Swords Unsheathed: Donna Frye vs. Steve Danon Print E-mail

Donna_Frye_2004(San Diego Reader May 31, 2001)

Next week's runoff election in District 6 for the city council seat vacated by Valerie Stallings last January will close a match between first-time candidates Steve Danon—former chief of staff to Ron Roberts and frequent Republican campaign manager—and Donna Frye, a Pacific Beach environmentalist and founder of STOP, Surfers Tired of Pollution. Danon has accused Frye of courting "big labor's" endorsement, implying that out-of-town interests are directing her with money and more. For her part, Frye seldom brings up the identity of Danon's well-heeled donors.

By matching zip codes of donors to the six zip codes of District 6 itself, the donor-base total (as of May 19) for the candidates reveals a striking difference. For the 49-year-old Frye, about 67 percent of her contributions come from outside her district, while 33 percent are inside. (The district comprises Clairemont, Bay Park, Mission Valley, and Serra Mesa, as well as about half of Pacific Beach, Linda Vista, and Kearny Mesa.) Frye's donors include small-business owners, retirees, and environmentalists, including the Sierra Club's Eric Bowlby, labor leader Jerry Butkiewicz, and ex-assemblywoman Lucy Killea. Some robust independent spending is represented by labor groups, locally and in Orange County.

Danon, a 35-year-old Republican, has more than twice the individual donors as his opponent. His donors include presidents of companies; developers, contractors, builders; administrative personnel of the developers; staff members in Ron Roberts's office; and registered lobbyists. Ninety-two percent of Danon donors live outside District 6, making Danon's slogan -- Put Our Neighborhoods First! -- at the least ironic.

Recently, Danon said that his outside-the-district collection plate doesn't trouble him. True, you are elected by the district, he noted, "But there may be individuals I have worked with in the past who want to see good government that would support me, if, say, they live in Tierrasanta, Point Loma, or University City."

Danon's coffers have swelled from those outside the district who are also inside San Diego's major developer groups—the Building Industry Association, the San Diego County Apartment Association, the Coalition for Fair Employment and Construction. Marcel Becker, chairman of the legislative committee for the local chapter of the Association of Builders and Contractors, said his group is forbidden to donate to Danon (whom they support) because the chapter is registered as a state political action committee. State PACs can't give to municipal races, which are supposedly nonpartisan. But Becker's association has helped finance Danon's campaign with individual donations and a fundraising breakfast.

On the residency gap between Frye's and Danon's donors, Donald Cohen, political director of the Labor Council of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said the discrepancy confirms that "Donna has lived and worked in that district for 40 years. She and her husband Skip are rooted in that community. I walked precincts. People know the Fryes. Steve Danon moved there last year. He's not of that community. Steve's base of support is from the political community, the interests he's been with while he worked for Brian Bilbray and Ron Roberts."

I ran Danon's figure of 8 percent in-district donations by primary candidate Mike Pallamary, who finished third. He chuckled, then called it unfortunate that candidates in local elections must rely on outside funding. For the primary, Pallamary collected $45,000, of which 22 percent came from District 6 contributors. "Sadly, in order to compete, I had to find money outside the district to go against the machine that Danon has."

Danon's money grab from outside the district may reflect his disaffiliation with labor. During the primary, Danon sought the unions' backing. (His boss Roberts won it for his mayoral bid.) Once the nod went to Frye, Danon was quoted in an April 18 Union-Tribune article as saying, "It's one thing [for Frye] to work with the labor unions, and it's another thing to work for the labor unions." According to Michael Zucchet, political director of the San Diego Firefighters, Local 145, this statement "rattled the cages" of some of his members. At first they didn't see a "bad choice" between Frye and Danon. But their enthusiasm vaporized once Danon dressed Frye in the uniform of the lackey.

Next, Danon engaged ex-congressman Brian Bilbray to charge in a mailer that Frye's campaign has been "financed by tens of thousands of dollars of soft money from big labor unions." Danon told me that such benefaction "raises an eyebrow. Is it a problem? I think the voters can draw their own conclusions about the amount of money the labor unions are pumping in."

I asked Zucchet—an announced candidate for Byron Wear's District 2 seat in 2002—whether big-labor bosses are hijacking Frye's campaign. "That's absurd," he said. "This is local unions with local money spending it on local campaigns."

