San Diego grew up as a Navy town, and has historically been defined by a conservative political culture. It was Richard Nixon’s “lucky city” in 1972. And it is where, in 1996, the Republican Party convened to nominate Bob Dole for President. Exactly when things started to change on the ground is a matter that depends on whom you ask. (For instance, I will tell you that as recently as the late 1980s, when I was in the fifth grade at a San Diego public school, the teacher asked the class to raise our hands if our parents were Republicans, and all but my and one other kid’s hands went up.) But one definitive moment in San Diego’s political development will be easy for future civic historians to pin down. It happened a few months ago, when a gadfly City Council member, environmentalist and surf-shop owner named Donna Frye announced her write-in candidacy for the city’s mayoral race at the eleventh hour and earned more votes than the other two candidates, both Republicans.
Frye’s turnout surprised San Diego voters partly because, from a practical standpoint, the odds were stacked against her. She was a school-of-hard-knocks candidate competing against a Harvard-educated former judge and a county supervisor who had served two terms on the City Council. (Though Frye does have an associate’s degree and some fifteen years’ experience running her own business, you are more likely to read about her life as a hotel maid, gas-station attendant, short-order cook and recovering alcoholic.) She was a political outsider, and she cobbled up a grassroots campaign that in today’s terms was conspicuously light on rhetoric. Not to mention that she had only five weeks to convince the electorate to vote for Donna Frye, a name they might not have heard before and would not find on the ballot.
But Frye’s turnout surprised people mostly because she was a progressive running against two establishment Republicans in what is thought to be a conservative stronghold (it is, after all, the city that gave the world Tucker Carlson). And because she managed to rouse a ground-up movement in a town that often seems content to enjoy its climate and leave the bother of political involvement to bigger, more troubled cities.
“It was a series of surprises,” said Frye, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the home in which she grew up, which she now shares with her mom and husband, legendary surfer and longboard shaper Skip Frye. Apart from the fact that she doesn’t drive, Frye is every bit the Southern Californian: Her long blond hair is parted down the middle, her face lined from fifty-two years in the sun. “When I announced that I might consider running, the phones went crazy,” she said. “Calls of support came from all over the city.” At first she thought it was a few hundred people, but when Frye went out to collect the 200 signatures needed to establish her candidacy, she got more than 3,000 in one weekend.
Throughout her short campaign, Frye was bowled over by the hundreds of strangers, “people I’d never seen in my life,” who came out of the woodwork to volunteer. To her longtime friend and legal counsel Marco Gonzalez, it was obvious Frye had a populist appeal. “When you go out on the streets, the amount of support that she has is unmatched,” he said, “and it doesn’t follow normal political or demographical lines.” Since Frye didn’t have yard signs, local artists contributed designs and a handful of printing shops in the city offered discounts to supporters who wanted to make copies. Still, despite the extraordinary enthusiasm she inspired, not even Frye would have guessed she’d take the lead in a race too close to call.
When she did, the surfing metaphor proved irresistible to the national press: “Surf Shop Owner Rides Mayoral Wave” (Boston Globe); “Riding a Write-In Wave to the Brink of City Hall” (New York Times); “Writing the Wave in San Diego” (Washington Post). But Frye insists much of the coverage got her backwards. “I’m not a surfer who dabbles in politics. I’m an activist who dabbles in surfing, and I was never that good at it.”