Close Race Reflects a Party Shift

San Diego's core leans toward the Democrats despite its heavily Republican suburbs.

By Tony Perry
Times Staff Writer

November 25, 2004

SAN DIEGO — How did a last-minute write-in candidacy by a Democrat who owns a surf shop come within a few thousand votes of dethroning a Republican mayor in Republican-dominated San Diego?

Answer: This is not your grandfather's San Diego. Maybe it never was.

The Republican influence in San Diego cannot be denied, but it can be overstated. The same can be said for the achievement of Councilwoman Donna Frye in mounting a write-in campaign and bucking the Republican business-sector establishment.

Barring unforeseen legal complications, Mayor Dick Murphy has beaten Frye by 34.52% to 34.04% to win a second term. That a Democrat, especially a write-in, could come so close to victory might seem surprising to outsiders.

But consider these facts: Five of eight members of the City Council are Democrats. That number will soon be six of nine when a vacancy is filled by a special election between two Democrats.

Democrats lead Republicans in voter registration by 39% to 34%. Twenty-two percent of voters decline to state a party affiliation, although many political operatives believe their views on environmental protection make them Democrats in all but name.

City voters backed John Kerry this month, Al Gore in 2000 and Bill Clinton in 1996.

Labor unions have grown in power in recent years, and several council members owe their elections to contributions and campaign manpower provided by union members.

There is a considerable body of thought that says the best political operative in the city is Jerry Butkiewicz, the secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council. He was one of the architects of Frye's write-in insurgency against Murphy and county Supervisor Ron Roberts, both Republicans.

If San Diego is in the midst of a leftward shift, it did not start with Frye's rise and definitely will not end with her defeat.

The City Council members most closely aligned with the pro-growth business establishment — a building contractor in the 1970s and a furniture manufacturer (twice) in the 1980s — have been thumped thoroughly by voters when they ran for mayor.

Maureen O'Connor, elected twice as mayor, was in many ways the original Donna Frye: a Democrat, populist and proponent of slow growth. She wasn't a surfer, but she was a champion swimmer. Like Frye, she got her start in politics after being treated rudely at City Hall.

O'Connor opted not to run for a third term in 1992 and, by some estimations, remains the city's most popular political figure.

"San Diego has always had a populist strand in its DNA," said Steve Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego.

Conventional wisdom holds that Pete Wilson, a Republican mayor from 1971 to 1983, dominated city government and kept liberalism at bay. Conventional wisdom, as is often the case, is half wrong.

Wilson did fight to prevent labor unions from gaining power. He was steadfast against rent control. But in San Diego terms, he was a moderate. His predecessor was a Democrat. The toughest battles he faced in his first years as mayor were from the right.

It took several years for the conservative editorial page of the San Diego Union to warm to Wilson. A "truth squad" from the local business community opposed Wilson's slow-growth policies.

San Diego's civic slogan is America's Finest City, a holdover from the Wilson era. In political terms, the slogan could be It's Not What You Think It Is.

One problem may be that outsiders confuse San Diego with the area outside the city. The county, particularly the affluent northern suburban area, is steadfastly Republican; all five county supervisors are Republicans.

Maybe some of the outdated image of San Diego also comes from the fact that the loudest megaphones in the city are owned by its most conservative voices: radio talk-show hosts and the editorial page of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

"The liberal left is making a run on San Diego; it's just that simple," radio talk-show host Rick Roberts told his listeners Tuesday. He called for his audience to defend the "last bastion of conservatism" in the state.

(Rick Roberts and the newspaper's editorial page continually attribute the city's pension mess to greed by public employee unions.) In a city supposedly dominated by the GOP, Democrats on the City Council, technically nonpartisan posts, have fared well.

In the last 25 years, two of the four council members elected to the Board of Supervisors were Democrats, two of three council members elected to Congress were Democrats and four of five council members elected to the state Legislature were Democrats.

While Frye, Murphy and Ron Roberts were battling for mayor, Lori Saldana, a Democrat and a Sierra Club official, easily beat a Republican, Tricia Hunter, for an open Assembly seat in the heart of the city.

Hunter, an assemblywoman before redistricting left her jobless, outspent Saldana and based her campaign on allegations that Saldana was soft on illegal immigration, once a hot-button political issue in San Diego.

Saldana won in a walk. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, never one to spend political capital on a losing cause, kept his distance from Hunter, campaigning instead for a Republican incumbent in the suburbs.

Saldana said the city's image has not kept pace with the more complex reality. One reason, she said, is that the tourist industry spends millions of dollars promoting San Diego as paradise, untouched by change.

"We're not a sleepy little tourist-surfing town anymore," said Saldana.

Which brings us to Donna Frye.

Married to legendary surfer Skip Frye, she was elected to the City Council in 2001 and has become a leading voice on matters of clean water and beachfront development.

Her political base — beach communities, labor unionists, environmentalists — makes her a natural foil to Murphy and Roberts. The Sierra Club endorsed Murphy but switched its allegiance to Frye after she entered the race, five weeks before election day.

The race proved ideal for a write-in candidacy.

For the first time in decades, each voter was given a paper ballot and broad-brush pen. Instructions for writing in a candidate's name were printed on every ballot. Frye was the first officeholder here to become a write-in candidate.

Frye's ability to nearly topple Murphy may have less to do with a political shift in San Diego than with the specific dynamics of the race. In some ways, it paralleled the recall of Gov. Gray Davis and election of Schwarzenegger.

In both cases, the election was held in an atmosphere of fiscal crisis (the city's $2-billion pension deficit was the top issue). The timeframe was compressed; by skipping the March primary, Frye avoided months of scrutiny.

Like the movie star, the surf-shop owner is charismatic and media-genic. What was a dull campaign between two longtime public figures suddenly had pizazz.

The surfer angle proved irresistible to the national media.

But if Frye is different from most San Diego politicians, it is only by degrees.

She wouldn't even have been the first surfer elected mayor. Roger Hedgecock, Wilson's successor, surfed and received national attention for catching waves.

Maybe some of the national media buzz comes from a refusal by outsiders to believe that San Diego is no longer the Republican-dominated turf of yore.

Carl Luna, a professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College, said the stereotype of San Diego as a place "for retirees and sailors" ignores the rise of the biotech industry, the expansion of local universities, the growing power of labor unions and the voting power of blue-collar neighborhoods south of Interstate 8.

Still, the political spectrum in San Diego does not have the width of Los Angeles'. And the difference, culturally and historically, between San Diego and San Francisco is immense.

That difference probably was sealed in the World War I era, when a San Diego congressman, William Kettner, persuaded the Navy to shift its recruit training center from San Francisco to San Diego.

The move set San Diego on the path to having the largest concentration of military bases of any region in the country — and a civic decision to use the waterfront for the military and tourism rather than manufacturing or shipping.

Kettner's role in shaping San Diego is honored by a waterfront boulevard with his name.

Kettner, by the way, was a Democrat.
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