Quick Take:

After serving six terms on the City Council, dating back almost 30 years, Cynthia Mathews looks back on the long-term changes that she helped bring about in Santa Cruz

Mike Rotkin served on the Santa Cruz City Council for a long time — six four-year terms, in all. During his tenure, he remembers one of more prosaic, if important jobs for a council member was to appoint people to fill out various boards, commissions, committees, and task forces.

Each January, every council member was obliged to read over the various applications for the slots to be filled and make a recommendation. But Rotkin’s colleague Cynthia Mathews went a bit further.

“So Cynthia goes out and interviews almost all the applicants. Then, she goes and talks to their associates and friends to find out how well they play with others, if they would be a good fit, etc. She did that every year, throughout the 16 years we served together. The level of detail and focus was just extraordinary. I mean, I felt I worked really hard as a council member. But I wasn’t going to go out and interview people’s associates to see how well they would serve or what are they like to work with.”

Cynthia Mathews
Credit: Courtesy Cynthia Mathews

A decade after Rotkin left the City Council for good, Mathews is poised to step down into retirement as well, having equaled Rotkin’s record for most terms served on council. Tuesday’s city council meeting will be Mathews’s last as a member.

Council term limits dictate that members can serve two consecutive terms (eight years) before they must step away for at least one two-year election cycle. Then, they are welcome to step back in the arena and do it all over again. That’s exactly what Mathews did, three times in all.

“I’m ready,” said Mathews, 78, who also served four terms as mayor of Santa Cruz. “I have worked hard for a lot of years. I have been very much rewarded by much of what I’ve done. But I’m also ready to switch gears and let others step into that role.”

Mathews first joined the City Council in 1992, and in that time has taken leadership and support roles on most of the city’s most high-profile projects, from the Tannery Arts Center to Depot Park to the Monterey Bay Sanctuary, garnering support to win election repeatedly but also drawing fire from vocal opponents who have accused her of corruption, called for her resignation, and even protested outside her house downtown.

“She’s not immobilized by people who attack her,” said Rotkin, who also absorbed political attacks in his tenure. “That just gets her to work harder to change people’s opinions.”

She was inspired to run for council, she said, by her experience serving on Vision Santa Cruz, the improbably large (36 people) committee charged with the redesign and rebuilding of downtown Santa Cruz after the Loma Prieta earthquake. She was no stranger to city politics, having served on the planning commission in the 1980s. But Vision Santa Cruz opened her eyes to what focused political leadership could do.

“The experience of getting 36 people together, all from very different constituencies, all focused on getting Santa Cruz back on its feet … The kind of active listening and stretching and coming to agreement in the course of that was extremely satisfying.”

Mathews and her husband Bill moved to Santa Cruz in 1970, and the next year, she co-founded the Santa Cruz chapter of Planned Parenthood. As an activist, she focused on neighborhood issues, historical preservation, and energy conservation. She said that she relished taking on some of the city’s long-term capital projects and other big-picture initiatives.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that the big things are built on a whole sequence of policy directions and studies and getting together the money for the plans. A lot of it is incremental. These things are driven by community values and they are supported by partners, whether they are non-profits or businesses, and by very good staff work. That’s what makes them come to fruition. Sometimes, people run for office and think, I’m going to do this or that. But the public sector is really different. It takes a lot more time.”

Hilary Bryant was first elected to the Santa Cruz City Council in 2010. She said that Mathews served as a mentor to her and many others on the council and in the city staff. “She’s a great parliamentarian,” said Bryant. “She was one of the best we had in terms of being able to manage meetings.”

But, Bryant said, Mathews also served as an emotional anchor for her on the council. In 2013, Bryant was serving as mayor when two Santa Cruz police officers were murdered while on duty. “In those moments,” said Bryant, “when it was hard to even put one foot in front of another, it was so crucial to have Cynthia who was just a calm and steady voice. She really showed her compassion and thoughtfulness in that moment. And, in my darkest times as mayor, she was the one to say, ‘We’re going to get through this. It’s going to be OK.’ She understood, in a way that few others did, the weight that is on your shoulders in that moment.”

The past year — with the pandemic and the economic downturn it engendered, the wildfires, and a divisive recall election of two city council members — has been one of the most challenging of Mathews’s career. The economic deep freeze brought on by the pandemic marks the fourth economic downswing that Mathews has experienced while sitting on the council.

“I’ve seen this community deal with a lot,” she said. “And (I’ve learned) we do our best when we get public, private, and non-profit sectors all working together. I feel very strongly about that. That’s how we’re going to get out of this crisis.”

Mathews said that, though she is stepping away from the council for the final time, her days as an activist are not over. Rotkin calls her retirement the “end of an era,” but feels that the newly seated city council will do just fine.

“I think, if they’re smart, they’ll call her and ask for help when they need it. And that she’ll be very forthcoming when they do.”

Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...