SAN DIEGO – Voters fed up with San Diego's financial mess and political corruption came within a whisker of electing surf-shop owner Donna Frye (search) as mayor on a stunning write-in campaign a year ago.
Now the Democratic councilwoman is in a runoff for mayor -- but the city doesn't seem quite as enamored of her this time around, despite her bigger campaign budget and more polished image. With the election on Tuesday, she's trailing Republican former Police Chief Jerry Sanders (search), who has the backing of the city's business establishment.
Frye may have hurt her chances in the nonpartisan race by backing a tax increase in this city known for fiscal conservatism.
The winner will have the task of fixing a $1.37-billion pension fund shortfall that has set off federal investigations of City Hall, reduced the city's ability to borrow money and fueled talk of municipal bankruptcy. The pension mess led Mayor Dic Murphy (search) to leave office in July, seven months into his second term.
Sanders ran a safe campaign that rarely strays from his central message that he can fix troubled organizations. Critics describe Sanders as a clone of Murphy, someone who won't rock the boat in this seaside city of 1.3 million people.
Sanders, like Murphy, "looks like your father, trustworthy, not too much fizz in the bottle," said Pat Shea, a Republican attorney who has been advising Frye. "You're not going to wake up surprised. That still plays in San Diego."
Frye's style is more risky, saying she may call for a half-cent sales tax increase to raise $1 billion.
Frye, 53, who is married to famed surfer Skip Frye, finished first in the July primary with 43 percent of the vote, short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. Sanders finished second with 27 percent and Steve Francis, a Republican businessman who quickly endorsed Sanders, captured 24 percent.
Sanders, 55, trumpets his experience turning around the Police Department as chief from 1993 to 1999 and later in leadership positions at the American Red Cross and United Way local chapters.
His fiscal recipe includes freezing salaries and hiring, potential layoffs, outsourcing some services and selling pension bonds.
Frye says Sanders' numbers don't add up. She said she would immediately revoke pension benefits that the new city attorney deems illegal -- a move that Sanders says would itself be illegal.
Frye has had to fight an image that she is a lightweight "surfer chick."
"I'm not a chick, I'm not a barnyard animal," she told one television interviewer, adding that she hasn't been surfing in more than a year.
Steve Erie, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, said Frye's emphasis on the city's financial needs has prevented her from reminding voters what made her popular. After many years as a clean-water activist, Frye has been a lone dissenter on the City Council and fierce advocate for open government and an end to what she sees as a culture of secrecy. Frye is a close ally of City Attorney Michael Aguirre, a firebrand who wants to clean house at City Hall.
"She should have gone back to her roots and attacked Jerry as the establishment candidate," Erie said. "It's been all fiscal -- pension, pension, pension."
In the campaign's final days, Frye has shunned television advertising, relying on the grass roots mix of public appearances and media coverage that nearly propelled her to victory last year. She has raised $484,000, compared to Sanders' more than $1.2 million.
Some political consultants say Frye's approach is fine for a City Council race but not for a mayoral campaign.
"She thinks if you believe in what you're doing and talk about it, it will just spread," said Jennifer Tierney, a consultant on Murphy's mayoral campaign last year. "It doesn't work like that in this day and age."
But Tierney is quick to add: "Anyone would be a fool to count Donna out."