Whatever big labor's influence, one thing is certain: Frye's soft-money total is close to $47,000. The local firefighters contributed $14,103 for signs and direct mail. The Labor Council has kicked in $3339 for radio ads and $4000 on a phone bank. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 30 also did a phone bank worth $5000. The San Diego Police Officers Association paid for signs and a mailer, at $12,432. Finally, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) from Buena Park, near Anaheim in Orange County, spent $8000 on mailers. This union, which raised more than $1 million in three months between February and May of this year, has a habit of bankrolling other union efforts.

According to the Secretary of State's website, the UFCW contributed $4000 to the Committee on Political Education at San Diego's labor council. I asked the labor council's Donald Cohen if this was a payback for their expense on Donna Frye. "No," he said. "But we are allowed to use whatever money we receive for member education as we see fit."

Though more expenditures may arrive in the last two weeks before the election, Danon has seen only one independent expenditure: The San Diego County Apartment Association spent $4510 on signs and mailers. This represents less than one-tenth of what Frye's labor groups have bought.

Is some campaign spending not being reported? Due to a loophole in the state-approved Proposition 34, political parties do not have to report their "member communications," usually mailers sent to their registered brethren, in off-year municipal elections until the contest is over. However, in the wake of the Los Angeles mayoral race, where this loophole has been filled by an estimated half-million dollars' worth of soft money, the parties have agreed to report their local expenditures anyway.

Roxanna Foxx, of the San Diego County Republican Party, acknowledges that the state Republicans are spending $10,000 on a mailer to the faithful in District 6. According to Bob Jellison of the San Diego County Democratic Party, the local party is spending $1000 on a mailer to its District 6 members as well.

As of May 19, the individual donor totals for Danon are $183,654 raised and $121,754 spent; for Frye, $78,972 raised and $53,984 spent. By adding in the known independent expenditures, Danon's candidacy has cost $188,000 while Frye's cost $126,000.

In mid-May Danon and Frye rubbed horns at a debate sponsored by the Pacific Beach Town Council before a partisan-packed room of 130. Danon has an irrepressible politeness, like a middle-aged Beaver Cleaver. At times he seems over-wary of being in the least bit glib.

Lithe and capricious, Frye is a throwback to the '60s, with her drape-straight, mid-parted hair. In a raspy alto voice, her responses often have an unscripted snap. "We [activists] need to get our butts to Washington." The pair respectfully differed about Pacific Beach's flintiest issue, the beach booze ban. Frye is pro: "It's a privilege, not a right, to drink on our beaches"; Danon is con: "If my wife Patti and I want to go to Mission Beach and have a beer, we should be able to."

On rejecting Sea World's latest bid to erect a "Magic Mountain on the Bay," with hotels and roller coasters, they agreed. But they disagreed about how to net Shamu. Danon said Frye has refused to talk with Sea World anymore, which Frye declared was false. "Over the years, I've met with them 15 to 30 times. Sea World is not budging on its master plan," she said. Frye told me that in 1998, when she led the opposition to Proposition D, which would abolish Sea World's height restriction, "It was Sea World that refused to debate me, not me who refused to debate them." Frye also said the city has violated its charter by exceeding the limit of leasable land around Mission Bay. No more hotels, period.

Swords unsheathed on the issue of De Anza Cove: Yes, those mobile-home residents, with their front-door proximity to Mission Bay, must be out by 2003, when the community's lease reverts to the De Anza Corporation. But should the new tenant be the proposed De Anza Harbor Resort? (Frye no, Danon no—loud applause.) In an unexpected parry, Danon chastised Frye for taking $250 from Michael Gelfand, the resort's developer. How could she claim to be against the developer and take his money? (Audience boos and claps.) Frye's riposte: "For the record, I have accepted his check, but I told him when I took it that I didn't support his hotel, so he's quite aware of that."

I followed up with Frye about this lone-donor scuffle. She thought it laughable that Danon would align her with "a developer. I had to control myself. 'My big-developer money.' I enjoyed that. I probably should have said, 'I'll give Mr. Gelfand his "big-developer money" back, and then you give all your "big-developer money" back, and then we'll see if you have any money left.'"

I asked why she hadn't gone after Danon concerning his out-of-district donors, the majority of whom are developers or work for them. Frye acknowledged that she should have and that voters "probably don't know" enough about Danon's givers.

What does it say that Danon has received so much money from the development industry?

