SAN DIEGO – Donna Frye (search) is accustomed to not being taken seriously. As a surf-shop owner inspired to act by the ocean pollution sickening her surfer husband and friends, Frye was written off when she ran for a City Council seat four years ago — but she won.
Frye, who says she has been derided as a "surfer chick," was dismissed again last year when she waged a write-in campaign for mayor. Incumbent Dick Murphy (search) barely defeated her, and then only after a court battle.
Now that Murphy is resigning amid a pension fund scandal and federal investigations of City Hall, Frye is back challenging the status quo.
This time, she appears to be the one to beat.
As the lone Democrat among the leading candidates in the July 26 special election for mayor, Frye is guaranteed 30 to 40 percent of the vote, enough to advance to an expected Nov. 8 runoff against the other top vote-getter, said pollster John Nienstedt of Competitive Edge Research.
Her Republican challengers include a former police chief, a Harley-Davidson dealer, a bankruptcy attorney and the founder of a hospital staffing company.
With her husky voice and long blond hair framing her weathered face, Frye is a splash of color in a gray political landscape that has been dominated by middle-aged, white, Republican men.
Frye promises to reform City Hall from within by ending the culture of back room deals that produced scandals that have tarnished the city's image and threatened it with bankruptcy.
Two of her council colleagues are on trial this summer in federal court on charges for accepting illegal campaign contributions from a Las Vegas strip club owner.
In addition, county and federal prosecutors are investigating San Diego's pension fund, which has a $1.37 billion deficit. Six current and former pension board members have been indicted for alleged conflict-of-interest violations, accused of enriching themselves with their votes.
Frye's supporters love her straight-talking style.
"Where you don't have honest dialogue, you don't have reality and you don't have any damn fun," she said.
"She's one of the people," Bill Muller, a 70-year-old retired chef, said as he set off to canvas neighborhoods for Frye on a recent morning. "She's not afraid to say what she means."
Frye, 53, got a huge laugh from a group of women supporters when she revealed that she had her first hot flash in the middle of a council meeting. And she gushes about her husband, surfing legend Skip Frye (search), and his "great hinder" — or rear end.
Frye also puts her bifocals on and does her homework. One night, she read reports on city finances until 2 a.m. and the next morning announced her proposal to place the city's pension fund into receivership and form a committee to explore bankruptcy.
"I see her as someone who's going to transform San Diego," said Howard Wayne, a former state assemblyman whose meeting with Frye a decade ago eventually led to the first state law in the nation requiring statewide monitoring of beaches.
"Donna, by being an honest person, by having the faith of the public, is in the best position to solve the problems and save San Diego," he said.
Her grassroots appeal proved so strong that she nearly ousted the incumbent mayor in November with a write-in campaign launched less than five weeks before the election.
She appeared to have a nearly 3,500-vote edge out of 460,000 votes cast. But a judge disqualified more than 5,000 ballots on which voters had written Frye's name but failed to darken the adjoining write-in bubble, tipping the election to Murphy.
Frye has refined her campaigning since the 1990s, when she founded Surfers Tired of Pollution and displayed U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray's (search) head in effigy in a toilet in her surf shop because she felt he was attempting to weaken the Clean Water Act (search).
"It's not just about open government," Frye said. "It's about open hearts and it's about open minds. It's about caring about one another and treating each other with courtesy and respect."