Quick Take:

Even as politicians from President Joe Biden on down flocked to tour storm-ravaged areas of Santa Cruz County, Fred Keeley steered clear of the photo ops, with Santa Cruz’s mayor saying he’s keeping his powder dry for when the city needs a strong advocate during the rebuilding phase.

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A Q&A with Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley

With the unceasing rain, the atmospheric rivers in January brought to Santa Cruz County a storm of media cameras, bigwig politicians, and the eyes and fleeting sympathies of the nation. President Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom toured Capitola and Seacliff State Beach, and ate Marianne’s Ice Cream; Federal Emergency Management Agency head Deanne Criswell viewed coastline damage with her own eyes; Rep. Jimmy Panetta trekked up to the mountains and Watsonville; Sen. John Laird toured a soaked Soquel Village.

Each dignitary had their own gaggles in tow, which often included local officials, from county supervisors to local mayors and emergency responders. Notably omitted from any of the photo ops was one of the most well-known politicians in the region, Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley.

Keeley, a longtime state assemblymember and Santa Cruz County supervisor, was sworn in as Santa Cruz’s first directly elected mayor on Dec. 13, adding yet another chapter to his more than 50-year career in the public sector. Keeley’s penchant for visibility in the community was what made his absence from the cameras during the storm so notable, even raising questions about his health (Keeley had a brief hospital stay in December).

It might come as no surprise that Keeley says this was calculated.

“This was an intentional decision. It wasn’t like I just chose to be lazy,” he told Lookout. “And no one has called me and wondered, ‘Hey mayor, why aren’t you out there doing something?’”

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Lookout: So where were you during the media frenzy following the storm? We had the president and governor in town, our congressman, and the head of FEMA.

Keeley: I told [Rep. Jimmy Panetta] this, I said, “You’re not going to hear from me, and I’m not going to be in photo shoots. The camera lights are going to turn off, the news stories will stop, and we’re going to enter a period of a year to 15 months where we’re going to be arguing with FEMA over whether a culvert was crushed by the storm or had been previously damaged. That’s when you’re going to hear from me.”

Lookout: People seem to think, considering your long reputation in public office, that your face represents more than just the city of Santa Cruz, but the whole region. So they were surprised to not see you on TV during all of this.

Keeley: Well, I’ve got to stay in my lane on that. I think that’s a bad look. The use of my 50 years of experience is what I focus in on [as] mayor, not to say that I have this collection of offices — so, today, I’m going to act like the speaker pro tem of the state assembly because the governor is here. Yeah, I’ve got to stay in my lane. There is something to be said for some level of humility. This was an intentional decision. It wasn’t like I just chose to be lazy. And no one has called me and wondered, “Hey mayor, why aren’t you out there doing something?”

Santa Cruz mayoral candidate Fred Keeley
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Lookout: People I’ve spoken with were just curious about your whereabouts considering your reputation here. What would you say to them?

Keeley: Well, my direct response to that is that my experience told me that, No. 1, we weren’t a good visual. We’re probably going to have $25 million worth of damage but none of it was what I call sexy visuals that evoke sympathy and compassion for our community. No. 2, I’ve been through enough of these that I know that when the city of Santa Cruz really needs help is between six months and a year and a half from now. And we have established relationships with our congressman, our state legislative delegation, U.S. senators and the vice president.

Lookout: What is the next phase for repairs and, more specifically, for West Cliff Drive?

Keeley: There are really three pieces to this. The first phase was in the heat of the moment, just trying to protect the public from what was happening on West Cliff — closing it off, keeping the public from going down there to watch the waves. The second phase is a complete and accurate assessment of the citywide damage, which is more or less completed. Now, we’re sort of in phase 2.5, getting into phase 3. The city has a West Cliff adaptation plan, and that will become the basis of conversation in Santa Cruz, both public and private, about what we’re going to be doing on a permanent basis.

The question of whether it’s a one-way or two-way street, or whether it’s closed to local traffic only is the public use discussion around the actual roadway. Then there is the conversation about the actual cliff. This third piece is going to take some time. It’s not a storm repair that we’re going to do here. This isn’t replacing some base rock, asphalt and putting up a guardrail and calling it a day. It’s more than that.

Over the past decade, Christopher Neely has built a diverse journalism résumé, spanning from the East Coast to Texas and, most recently, California’s Central Coast.Chris reported from Capitol Hill...