SAN DIEGO – Surf is definitely up in San Diego politics.
Donna Frye (search), a surfer who sports long blonde hair and refuses to get a driver's license, is riding a wave of write-in votes for mayor that could sweep aside two graying 60-something Republicans and carry her into City Hall. The surf-shop owner has capitalized on a confluence of circumstances, including a financial scandal that threatens San Diego with bankruptcy.
The votes have not been completely tallied, but so far, the write-in ballots lead with 35 percent of the vote; Mayor Dick Murphy (search) has 34 percent. The overwhelming majority of write-ins are expected to be for Frye, 52, who is "extremely optimistic" she will win once all the ballots are counted.
Frye, a Democrat, campaigned on change in this historically Republican seaside city of 1.3 million people, the nation's seventh largest.
Murphy was beset by a deepening scandal that has prompted federal investigations into whether officials hid bad news about an underfunded retirement plan from investors and taxpayers.
Murphy repeatedly was forced to deny rumors that the city faced bankruptcy. Five days before the vote, talks between the city and its new auditor appeared to break down.
Add to that, three of nine City Council members were indicted last year on federal charges of taking bribes from a strip-club owner who sought to ease restrictions on touching dancers. Two pleaded not guilty and remain in office, while the third pleaded not guilty but charges were dropped after he died in August of liver illness.
"Everybody's sort of feeling bad about being in San Diego," Frye said at a campaign stop last week. "Right now, what we need to do in this city is lighten up a little. In fact, we need to lighten up a whole lot."
Frye was a striking contrast to her opponents. She sports weathered skin, speaks in surfer-lingo and wears colorful suits; Murphy and fellow candidate Ron Roberts (search), a San Diego County supervisor, have a penchant for dark suits and have worked in government for years. Frye, the wife of legendary surfer Skip Frye, was elected to the City Council three years ago.
She differed with her opponents on hot-button social questions. Murphy and Roberts backed keeping a Boy Scout camp in a city park; Frye supported those who say the group discriminates against gays and atheists. Murphy and Roberts opposed plans to distribute clean needles to potential drug users; Frye argued doing so would reduce the spread of AIDS (search) and other diseases.
"Basically the Republicans split the vote and the Democrats all rallied around one person," said Sam Hardage, former chairman of the San Diego County Republican Party.
Frye often is on the losing end of lopsided City Council votes. In 2002 she was the lone dissenter in a vote to enhance retirement benefits -- one that Murphy said he regretted. She boycotts some closed-door meetings to protest what she considers a culture of secrecy at City Hall.
Frye's performance on the stump was unpolished. Last week, apologizing for her late arrival before a group at the San Diego Art Institute, she choked up as she explained that a neighbor's health had suddenly deteriorated. Minutes later, she offered unusual ideas about how to spruce up the city -- from playing music at traffic crossings to putting up a moving, octopus sculpture near a traffic-clogged bridge.
"That was about the most rambling, incoherent thing I've ever heard her say, but it was genuine, and I think that's what people wanted to hear," said Steve Hadley, her chief of staff.
And as votes were being counted Wednesday, Frye presided over a leisurely-paced news conference wearing a lei of plumerias and promising to help bring San Diego some "aloha spirit." She didn't know if her opponents had called to discuss the results because she spent the morning after the election tending to a water leak at home.
"In my heart of hearts, I'm sure Murphy and Roberts have plumbing problems too, but they don't talk about it," said Hadley. "She just kind of opens her mouth and says things."