Posted by: cantmisssd | November 29, 2010

The accidental Donna Frye disaster

As one of the closing pieces of election post-mortem season, Andrew Donohue over the long weekend has a telling exit interview with departing councilmember and accidental political icon Donna Frye. As I’ve noted elsewhere, it might be the most revealing illustration of the failed San Diego left in recent memory.

Donna Frye has built an excellent body of work in her time on the city council, and it will stand on its own without grand declarations of legacy. But if her departure prompts reflection on her personal achievements, it must also lead to a discussion of what’s gone on around and because of her, even if she was never more than incidentally involved.

In a story that’s been told over and over for years, Frye is pressed in the interview to reveal future plans or delve into personal reflection, and she mostly refuses. She rejects the notion of examining or declaring legacy, and as usual begs off being a standard bearer for the left. Asked about the lack of viable Democratic candidates, Frye flatly replies “I just don’t think about it much quite honestly.” And on being thrust to the top by Dems without other options, “I just think, ‘Isn’t there someone else?'”

Just that quickly, she reflects what has made her so individually effective and why Democrats overall have struggled so mightily around her. Frye has never made any bones about who she is and how she sees her role: She’s in it to advocate open and clean government from a non-partisan perspective. She has a few issues that matter- providing city services, protecting the environment- and she’ll battle nobly for inches on those issues. She’s never pretended to be the face of the Democratic Party. She’s never been interested in partisan battling or even principled debate over differing fundamental outlooks on the nature of government. She’s a populist and a technocrat, but she’s not getting sucked into the existential struggles over how we’re going to build 21st century San Diego. And in the process, she accidentally set the standard for San Diego Democrats.

This is the great collapse of Democrats in the last decade and the great challenge upcoming. How, collectively, do San Diego Democrats break out of the ‘open meetings and closed potholes’ mentality? Republicans aren’t wasting their time on that stuff, partly because unresponsive government proves the point of the modern GOP, and partly because there are much bigger fish to fry. While Dems focus on winning voters back a block at a time without ideology, Republicans are continuing to articulate a fully-formed and ideologically-based worldview that transcends and ultimately buries those smaller-scale issues. If the Carl DeMaios of San Diego successfully argue that government is fundamentally broken and unable to responsibly administer funds and services, that takes precedence over trash pickup when voters go to the polls. Call it partisan, call it ideological, call it whatever you want- the battle is happening and only one side is currently fighting.

San Diegans have tried for years to make Donna Frye the face of the Democratic revival, and they half succeeded. They modeled the rebuilt party after her, but without her investment. She never wanted it, never claimed to. And since Donna Frye has been focused on the mechanics of government and only incidentally been a Democrat when it comes to the politics around governing, the party in her image is likewise only incidentally ideological and thus mostly devoid of effective advocates, messages, and ideas to compete with the right. Because the party is built to model Donna Frye.

As she leaves the council, it’s time to reflect on what’s come of her near-decade at city hall. Donna Frye as a councilmember has been a Godsend for San Diego, and she will be missed sorely. Her work on environmental issues has been herculean, and her strides to open the process of government have been incredible. But frankly, she will be all the more sorely missed because of the city council heirs she accidentally inspired. Donna Frye as an idea, co-opted through no fault of her own by desperate Democrats, has mostly been a disaster as Democrats followed her anti-partisanship down the wormhole.

In the years when Donna Frye was the only Democrat who could muster viability in the city, the party morphed into a functional imitation of her style. The result? Donna Frye could never get over the hump citywide, Obama voters elected two city councilmembers and the left has lost almost everything else. The populist, precinct-by-precinct, door-to-door, individual-responsiveness model is vital work that’s integral to rebuilding a functional Democratic Party and a workable coalition on the left. But it requires serious advocates for why a different vision of government and community deserves a place at the table.

That was never Donna Frye, and it wasn’t fair to ever expect it of her. So far, it isn’t anyone else either. There’s an opportunity for that to change, but only if someone is willing to take the lumps and do the work. Until then, this is a one party town.


  1. I don’t have a lot to add or disagree with. I think you’re right. That said, I’d add…

    Between, say, ’75 and ’05, keeping politics out of the public square had been a bipartisan affair in San Diego, not just a weakness of the left. I’m not an expert here, so maybe others can elaborate or disagree, but a look at our recent string of mayors seems to confirm that story: Maureen O’Connor, Susan Golding, Dick Murphy, Jerry Sanders. Even Pete Wilson and Roger Hedgecock before them were outwardly nice-guy governing types during their local run, as I recall. (Not that they governed well. Not saying that.)

    We’ve had political activists on both sides, in the background. What’s new I think is the change in today’s SD right wing activists from DJs to MCs. That’s a big story not much noticed. How well the business establishment (tech, hospitality, etc) trusts them to govern remains to be seen. The Chamber, ideologically Right as it is, stuck with the mayor on Prop D, for example. The Taxpayers Assoc, a case study in the recent change, opposed Prop D but laid low, not wanting to spook the establishment or exacerbate an intra-conservative fight.

    Anyway, as you said, the right has taken a sharp turn toward politics and the left hasn’t responded in kind.

    I’d understand Donna Frye in terms of that pre-turn San Diego. That SD’s left looks to her today with pride isn’t a surprise. But it probably also reflects a bit of nostalgia/fear. Suddenly there are these Norquists around and in power and my god how did that happen?! All I can say is that her departure at this juncture may be a good thing, and we probably agree on that too. She’s great, but the left does need to meet the battle. Donna’s moving on, time for the SD left to change course as well.

    At this point if I was better engaged I’d be able to offer some speculation on where we might see new movement starting. I’ll hazard, but know that I’m missing a lot. I think transportation is one area of contention with potential. I don’t see road privatization gaining much traction. There’s a real desire for democratic and public-centered solutions. Transportation does motivate people, and there’s an unmistakable class component. We have some rumblings, I think. Something like this *could* happen here: . Even without broad participation it changes the conversation.

    A second area might be a reaction against corporate welfare. I don’t know that in the abstract that would go far, but the rumblings against Spanos, the convention center, the Liberty Station deal, etc. suggest that there is some awareness that slashing neighborhood services while showering cash on millionaires is not a popular position. It’s an issue that our anti-tax Right has few natural defenses against. This too *could* be ground for a competing vision of the city. A “small government” perhaps, but then the poor are always cheaper to serve to than the rich.

    What do you see?

    Thanks for CMSD.

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