When Virtue is No Virtue

Donna Frye’s commitment to principle is noble but sometimes comes at the cost of being effective.

It was a symbolic vote, at best. Two weeks ago Councilperson Toni Atkins introduced a measure for the City of San Diego to sign on to an amicus curiae brief pending before the California Supreme Court in support of dropping legal restrictions for same-sex marriage. Last Tuesday the City Council (with its democratically ridiculous even number of councilpersons but that’s another story) split 4-4 on the motion, the motion failing.

The rub: the determining vote in the anti-four was none other than self and media proclaimed queen of the council progressives, Donna Frye. And, in so doing, she pitted herself directly against fellow progressive Toni Atkins. And, given Frye’s own past history of support of gay rights, herself.

Frye voted against the measure not on moral, political or even aesthetic grounds; she voted against it because she felt the public hadn’t had enough opportunity to express its opinion on the issue. In trying to best serve her constituents in Council District 6—and the City at large—Frye has often—this observer would argue too often—forfeited her own judgment in favor of some ill-defined vox populi. But that is part of her modus operandi. Her vote on the gay marriage amicus motion reflects her greatest strength as a public representative—and her greatest weakness: an adherence to the letter of a principle even at the expense of her serving as an effective representative of the public interest.

Another case in point: Donna’s attitude and actions towards the new City Audit Committee last year. This committee has a significant impact on the nuts and bolts of day to day City expenditures and provision of services. Donna wanted to be chair of the committee but council president Scott Peters put council newbie Kevin Faulconer’s name forward instead. Rather than suck it up and still join the committee, albeit in a lesser role, Frye, in a basically “do what I want or I’ll take my jacks and go home” approach put her own principles—she would not be part of the same “business as usual” politics which had gotten San Diego into the fiscal hole it still is clawing out of–above what would have been better for the city, namely, her on the committee. Ditto her vote scuttling a prohibition on super–sized big box stores (read Walmart supercenters) which many of her constituents, particularly in the labor community, took as a fundamental betrayal.

And now comes the gay marriage vote.

Frye fretted that the public had not had enough time to expound on the issue. An issue that has been on the table, one way or another, for over a decade. One that has been at ground zero of the American culture war since the Massachusetts Supreme Court struck down the state constitutionality of banning gay marriages in 2004. (And thereby helped hand George W. his re-election on a silver gay-marriage wedding cake platter.) An issue that San Diegans have had years to consider. Yet Donna felt the “people” had not had enough time to express their opinion on it.

Oh, oh, Donna. We still want to politically marry you. But Please.

Donna’s dilemma goes to the heart of representational democracy. How should elected representatives vote: as their conscience tells them to vote, or as their constituents tell them to vote? In the best of circumstances the two overlap. But in the real world that is not always the case.

The idea of representative democracy–as opposed to direct democracy–let the people make the call on any issue—is based on the premise of a process as mundane as information processing and management. IF We the People had all the information needed to make a rational judgment on an issue AND We the People took the time to find and understand said information, then We The People could make our own democratic collective decision on each and every issue. But We the People have lives to live, jobs to work, bills to pay and little league to attend. So we hire other people—like Donna Frye—to use their experience, knowledge, judgment and moral center to make the call on our behalf.

The contract is simple. If these representatives make good choices—e.g. that result in us living better and being happy—we keep them on the job by re-electing them. If they don’t we fire them: termination by ballot.

Winston Churchill (or maybe it was the President Jeb Bartlet character on West Wing?) once remarked that one’s faith in democracy seldom survives as ten minute conversation with the average vote. This is not an elitist sentiment. What Churchill meant was not that the masses were ignorant savages whom needed elite guidance to survive, but, rather, that the average person, lacking in sufficient knowledge of complicated issues, requires the services of knowledge specialists. Just like we don’t take out our own appendix or defend ourselves in court, We the People need other people who have dedicated their lives to understanding the process to help us reach our collective decisions.

Frye’s often admirable but also sometimes extreme commitment to doing what the people want runs the risk of demagoguery. First off, who are the “people” who actually take the time to express themselves directly to the City Council and in open council session? Are they truly representative of “the People” at large? Or are they just individuals with their own special interest to advance and/or enough free time and myopic dedication to make their interests known? Relying on the “voice of the people” council members hear through e-mails, letters, phone calls and public testimony without careful consideration reduces our political society to a sort of “Lord of the Gadflys.”Is it a coincidence that Frye’s most vehement defender of her anti-Amicus vote in the Union Trib’s Letter’s to the Editor” section last week was none other than local anti—gay gadfly James Hartline?

As the great English statesman Edmund Burke said, elected representatives owe their constituents more than just their vote. They owe them their knowledge, their experience, their wisdom and, above all, their conscience. should vote their conscience. But part of that conscience must include a realization that putting one’s own high principles (as in “I won’t sully myself to engage in politics”) above the good of one’s constituents (as in “but by doing a little sullying your people get their police station or library or daycare center they need”) does no public service, either Donna’s vice in her going on eight years in public service is that she will pursue principle to the extent of ineffectiveness. This was particularly manifest in the amicus vote. By putting a principle above politics Donna essentially hung Toni Atkins, who be most measures seems to be a natural voting ally on many issues, out to dry. If usually like-minded council members such as Frye and Atkins can’t agree to vote the same on an issue they both historically and politically have supported, like gay marriage, is it any wonder that they can not come together in voting coalitions to achieve mutual ends on more substantive and contentious issues?

Donna’s commitment to personal principle and vox populi is a problematic issue that cuts across San Diego’s eight council districts. The city council seldom operates in terms of coherent voting coalitions withclear, shared mutual municipal vision. Instead, it routinely operates as eight individuals pursuing their separate interests, be they of personal principle or parochial district interests — at the expense of a common shared municipal vision that all could benefit by.

The whole strong mayor push a has been driven by a nostalgia for the days when Pete Wilson could keep a consistent voting majority going for his vision on the City Council. No-one has really done that since and, as a result, the City has been adrift for the last generation. Wilson did it by a combination of consensus building, compromise and old fashioned “I scratch yours/you scratch mine” politics. Which are precisely the concepts Donna Frye and many others rejects as so much business as usual, politics over principles. Buy making political decisions (that is, decisions that affect all of the community—the polis; the many) based on political accommodations—making concessions to benefit the other person’s constituency in exchange for concessions to benefit your own—is not always a vice. And putting personal principles—“I will not compromise my principles in order to achieve the public good”—is not always a virtue.

It’s fine to have principles, but not at the expense of good government. Some might object to the notion that Donna Frye or Toni Atkins or any elected official should work behind the scenes, before a public vote, to influence how fellow lawmakers may come down on an issue. This writer say’s poppycock. Do we really want the first time a councilmember thinks about how to vote on something to be during public session? If elected representatives thinks about introducing some measure and haven’t at least stopped to think how everyone else may vote — in other words considered the ramifications on everyone else and their interests — they shouldn’t be introducing anything in the first place.

I am a political scientist by vocation, (And enough of those “political and scientist is a non sequitor” comments from you out there in the peanut gallery). There’s a reason the political science departments are separate from the philosophy departments — and that the two don’t talk to each other all that much! Philosophy is about what should be. Politics is about what could be.

This writer is afraid Donna is too much of a philosopher for anyone’s good, least of all that of her constituents and her own political legacy.

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