One of two candidates to lead the city of Santa Cruz into its district-elections future as mayor, Fred Keeley, a noted consensus-builder as both state Assembly leader and as an involved Santa Cruz County changemaker, is looking to speed up the way things get done around here on important issues like homelessness and affordable housing.
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Most of Fred Keeley’s political work the past 17 years has happened well behind the scenes — consulting, cajoling, line-iteming, advocating, educating.
At age 72, the veteran Santa Cruz County politico finds himself in the unlikely hunt for a job that would put him back out front, this time in an unprecedented and brand-new position, playing the lead role on local government’s most hot-button stage.
It took him plenty of time to wrap his own head around it. Now that he has, he’ll be asking the electorate to decide before the Nov. 8 election how it feels about the notion of “Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley.”
Keeley will announce his candidacy to be the city’s first independently elected four-year mayor, presiding over a new district system, Wednesday morning at Santa Cruz City Hall.
Voters decided in June to move to a six-district arrangement that includes an independently elected four-year mayor who, in theory, will serve as the eyes of the entire city while helping connect and mesh the new neighborhood-centric representatives.
Former Santa Cruz Mayor Hilary Bryant and current councilmember Sandy Brown will both speak on his behalf, and the latter is no small statement. It was Bryant’s disinclination, and that of other potential and younger candidates, to run for the new mayoral seat that led one of the area’s most senior politicians to act.
Brown has been a vocal part of the council’s most progressive bloc along with Justin Cummings, often taking a contrarian view to the current council majority’s on issues ranging from renter and student rights to affordable housing to homelessness to the new downtown library siting.
“It’s a tribute to the kinds of relationships that Fred has built for me to know that I won’t agree with him on some things yet really still feel good about what he can do for our city,” Brown said.
Brown said she has been just as frustrated seeing the city council hit loggerheads on key issues such as homelessness and affordable housing as those watching from the outside. She thinks the man she considers a friend and professional mentor, whom she met in Sacramento in the mid-1990s as a political newbie, is the perfect person to help nudge the council chambers into a place of action.
“I have just found him to be somebody who can really bring people together and get things done,” she said. “I’m looking forward to working with somebody with the experience and personality and general attitude of ‘Let’s get things done and do it in a thoughtful way.’”
Keeley honed his chops for working the middle as California Assembly speaker pro tempore in the 1990s and brought those consensus-building skills to his dealings in the local arena.
The decision to run is one that Keeley ruminated over long and hard, ultimately deciding — in conjunction with his wife, Barbara — that time and place had intersected in a unique and undeniable way.
Over the years, Keeley has been placed in crucial roles by city and county leaders, whether it was heading up a safety task force in the wake of the tragic killing of police officers Butch Baker and Elizabeth Butler in 2013, helping the Regional Transportation Commission as convener of a transportation funding task force or helping the city come up with a homelessness action plan.
Keeley said he believes it’s time for a restless electorate to see ideas translate into actions far more swiftly. And he said he hopes his experience could be the difference maker.
“I’m interested in seeing if I can take several decades of consensus building and work in the community,” he said, “and apply that like a laser beam to the challenges facing the city.”
As the window for filing for office inched to a close this week, Joy Schendledecker has been the only candidate to so far jump into the race against Keeley. His résumé, and likely his expected range of support, seem to be intimidating would-be opponents.
First elected in 1996 to three two-year terms in the California State Assembly representing the Monterey Bay area, he served as speaker pro tempore for three sessions — the longest-serving speaker pro tempore since the Legislature adopted term limits. Before that, he served as a county supervisor and after that as Santa Cruz city treasurer, completing his tenure in 2010.
Lookout caught up with Keeley in advance of Wednesday’s announcement at Lighthouse Point, where his skinny jeans, flashy tennis shoes, red velour jacket and pink-rimmed glasses belied the 72 years quantified by his birth certificate.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Lookout: Fred, why should you be the mayor of Santa Cruz?
Fred Keeley: There’s a lot going on in Santa Cruz right now. We’ve got the challenges of homelessness, affordable housing, drought-proofing our water system, getting a new neighborhood with affordable housing and retail and commercial and a permanent home for the Warriors and the long-range development plan with the University of California. We have a lot of very significant challenges. At the same time, we’re changing our structure of governance in the city of Santa Cruz, where we go from at-large elections to district elections for all the city council members and one person elected citywide to be the mayor. Perhaps my background as a county supervisor, county treasurer, state legislator, serving on nonprofit boards here, maybe that could be a useful set of skills for the next four years.
Lookout: Santa Cruz can be a very divided political environment. How can you bring it together?
