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For one week, at least, Donna Frye was mayor of San Diego.
By seizing the central role in crafting a comprehensive reform package, the councilwoman in a week did what Mayor Jerry Sanders hadn’t been able to do for five years: She pulled off a compromise plan to present to San Diegans.
But, in a delicious twist of fate, she needed one precious endorsement to make it real. And she got it from Sanders, who broke weeks of silence to give Frye’s plan the full-throated support it needed from the right side to live up to its compromise label and be a true election day juggernaut.
The two rivals, who battled each other for the right to fix San Diego’s problems in the 2005 special election, had come full circle.
“Is there some sweetness to it, some sweet irony? Yeah. But am I going to make a big deal about that? Nah. I just want to make it work,” Frye said.
The trajectory of two legacies looks quite different now.
Until this week, Frye looked poised to end her elected career as a spirited fighter, but one without a signature victory. She’s an activist, environmentalist and open-government advocate who won over a passionate following with independence and a touch of rebellion.
But she was often the 1 in the 8-1 or 7-1 council votes and was lampooned for just being against things. Her loss column includes two failed runs for mayor, one that had to be decided in court. As her term expires this year, Frye’s supporters remain stung that she did not challenge a vulnerable Ron Roberts for his county supervisor seat.
Sanders, on the other hand, faced a rapidly closing window to put anything on the 2010 ballot and the stark reality that he would be a lame duck by the time the next election came around. With his bet on incremental change and a continued booming economy having failed, there also existed the real possibility that he would be now passing the city’s deep financial problems on to his successor in two years. He risked being best known for his about-face on gay marriage.
If voters approve the plan, and if it has the desired effect, they could both win. And both could achieve the same goal they spent 2005 battling over: the right to go down in history as the person who put San Diego on its path to fixing its municipal mess.
Their 2005 campaign, for all its hoopla and circumstance, eventually became a rather unromantic affair. It was a battle of financial plans, after all.
Frye chose a more radical approach of the two. She wanted to stop paying what the city attorney had said were illegal pension boosts and ask voters to give her authority to go around the City Council and unilaterally negotiate with unions and put the city in bankruptcy. Her goal: Have the clout and authority to put a comprehensive reform package of labor cuts and a temporary sales tax on the 2006 ballot.
Sanders on the other hand disavowed taxes as a solution and seized on Frye’s tax plan accordingly. He wanted to streamline, outsource, renegotiate with unions and wait for a judge to decide the legality of employee pension boosts.
The strategies underscored a subtle but key difference between the two politicians: Frye saw a systemic problem that needed a shock to the system. Sanders saw a single problem that could be addressed through incremental change.
But, in the end, it was the mayor that got the ball rolling on a comprehensive reform package a month ago, though he didn’t publicly admit it until after he had given up hope.
Sanders tried to rally council members and unions behind a package that paired cost-cutting moves with a sales-tax increase, but the plan petered out quickly when the mayor’s Republican base publicly tore into the concept and the mayor bowed out.
Council President Ben Hueso kept the sales tax part of the proposal alive and it gained momentum a week and a half ago after a toddler’s choking death put a finer point on cuts to the Fire Department.
Things looked good for the sales tax increase as it cruised through a council hearing on Monday. Councilman Tony Young signed on. The presumed swing vote, Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, signed on.
Then, came Frye’s turn.
She spiked the tax increase, saying she needed to see substantial cost-cutting reforms to support it and cited her 2005 campaign’s financial package.
“Now you get to hear it from me one more time,” she said during the hearing. “And maybe this time people will get the message.”
The City Council fell one vote short of the six needed to put it on the ballot. For once, that one vote on the minority side mattered.
Frye quickly became the center of intense, swift talks. Hueso wanted to know what she needed to support a measure. She led negotiations with the council, labor unions and business. She talked to the mayor’s right-hand man, though she said she and the mayor never spoke.
To be sure, this was far from a one-woman show. Hueso kept the tax proposal alive and scheduled Friday’s emergency hearing. Councilman Todd Gloria partnered with Frye in authoring the plan, which mutated regularly to address legal and political concerns. City Attorney Jan Goldsmith told the council it had to move more urgently than it already was if it was to put a measure on the ballot. Young pushed an amendment that actually got it through council and opened the door to the possibility that they could win over vital business support.
And, without the mayor’s 11th hour support, a measure with only the support of the six Democratic council members and labor unions would’ve looked like a far cry from a compromise. Now, a Republican mayor who remains popular has pledged to campaign for its passage.
For his part, the mayor bristled at the suggestion that he’s been sitting on his hands. He’s continued to work behind the scenes, he said, talking and listening with different groups. He didn’t see Friday’s endorsement of Frye’s package as ironic given the history between the two, though he said he applauded her leadership.
Still, there was no doubt whose plan this was, and who fought for it.
At Friday’s press conference, Frye, Gloria, Lightner and Councilwoman Marti Emerald stood behind the mayor as he spoke. He began to answer the final question, whether the City Council might have approved the tax hike if only some of the reforms had been completed.
“Can I jump in, I’m sorry,” Frye asked, moving to the podium.
She began an animated defense. There’s no incentive to do some things and not others because the money wouldn’t kick in. And there are always what-ifs in any proposal.
“I have read and heard some of the arguments against it,” she said. “That it’s not perfect, it’s not this, it’s not that. There is no perfection in this world that I am aware of and this ballot measure certainly is not either. Sorry, but it’s just getting silly.”
Sanders took the podium back for the last word.
“I think what Donna was saying is there’s a pony in this pile of poop,” the mayor said to laughter.
Staff writer Liam Dillon contributed reporting to this story.