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Wednesday, November 09, 2005 | Donna Frye stood before her supporters as midnight neared Tuesday and sounded, well, like herself again.
Gone were the forced speeches on the minutia of financial recovery plans. Back were the chuckles and optimism of a goofy, populist dreamer. Her improbable rise to stardom had fallen short in her second attempt at the Mayor’s Office, but the underdog spirit that had won her more support than most had imagined had returned.
For her concession speech, she read from an essay by populist historian Howard Zinn titled “The Optimism of Uncertainty.”
“We forget how often we have been astonished by the crumbling of institutions, by ordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellions against tyranny, by the quick collapse of systems, of power that seems invincible,” she read from Zinn’s essay. “It is clear that the struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the money and seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it.”
Her opponent, former police Chief Jerry Sanders, did indeed raise more money, and garnered a wider swath of support Tuesday to make him San Diego’s 34th mayor. Observers agreed that he ran a crisp, polished, traditional campaign that allowed few stumbles.
As much as the campaign marked the rise of Sanders, it traced the transition of Frye from underdog to frontrunner to underdog again. And it’s here, in this role, that she appeared more comfortable Tuesday night.
Much to the chagrin of her very loyal supporters, it may be in that role she is best suited. Frye’s campaign was criticized down the stretch for failing to seize on Sanders’ weaknesses, such as his support from developers and downtown insiders, and focusing too heavily on the gritty specifics of her financial plan.
The singular attention to the financial plan, surely the key issue in a campaign conducted in the midst of a crushing fiscal crisis, obscured the strengths that had won Frye much of her popularity.
“She never played to the strength that could have appealed to your average voter: quality of life,” said Scott Barnett, a writer and former political consultant.
Sanders was supported heavily by developers and Frye entered politics as a clean water activist. Frye immediately became the frontrunner when Mayor Dick Murphy announced his resignation in April.
After Frye took 43 percent in the July primary and Sanders 27 percent, the two set their eyes on the 24 percent grabbed by the third place finisher, Republican Steve Francis. It was an uphill battle from the start for the Democrat Frye, as Republican Sanders had the inside track.
As of press time, Sanders had recorded 54 percent to Frye’s 46 percent.
Amazingly, much of the campaign focused on Frye’s pension record and her connection to City Council’s past decisions. It was an unexpected switch, as many who have watched the council in recent years know Frye rarely voted with the majority on important issues. Sanders also co-opted the open government movement founded in many ways by Frye.
But the Sanders campaign, led by consultants Tom Shepard and Scott Maloni, successfully shifted focus to Frye’s ties to her unpopular colleagues and ran away with Francis’ share of the voters.
Frye found herself defending her strengths.
“The Shepard tactic was to blur the line between the two, and I think he was pretty successful,” said Steve Erie, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “She didn’t respond for several crucial weeks.”
He predicted this would be the last victory for San Diego’s establishment.
“I will say this to the establishment: The next time they’re going to face (City Attorney Mike) Aguirre. And it’s Aguirre and the wrath of God. They’re going to get the real deal,” Erie said.
Frye and Sanders seemed somewhat similar in the primary. But by the end of the general election, Sanders had shifted from a moderate to the more standard Republican, focusing on streamlining city government, easing development restrictions and railing against Frye’s support for a tax increase.
It was a safe, relatively error-free, traditional San Diego campaign for Sanders. He remained vague on taxes and stuck to his basic theme throughout: that he had turned around three troubled organizations in the past.
The results showed that despite the city’s overwhelming problems, San Diegans wanted to stick with the traditional mold for politicians and not try life under an unknown.
“San Diegans have a history of electing insiders that are then outsiders,” said Barnett, noting the resumes of former mayors Murphy, Susan Golding and Maureen O’Connor.
He said Sanders’ true test would come when it came time to stand up to the town’s strong business interests and “corporate welfare” supporters, a test failed by Sanders’ predecessors.
But in the end, it may be one of Frye’s strengths that may ultimately be talked about most with this election: her honesty. Frye took the unusual step of telling voters she would likely ask for a tax increase in order to address the city’s billion-dollar deficits.
She was asked about that decision Tuesday night.
“I always believe that telling the truth as I see it is the best way to go. If I had to do it again, I would,” Frye said. “It’s always important to me to tell the truth. I would never tell you something just to get elected.”
Even on the first day of the Sanders campaign, there will be those who believe Frye is the rightful mayor. She would have won last November’s election as a write-in candidate had a judge not discarded 5,000 ballots in her favor.
But Frye remained jolly Tuesday night, nearly a year after that first loss.
“Even when we don’t ‘win,’ there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile,” she read from Zinn’s essay.
Please contact Andrew Donohue directly at