"It says," Frye continued, "'here we go again.' The Susan Golding, Ron Roberts—the same machine. To me, what's funny about it is that Danon puts on his campaign literature ...that he is against the Charger ticket-guarantee. But [Golding] was his candidate. All these things that he talks about that are wrong are things he's helped perpetuate over the years." Frye is referring to Danon's having worked on Susan Golding's campaign for mayor in 1992 and managing her reelection bid in 1996.

Concerns about Frye were voiced by the local Republican chairwoman Foxx, whose party has endorsed Danon. Foxx points to Frye's irregular attendance at meetings of the San Diego County Environmental Health Advisory Board. According to Foxx's e-mail, Frye missed 7 of 11 meetings over a two-year span. Frye said she missed those meetings because "shortly after her appointment, we were evicted from our surf shop. I told them I probably would miss more because, sometimes, business has to come first."

Foxx next wrote that Frye flip-flopped on whether the city should continue granting free lease of sites in Balboa Park and Mission Bay to the avowed anti-homosexual Boy Scouts. Frye told the San Diego Democratic Club, a gay-activist organization, that she "favored termination of the lease because of the scouts' national prohibition against gay troop leaders." But then, in a KUSI interview, she said she did "not believe the Boy Scouts should be kicked out of" either place. Frye told me that the issue will probably be decided by the courts long before the city council ever votes on it. She also said, "No, I don't dislike the Boy Scouts and want to kick them out. But this is a case of law, and I don't support their policy." For the record, Danon doesn't support the Boy Scouts' policy of discrimination but said he does want the lease renewed: "Don't penalize the kids for the mistakes of the adults."

Foxx's final contention was that Frye suffered amnesia over the city council's impending vote to authorize clean needles for drug addicts. Frye told me that in her precinct-walking, "No one has raised the issue. Only Steve Danon has." But Foxx countered, "Donna need only have reviewed the questionnaire she filled out for the Democratic Party to remember that the issue had . . . come up before . . . and had, in fact, been discussed at numerous candidate forums during the primary." Danon is opposed to needle exchange and wants "rehab on demand. Free needles sends the wrong message to our youth."

In fairness to those who've questioned Frye's money trail and stands on the issues, Danon isn't above reproach. In March, the Building Industry Association, a nonprofit developer-advocacy group, commissioned the San Diego Group, a local polling firm, to measure the attitudes of 300 "likely voters" in District 6. The poll focused on the four front-runners: Danon, Frye, Pallamary, and Peter Navarro.

Soon after this poll was finished, an e-mail was sent within the organization by internal-communications director Jaymie Bradford. It emphasized two things: if members wanted more information about any of the candidates, he would provide it; and he encouraged members to walk precincts for Danon on April 7, ten days before the primary. It is not illegal for organizations to support or oppose a candidate and lobby their members using in-house communications. There is, however, a question about the Building Industry Association's payment for a "nonpartisan" survey and the apparent use of its results to endorse Danon.

According to the Fair Political Practices Commission law, "payments for communications" within an organization are allowed, but independent expenditures on behalf of a candidate that top $1000 per year must be reported.

Did the survey cost the Building Industry Association more than $1000? In an e-mail, Matthew Adams, governmental relations director, did not say how much it spent on the survey. To the question, did Danon himself or an agent of Danon ask the association to conduct a poll or to endorse him, Adams wrote, "All candidates were invited to be interviewed." To the question of mixing neutrality with partisanship, "Since we took no position in the race, we communicated with our members on precinct walks for Steve Danon and Mike Pallamary." Pallamary told me he knew of no such endorsement and no precinct-walking on his behalf. I replied to Adams that it seemed the association was taking a position by urging its members to walk precincts for Danon, and, as he claimed, Pallamary. These two candidates are on record as being friendlier to the Building Industry Association than Donna Frye. Requests to Adams for further disclosure were not answered. The Reader has forwarded a letter and a copy of this article to deputy district attorney Sally Williams and to the Fair Political Practices Commission.

As for Danon's charge that Frye is taking tainted money, evidence shows the knife slices both ways. Danon said April 29 on KUSI that in 1998, as Roberts's chief of staff, he "physically wrote the legislation" that would ban campaign contributions and gifts from registered lobbyists to county candidates. Danon told me, "The legislation is the board letter. I wrote the direction that outlined the policy." The board letter briefly outlines the policy while it urges other supervisors to support the ban. The letter is signed by Roberts.

