Tuesday, February 8, 2005 | Welcome to the New San Diego.

It’s your same sun-soaked city on the surface, but it’s growing up – albeit painfully. It’s a place where former ignored, and even ridiculed, gadfly activists such as Mike Aguirre and Donna Frye have emerged from the margins to seize city leadership – or at least grab enough votes to do so.

It’s the once-conservative stronghold, shepherded by retired Navy men and immigrants from the rural Midwest and South, that’s now populated by third-and-fourth generation San Diegans, waves of Eastern and Midwestern urbanites, as well as foreigners from all the stretches of the globe.

It’s a rapidly-growing metropolis where years of mocked conspiracy and corruption theories have found their window of plausibility, framed by the pending corruption trial of two sitting City Council members and ongoing U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and U.S. Justice Department investigations into city financial disclosures and possible public corruption.

The New San Diego — a place where the beautiful, spotless days may no longer lull its citizens into complacency.

“San Diego’s becoming a big city,” says long-time political consultant Tom Shepard.

“To get 34 percent of the people to write-in someone’s name after only a three-week campaign shows that it’s not the same-old-San Diego,” he adds, speaking of San Diego City Councilwoman Frye’s now-famous write-in mayoral candidacy.

The facts of San Diego’s shifting demographics are well documented: as the city grows, it becomes more Democratic, like urban centers around the United States. The city’s congressional delegation, assembly members, presidential choices and council make-up all reflect a decidedly-Democratic shift in the last decade.

Couple that with a city government awash in red ink and wrapped with salacious, scandal-related headlines, and suddenly two outspoken, anti-establishment figures have popular platforms to publicly pursue their agendas.

“This is the beginning of regime change in the city,” says Steve Erie, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, noting that San Francisco underwent a similar red-to-blue shift in the 1960s, as did Los Angeles in the 1970s.

“The question is: How will we do this kind of change?” he says. “Is it going to be peaceful, or is there going to be a lot of conflict?”

So far, that change has been so chaotic it borders on violent in a city that began listing left years ago.

“It really appears to be a further shift, and a lot of it is caused by a great distrust of the current government,” says Mitch Mitchell of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. “The public believes we are going in the wrong direction, and they decided they want a rock’em-sock’em candidate — someone who wants to forget about how we’ve always done it before.”

Pending an anticipated court appeal, Frye remains the second-place finisher to incumbent Mayor Dick Murphy, who officially won last November’s election by 2,108 votes. An unofficial recount revealed 5,551 uncounted ballots in which voters wrote-in Frye’s name but didn’t shade the bubble next to it. Two combined lawsuits filed by Frye voters seek to have these disputed ballots counted, which, if successful, would give Frye enough votes to win. An Orange County judged ruled against the Frye voters this month, but appeals are expected to follow.

Even if the challenge fails, the national and local attention floated Frye and her media-friendly, surfer girl-image to near-celebrity status and provided her a brand-new platform in the process: chairwoman of a new City Council committee monitoring government behavior.

From this spot, she plans to question the propriety of officials’ closed-door meetings, as well as study the public’s right-to-know and accuracy in government records.

On the campaign trail, she saw a younger population that was raising families in San Diego – second, third and fourth generation natives.

“It seems the longer someone has lived in San Diego, the more they want to vote for people who have also have grown up in San Diego, someone that actually has an understanding of the city and what has happened over the last 30, 40, 50 years,” Frye says.

Meanwhile, Aguirre’s transition to office has been a case study in the friction between old and new ways. He has quickly become a near-daily face in the local media for his frequent press conferences and own City Hall investigation. He’s opened up city government to a level never seen before, and has easily become downtown’s most polarizing figure in a short time.

His constant release of memos, subpoena lists and other juicy details have garnered the respect and applause of reformers, while drawing the ire of everyone from the downtown elite to the labor leaders who supported his election, as well as City Council members and Mayor Murphy.

He’s been accused of everything from irresponsible to illegal behavior, of fear mongering and grandstanding for the media. But in challenging the unions on the pension-benefits issue he’s doing something not done too often around City Hall – going against one of his biggest campaign supporters, and opening up the inside workings to the public.

Despite the apparent shifts, don’t get too depressed or excited (depending on your ideology), this isn’t yet San Francisco. After all, without Frye’s 11-hour dip into the mayoral pool, San Diego would have been choosing from two established, middle-aged, white Republicans – the same two who ran in 2000. Aguirre won by the slimmest of margins. The County Board of Supervisors is comprised of five white Republicans who all graduated from the same university. Only one of Frye’s fellow council Democrats endorsed her campaign.

So what does all this mean? Mel Shapiro, the local housing gadfly, for next president of the Centre City Development Corporation?

“It means we’re in for another few years of things being chaotic. Change is never easy; we’re in the real uncomfortable part of it right now. When you talk to people that are focused on positive change, they are optimistic,” says Lisa Briggs, executive director of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, a business group.

“But right now we are in the middle of chaotic change.”

Please contact Andrew Donohue directly at

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