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.”

Frye was a teenager in the late 1960s, and, like many of that generation, she describes her political awakening in a kind of shorthand: “You know, civil rights, Vietnam, women’s issues, voter registration.” During the 1970s and ’80s, she counseled rape survivors and battered women, a line of work she had to give up. (“It was breaking my heart too much.”) As a technical editor for the Navy she tried, unsuccessfully, to organize a labor union. But it wasn’t until Skip got a viral infection from surfing in the Pacific Ocean in the 1990s that Frye became a regular at City Hall. She routinely waited hours to give minutes of testimony about the poor water quality at popular city beaches. When elected officials were slow to respond, Frye, armed with disturbing bacteriological reports, held press conferences in front of the storm drains she believed were bringing sewage to the sea. She was right, and her efforts led to a significant strengthening of San Diego’s water-monitoring and warning systems.

Frye started bringing her politics into the surf shop. “I was trying to figure out how to get surfers registered to vote,” she explained. “I thought: humor.” She set up a display of a toilet that when flushed played an answering-machine message pleading customers not to flush the ocean down the drain. Soon after, GOP Congressman Brian Bilbray voted to gut the Clean Water Act, after claiming to be a surfer. “So we made it an educational toilet about the Congressman’s voting record.”

A City Council member since 2001, Frye has often been on the unpopular end of lopsided votes. On allowing further expansion of the Sea World theme park, the Council voted 8 to 1; on the use of public money to subsidize a new baseball stadium for the San Diego Padres, 8 to 1; and on a number of votes permitting the city to invoke its power of eminent domain for private development, 8 to 1. She has criticized what she calls a “culture of secrecy” at City Hall and boycotted the Council’s secretive closed-session meetings. “My agenda for the city is pretty easy to understand,” she explained. “Tell the public the truth, do the public’s business in public.” And to those who think her an unlikely public figure, she has this to say: “You can’t live here and not have an affinity for the natural environment, and you can’t love the natural environment, the ocean, and not care about what’s been happening politically in this city.”

As it turns out, San Diegans urgently need someone who cares about what’s been happening politically in their city. On the heels of the devastating October 2003 wildfires, which exposed, along with 300,000 acres of scorched ground, the city’s failure to staff and outfit its fire department adequately, came indictments of three Council members accused of taking bribes from Las Vegas club owners to loosen San Diego’s no-contact rule at strip clubs. More recently, a plan to increase benefits for city workers and underfund pension accounts put San Diego $1.2 billion in the red and prompted investigations by the FBI, the US Attorney and the Securities and Exchange Commission, earning the city the nickname “Enron-by-the-Sea.” Once again, Frye was the only Council member to vote against the plan.

In other words, Donna Frye stood for something at a critical, and dismal, moment in local politics. Yet her success has also forced the city and country to wake up to what she apparently has known for some time: “San Diego is not a conservative city,” she argues. “It may have been conservative at one time, maybe fifteen years ago, but not anymore.”

The evidence is there. San Diegans have voted Democratic in the last three presidential elections. San Diego’s state delegation is mostly Democratic. And though Republicans still have a voter-registration edge over Democrats in the larger San Diego County, Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city itself. If not an overwhelmingly Democratic city, it is certainly a moderate one, with what might be called a budding progressive movement, observable on two main fronts.

Foremost are the environmental groups. Founded in San Diego in 1980, the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), one of the country’s oldest grassroots environmental-justice organizations, has secured the preservation of more than 2,000 acres of coastal wetlands; published the first comprehensive pollution-prevention guide designed for local governments; pushed for policy banning the use of toxic pesticides adjacent to low-income, Latino communities; and convinced the EPA to award San Diego one of the nation’s first “Emerging Brownfield” grants to relocate polluting industries outside residential communities. (Donna Frye’s campaign manager and senior policy adviser, Nicole Capretz, was once a legal and policy analyst at the EHC.) The city’s environmental movement also has strong roots in the surfing community, a crowd popularly thought of as escapist and apolitical. Frye, for example, founded Surfers Tired of Pollution (STOP) and is involved with the Surfrider Foundation, a grassroots group that works to protect oceans, waves and beaches.

Historically nobody’s idea of a union-friendly town, San Diego now has an active labor movement. This is thanks in large part to the aggressive direction of Jerry Butkiewicz, secretary treasurer since 1996 of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, an AFL-CIO umbrella for more than 100,000 union workers (41 percent of whom are Hispanic) and more than 100 affiliated labor groups. “We retooled our political program in order to mobilize our own members,” said Donald Cohen, former political director of the Labor Council and current director of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a research and policy group that works with organized labor. Unions have also become more active in local political campaigns. A report has yet to be compiled for the most recent election, but in the two previous election cycles, unions outspent business in the independent-expenditures category by more than two to one. For her part, Frye won the single most important labor endorsement, that of the Labor Council.

Undeniable, too, are San Diego’s shifting demographics. According to Census data, the Hispanic population increased 47.1 percent in the San Diego region between 1990 and 2000, when it became official that one in every four San Diego residents is of Hispanic origin. Frye earned key endorsements from the San Diego Chicano Democratic Association and two prominent Spanish-language newspapers in the city. There are no hard statistics to cite, but Daniel Muñoz Jr., editor of the city’s oldest Mexican-American newspaper, La Prensa, thinks more Hispanics voted for Frye than for her opponents. “The other two candidates didn’t speak to the issues of the community,” he said.

Perhaps the least surprising aspect of this story is the ballot-counting controversy that followed. Of the voters who took the trouble to write in Frye’s name, 5,551 did not darken a corresponding bubble, and their ballots were disqualified. The incumbent, Dick Murphy, was pronounced the winner by 2,108 votes and sworn in on December 8. The last legal challenge was rejected on February 2, leaving an appeal the only possibility for reversal.

So Donna Frye is not the mayor of San Diego, and Dick Murphy and his lawyer are left insisting, against all evidence of the voters’ clear intent, that on account of a technicality the disputed ballots are simply “illegal.” Which is why some are saying that losing the election might be the best thing that ever happened to Frye. After all, she is the moral winner–she earned the most votes and in many eyes is the city’s rightful mayor. The New York Times thinks so; the Los Angeles Times thinks so; even the San Diego Business Journal thinks so; and certainly a plurality of San Diego voters thinks so.

At the very least, Donna Frye became, if not mayor, one of the most influential political figures in California’s second-largest city. Those who work with her say the difference is already palpable, even in Sacramento, where, once dismissed as just another liberal environmentalist, her name now commands respect. “She’s much more viable as a politician,” said Marco Gonzalez. “And the big change is going to be that now, every time she comes out and voices the lone opposition on the Council, it’s going to make everyone stop and take pause.”

Asked whether, if the election is ultimately not reversed, she will make a play for the mayor’s office in four years, Frye seemed uninterested in talking about the future. “I never know what I’m going to do,” she said. “I don’t plan. I just do what comes naturally.”