Deputy county counsel Arne Hansen said Roberts and his staff "proposed the change and indicated in general what to write. I think drafts were submitted to them for their comments, maybe." Hansen said it is not permissible for him or his boss, John Sansone, to go back and forth with chiefs of staff "on legal questions...but we like to make sure that the policy changes are accurately produced in the ordinance. So there is some going back and forth."

Despite Hansen's explanation, one wonders whether there is a conflict of interest between a staff member who is not a lawyer (like Danon) and his proofing of the legal language of a municipal ordinance.

While the county ordinance has no jurisdiction over a city election, Danon was self-congratulatory on TV for banning these donors from county access. Why then, in January of this year, when he registered as a candidate in the District 6 city election, were his first two contributor checks from Nicole Clay and Janay Kruger, lobbyists with the county and the city?

"There has to be a level playing field," he told me. On KUSI, Danon emphasized that if he wins, he "will propose that same kind of legislation [against lobbyist contributions] for the city."

But the county ban didn't stop you from taking lobbyists' money in the District 6 election?

Danon repeated the mantra: "There needs to be a level playing field." I reminded him that he has collected two to two and a half times the money Frye has, despite her heavy independent expenditures. Again, many longtime lobbyists—Robert Pinnegar, Brian Seltzer, Johnnie Perkins, Jeff Marston, Scott Blech, and others—who are registered with the county (and who don't live in District 6) have been maxing out their donation to Danon's District 6 run.

But, Danon said, this money came "from individual contributors."

Is it soft money from the unions going to Donna Frye or is it your individual donors plus Republican and developer soft money that makes the district election not a level playing field for you?

"I think people could draw their own conclusions," Danon said.

Finally, there's the mini-scandal over Danon's illegally placed campaign signs. Attorney Donald Mayes, who ran in the primary and garnered only 299 votes, received an info packet when he filed that included a notice about signs from Mike Wisnieski, senior zoning investigator with the city's Neighborhood Code Compliance. Wisnieski's letter said that Mayes, like all candidates, would be "held financially responsible" for signs illegally placed: $100 a pop.

In early March Mayes began seeing Danon's signs on utility poles in the public right-of-way. At one public forum, Mayes asked Danon to take those signs down. Danon replied that he wasn't aware of improper signs and wondered who put them up—a zealous loyalist or a member of the opposition, trying to get him fined? Danon told Mayes he'd take care of it.

On the subsequent Saturday, Mayes spotted a Danon sign a quarter-mile from Danon's home. Mayes found Danon and his wife working in their garage and confronted Danon. "Steve," Mayes said, "if you're really serious about removing the signs, there's one right down the hill, at Morena and Jutland. How about jumping in my car and we'll go remove it together." Danon told Mayes to stop harassing him. "I want you to leave, now." Mayes insisted; they should rip it down together. An indignant Danon finally told Mayes that if he was so disturbed about illegal signs, he should call Wisnieski.

Before doing so, Mayes sent a prickly letter to Danon: "More disheartening" than breaking their "private agreement," Mayes wrote, "is your apparent lack of integrity and refusal to play by the rules. Big money cannot buy you immunity." Mayes and his wife next spent a day documenting illegal Danon signs—59 of them—and hand-delivered the list to Wisnieski. Wisnieski drove through the district and found that 30 of them were in violation. He then went back and pulled these signs down but did not send Danon a citation for $3000.

Sharren Carr, the city's neighborhood service program manager, recalled Wisnieski giving Danon 48 hours to remove the illegal signs or Wisnieski would and then cite (bill) the candidate.

But Danon wasn't billed for the 30 signs.

"Correct," Carr replied. "We usually don't cite while the election is in progress."

Do you have plans to cite Mr. Danon after the election? Retroactively?

"If the signs are still up. If the signs are down, we're not."

But Mike Wisnieski tore them down, right? So they're not up.

I asked Wisnieski why he didn't levy fines. He called it not part of "our procedure. We tried to get voluntary compliance."

What's changed that?

"It came down as a directive from the [city] manager's office. From April 25 on, we shipped out letters to both campaigns that say from now on we would be changing that procedure to include fines."

The sign hubbub ended after Mike Pallamary testified twice before the council and convinced Mayor Murphy, who helped write the sign ordinance, to order city manager Michael Uberuaga to change what Murphy termed an "embarrassment for the city." To date Frye has been fined $300 for her misplaced signs and Danon $1100 for his.