Keeley: My basic assignment as speaker pro tem when I was in the Assembly was to take, whether it was the scandal in the Insurance Commissioner’s office — which I led the investigation that led to his resignation, which was a nonpartisan investigation, not just bipartisan, nonpartisan — or the challenge of California’s energy crisis in the early 2000s, where to get that problem solved, it needed to be, again, bipartisan at a minimum and ideally nonpartisan, as much as possible. When I came back from the legislature, the RTC asked me to be the convener of a transportation funding task force.
When Butch and Elizabeth were murdered, Hilary Bryant, who was mayor at the time, asked if I would head up a public safety task force. A couple of years ago, the city was wrestling with what the right things are to do with regard to resolving the complex issue of homelessness in our community. The city council asked me to convene that task force. So my experience in those venues may be a way I can help the policymakers from the city and the city councilmembers so we can work with each other in a collaborative way.
Lookout: What makes you able to bring people together for consensus rather than a fight?
Keeley: I prefer to think that my style is one of being a listener first and a talker second, someone who deeply respects deeply held views. Most people come to these issues with a fairly well-defined belief system themselves. [Former] Secretary of [State] (Leon) Panetta and I teach a class [at the Panetta Institute] entitled “Achieving consensus in a partisan environment.”
It’s a skills class we teach. One of the core features for us is, do you want to be a workhorse or a show horse? If you want to be a show horse, we don’t have much to teach you. You could probably go do that yourself. But if you want to be a workhorse, and really dive deep into these issues, for the purpose of finding where the sweet spot is — that is one of the phrases we use. How can you reach a principled compromise without ever asking a counterpart to compromise their principles? That assumes that we’re going to take the time to understand what the other person’s core values are. You can apply that on affordable housing and homelessness or drought-proofing our water system, etc. What if we each knew what each other’s values and principles were and we could stay away from asking each other to compromise and instead find a principled compromise? That’s finding the sweet spot. Whether it’s in community work here in Santa Cruz, or it’s larger work in Sacramento, whatever it might be — I think that works. That set of skills works well in advancing issues.
Lookout: What are some core characteristics that make you well-suited for this job?
Keeley: Having had the great fortune to be elected and be part of civic life for a long time, which taught me a lot of lessons about how to work with people.
Secondly, I think that the work that I continue to do to this day continues to refine those skills.
Third, I really like people — a lot. That doesn’t mean I like everything every time from every individual, but I love being around people. I love being part of a community that likes to be engaged, involved, and action-oriented. And that action-oriented piece is the piece that I’m particularly interested in. If the voters will elect me as the mayor. What I mean by that is there’s a time for putting various colored post-it notes on a whiteboard and visioning. And I think there’s going to be a number of new city councilmembers who will want to do that, and I respect that. But that should not be a substitute for actually accomplishing things. Trying doesn’t count. What counts is getting stuff done. And so my desire is to be a leader on our city council, to take the work that many people have done for decades, whether it is affordable housing, or other issues. We’ve spent a lot of time and deep listening and thinking about these things. What action have we reached consensus on so that action is what we’re about? I’m very interested in seeing if I can take several decades of consensus-building and work in the community and apply that like a laser beam to the challenges facing the city.
Lookout: You’ve said this wasn’t necessarily an easy decision to come to when you considered what it might mean for you and your wife, Barbara.
Keeley: When we went on vacation in Hawaii earlier this year, we had a couple of moments on the beach where I asked her to close her eyes and envision the parts of the job that might not be so pleasant. For example, there are folks who will want to express their views in ways other than showing up to city council. I remember this from being a county supervisor: You’re always doing the job. You go out to dinner, you go to the grocery store, you go to the beach, you go on a bike ride. Whatever you do, people feel it’s the right time to ask you something they’ve been wanting to ask. That’s part of the job. I know what it feels like, but she hasn’t lived in that environment before. She’s willing to give this a go.
Lookout: Public life has gotten more perilous in the social media age.
Keeley: It’s fair to say since I was last a policymaker, the public square has gotten somewhat more harsh. And that has to do with social media issues and anonymity that goes with that. And I wanted to make sure that worked for us as a couple. And it is because we’re going to manage it. I still believe in the principle of disagreeing without being disagreeable. So I’ll try to model the behavior that I hope will be directed at me by my behavior in interactions with other people. But I’m not naive about that.
Lookout: What worries you most about the time and challenges facing Santa Cruz right now?
Keeley: What I hope that we don’t do is overprocess every problem to death. There is a point in every issue and challenge where it’s time to act. You can’t let perfect be the enemy of good in making progress.