Manu Koenig at a park.
Manu Koenig defeated John Leopold in the hotly contested First Supervisorial District race for Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Politics

Who is Manu? Winner of 2020’s most-watched local political race prepares to step in

For the record, it’s MAH-noo, not MAN-noo. However it’s pronounced, Manu Koenig’s name now has a new currency in Santa Cruz County politics, one shaped in part by a cyclist-architect grandfather, a Massachusetts boarding school and a background in tech.

The campaign yard sign is an imperfect medium to convey a lot of information. After name, image, office, a reminder to vote, and maybe a simple slogan, a candidate is pretty much out of available real estate for nuance or detail.

When the 2020 campaign season began to heat up, voters in Santa Cruz County’s First Supervisorial District may have known only two things about the man who is now their supervisor-elect — at least from his impressive yard-sign penetration in (and, occasionally, even outside of) the mid-county district that includes Live Oak, Soquel, and slivers of Santa Cruz, Capitola, and Scotts Valley. They knew his placid, confident grin. And they knew his unusual first name.

The yard signs, however, didn’t tell you how to pronounce that name. Manu Koenig is generally tolerant of the diverse ways people say it. For the record, it’s MAH-noo, not MAN-noo, from the Polynesian word for “bird.” As for his family name, the precise pronunciation may elude those who aren’t familiar with German vowels, but KOH-nig works just fine.

However it’s pronounced, Manu Koenig’s name now has a new currency in Santa Cruz County political circles after his decisive 14-percentage-point victory over three-term incumbent John Leopold on Nov. 3. Koenig will take office in January, ending the reign of the Board of Supervisors’ longest-serving member.

At 35, Koenig will be the youngest on the five-member board. Demographic math alone suggests that he represents a generational shift. But, his First District constituents — as well as many across Santa Cruz County — may well wonder if he also represents a shift in worldview, in priorities, in political orientation.

Younger politicians often emerge in the political arena on the pillowy wings of “new ideas” and “fresh blood,” and Koenig is no different. “He’s a new thinker,” said former Capitola mayor Gayle Ortiz, an early Koenig supporter. “I was struck by his ability to think in a completely different way about a lot of old problems.”

Koenig and his fiancée, Leah Myers, live near East Cliff Village Shopping Center which, he admits, is a kind of commercial dead zone.

“It’s heck of a lot of parking lot,” he said. “Half of the businesses there are gone. The Dollar Store is the best thing we got going . . . except on Sundays. That’s when the farmer’s market is there. And, to me, it’s one of the best cultural events in the entire county. It’s my favorite farmer’s market, because it feels like a village. And I’d like it to be like that every day. Work with the neighbors and the businesses, and create a plan that makes it a permanent village square.”

New to office, not to politics

But new political faces also serve as blank spaces on which others can project their own assessments. In the supervisor’s race, Koenig was characterized in a number of unflattering ways, particularly across social media, as a NIMBY, a tool of real-estate developers, a soulless techie, a libertarian opportunist.

Though he is relatively young and had never run for elected office before this year, Koenig is no newcomer to Santa Cruz politics. After graduating from Stanford, he co-founded a start-up in Santa Cruz called Civinomics in 2011. Civinomics was designed as a platform to crowd-source political ideas among the electorate ultimately to put on the ballot or before political decision-makers. He also spearheaded Measure L in Capitola in 2018, to protect access for pedestrian and bicyclists on the picturesque Capitola Trestle (the measure passed). And he served as the CEO of Greenway, an advocacy organization pushing for a bike/pedestrian-only trail on the rail corridor that runs the length of Santa Cruz County.

Manu Koenig listens to a future constituent shortly after winning election on Nov. 3.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Thanks in part to his high-profile advocacy for the trail-only position in defiance of the Regional Transportation Commission’s consideration of train and light-rail options in the corridor, Koenig’s race with Leopold at times felt like a one-issue campaign. Still, he says now, housing and homelessness remain his top priorities as he prepares to take office. He admits that his mandate to lead may be at odds with his own political impulses.

“My role and what the county needs from me right now is actually different from my personality. Generally speaking, I’m someone who tries to absorb as much information as I can before speaking or acting, and I do generally try to listen before making a decision. But in this case, what the county needs from me is action, is to be an initiating supervisor, someone who puts new plans and proposals before the board.”

My role and what the county needs from me right now is actually different from my personality. Generally speaking, I’m someone who tries to absorb as much information as I can before speaking or acting. . . . But in this case, what the county needs from me is action.

— Manu Koenig

Koenig’s colorful and complex family story in Santa Cruz County began in 1960, the year his paternal grandfather, George Koenig, made the U.S. Olympic team as a cyclist. That same year, George and his wife purchased a large piece of hilly redwood-laden acreage near Corralitos.

Despite owning the Corralitos property, George Koenig raised his family in Munich, Germany, and later in Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe where he worked as an architect. George’s son Nicholas — Manu Koenig’s father — became an artist, working in comic books early on, then as a concept artist in the early days of computer graphics, even designing theme parks and other entertainment products.

Nicholas and his Tahitian-born wife Purea had three children — Manu the oldest — and lived in Los Angeles and Marin County before moving for good to the Corralitos site in the late 1980s.

