re coming from behind and nobody knows you, it’s very difficult to overcome,” Francis told reporters at his election party at the Westgate Hotel. He was largely unknown to the public before entering the race.

“I have no regrets about spending the money,” the health care staffing executive added.

Sanders delivered a short speech to supporters and planned a press conference for Wednesday morning to outline his next steps in the two-person battle.

“All we had was the experience that I had turning troubled organizations around. I think that really resonated with San Diegans,” said Sanders, who touts his leadership experience at the Police Department and two large nonprofits.

Supporters had hoped Frye, an environmentalist who ran on an open government platform, could rope in enough votes to capture office immediately. In the waning days of the campaign, Frye made such an appeal directly to voters.

In one four-day stretch last week, San Diego had three different mayors. The predicament was brought upon by former Mayor Dick Murphy’s July 15 resignation under the weight of local and federal probes into city finances and politics, followed by acting Mayor Michael Zucchet’s conviction on federal corruption charges July 18.

Zucchet was immediately suspended from his duties only hours into his first business day as mayor. Councilwoman Toni Atkins has since been named as the city’s acting mayor. The council is left now with only six members and needs five affirmative votes to enact legislation.

“To the extent that we don’t have a mayor yet, I do think it is a detriment,” Frye said.

So the city will remain mayor-less for another three months as it sits steeped in a financial crisis highlighted by a pension deficit of at least $1.37 billion. Its financial disclosure practices and City Hall politics are under investigation by the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office and Securities and Exchange Commission.

City Attorney Mike Aguirre is also conducting his own investigations, and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has charged six current and former pension board members with felony conflict-of-interest violations.

The Nov. 8 runoff will likely also feature council elections for Districts 2 and 8 to replace Zucchet and fellow Councilman Ralph Inzunza, who was also found guilty on corruption charges last week. The two former councilmen resigned last week following the convictions.

Frye and Sanders wasted no time kicking into runoff mode, as they outlined their differences Tuesday night. The themes will likely carry over to this morning, when both have planned press events.

“It’s business as usual versus a government that is open and accessible,” said Frye, who lost to Murphy in November’s election after a judge invalidated more than 5,000 votes in her favor.

The councilwoman rode the momentum of that near-victory and her immense popularity to the frontrunner’s position immediately upon Murphy’s resignation. She found her core support among liberals and lost some moderate Democrats to Sanders, a moderate Republican. Francis found his support among the conservative block.

Sanders acknowledged Frye’s push for open government – a theme adopted by many candidates in the primary – but again pointed to his leadership roles as police chief and with local chapters of the United Way and Red Cross.

“I agree with Donna Frye’s call for more open government, but under a strong-mayor system, we need more than that,” he said. “The issue in the runoff will be who has the experience to really fix these problems.”

Of the 11 total candidates, only six were considered to be serious contenders. However, as the race pushed along it became clear that Frye would get first and Sanders and Francis would battle for the second spot in a campaign that focused largely on the city’s worsening financial crisis.

Frye received 104,872 votes for a comfortable first-place finish. Sanders received 65,339 votes, and Francis garnered 56,887.

Three other candidates finished with more than 1 percent of the final tally. Attorney and businessman Pat Shea won 2.4 percent of the vote, taxpayer activist Richard Rider got 1.6 percent and motorcycle dealer Myke Shelby landed 1.46 percent.

Attorney Shawn McMillan (561 votes), environmentalist Jim Bell (473), mediator Ed Kolker (415), businessman Jeremy Ledford (378) and McDonald’s supervisor Thomas Knapp (98) all received less than 1 percent of the total vote.

– Voice Contributing Writer IAN PORT also contributed to this report.

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