“It’s a very creative, freethinking family,” said longtime family friend Sarah Marra. “All of them take in what they need to see, then do something interesting and creative with that information.”

In his pre-adolescent years, Manu Koenig attended nearby Mount Madonna School where he participated heavily in theater and the performing arts. He spent his childhood years bouncing between the remote mountainous environment of Corralitos and his grandfather’s house near the ocean. At the same time, he was maintaining connections with his mother’s family in Tahiti, including a beloved great-grandmother.

Later, he attended Aptos Junior High. But, at 13, he said, he was looking for a way out. “Part of the reason was because I wanted to get away from the liberal drug culture that we still see in our high schools now.”

The boarding school years . . .

He set his sights on Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in western Massachusetts, where his maternal grandfather had been educated in the 1950s. “I loved it,” he said of his Deerfield experience. “It was always my own choice. People always ask, ‘Did you do something wrong? Were you sent away? Was it all boys? No, it was co-ed. It was a great opportunity at a young age to be your own person.”

Nicholas Koenig said the rigorous curriculum and lifestyle at Deerfield shaped his son’s ambitions and values profoundly. “It gave him a framework, and some tools, to apply himself to breaking down a problem and finding a solution. To this day, that’s one of his strongest qualities. You can drop him into any situation and he’s able to break it down into what he knows and what he doesn’t know, then study the things he doesn’t know until he can create a picture, a better understanding of what’s going on, and to thrive in that situation.”

“Manu was ready to try anything,” said his grandfather George, the former Olympian who, at 85, still regularly bikes around Santa Cruz. “We were always amazed when we were hiking in the Sierras, he would just jump off big rocks into the lake. He always had a lot of courage and pluck.”

Information about not-for-profits in Santa Cruz County, compiled by the Lookout newsroom.

“His education was expensive,” said dad Nicholas Koenig, “and we had to work really hard. It was always a partnership between him and us, his parents, for him to do that. We agreed to pay for it as long as he agreed to work hard and get grades good enough to qualify for financial aid. We weren’t wealthy enough to have the money to send him outright. I busted my ass to do that, so I kind of bristle a little bit when people throw the elitist card at him. That’s really not what it was at all.”

At Stanford, Koenig studied management science and engineering, but eventually earned a degree in German Studies. Then came a six-month internship in Germany where he worked at Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national railway, an irony considering Koenig’s reputation during the supervisor race as the anti-rail candidate (“I love trains,” he protested.)

“We were all surprised when he came back to Santa Cruz,” said George Koenig. But he did come back, eventually founding Civinomics, an effort to more accurately measure and act on political ideas from the electorate. The ideals of direct democracy implicit in Civinomics soon gave way to the reality of the nature of online political discussions. “People are so vicious to each other online,” said Koenig, “and we saw that get worse and worse.” Eventually Civinomics moved closer to being a polling firm.

For Koenig, a conviction borne out of the Civinomics experiment is that democracy as it’s practiced today is not very representative of the electorate as a whole. Public outreach, he said, is too often “only talking to people willing to show up at a public meeting. It doesn’t include working families, families with kids. It’s not representative. You’re talking about creating a jury out of people willing to show up at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday. That’s not a fair trial.”

Manu Koenig in mask, waves.
Amid COVID-19, Manu Koenig took a shoe leather, with social distancing, approach to courting voters on the campaign trail.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

High-profile supporters

Santa Cruz-based entrepreneur and activist Bud Colligan was one of Koenig’s most high-profile supporters during the supervisor campaign. Colligan first hired Koenig during the Civinomics period to do some surveying to learn why locals were commuting over the hill to San Jose. Colligan said that Koenig’s win represents a triumph for more representative politics. “In Santa Cruz, the loudest voices continue to dominate the political arena, and they not representative,” he said.

For a guy with a reputation as a technologist, Koenig is also a big believer in face-to-face interaction over the online kind, even doing door-to-door canvassing in the age of COVID. “I thought, I can’t go knocking on doors. People are going to be scared at that, and I didn’t want to scare people. But I found it was quite the opposite and they were happy for the visit.”

In addition to tackling the intractable problems of the county, Koenig may have to address lingering resentment from his campaign’s biggest misstep. In October, a cartoon depicting John Leopold with imagery many took to be anti-Semitic appeared in Koenig’s campaign material. “I have no one but myself to blame for that,” he said.

As for his political orientation, Koenig is clearly not comfortable planting a flag as a progressive. He prefers the term “centrist.” “I believe in both climate science and economic science,” he said in a line he used often during the campaign. “I believe that swinging between socialism and fascism is not going to do our society any good.”

Koenig’s fiancée, Leah Myers, said the couple’s wedding plans have been postponed due to the pandemic. But, she said, she’ll push him to find time in the outdoors, a passion they share, from hiking in the Sierras to surfing at Pleasure Point (they keep boards at George Koenig’s house to surf The Hook or Privates).

“There are going to be some obstacles ahead,” she said. “When Manu gets frustrated, instead of sitting down and giving up, he kind of draws a line around an obstacle and figures out the circuitous route to the next solution, the Plan B, the Plan C. Maybe you have to deviate from the original plan to figure out the next step, but he is always propelled forward.”