Who is Bud Colligan?

Santa Cruz philanthropist Bud Colligan
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The leader of the Measure D campaign has cut a big swath in Santa Cruz County as a high-profile philanthropist on big projects in housing, health care, science, education and the arts. As he’s become the point man for a trail-only option on Santa Cruz County’s coastal rail corridor, he’s also become a lightning rod in what’s become one of the most polarizing votes in memory.

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If Bud Colligan has goat horns coming out of his head or cloven hooves, he keeps it well hidden.

If he wears a halo and angel’s wings, he at least leaves those at home when he’s out in public.

It hardly qualifies as a thundering insight that Colligan — the Santa Cruz philanthropist-turned-political activist who may have become the single most polarizing figure in the ongoing Measure D blood feud — is neither devil nor angel. But with political vitriol and accusations of bad faith and nefarious motives flying in all directions this election season, it may be illuminating to take the measure of the man standing in the middle of the food fight.

Of course, such a task is a dodgy business in an environment like the one Santa Cruz County finds itself in these days. Elections often bring out the sharp knives in a community, but the fight over Measure D — a referendum on the fate of the 32-mile-long railroad line that runs across the county — has been especially ferocious. And Colligan has been the target of a lot of that ill will.

Colligan’s philanthropy, especially in the past decade, has been wide and extensive. His supporters and friends point to the many organizations and community assets that would not even exist without his largesse and his leadership, and that he has done tangible and lasting good in the community. They say he’s a strong leader with an impressive background and a sharp instinct for getting things done, motivated only by making life better for as many Santa Cruzans as possible.

His antagonists – many of whom admit they don’t know him personally – talk about a different guy, a hectoring and condescending bully, a Johnny-come-lately kazillionaire leveraging his wealth to act against the public interest for his own possibly mercenary reasons, a partisan Silicon Valley flim-flammer pushing deceptive claims and bulldozing long-established political consensus just because he can.

This kind of polarization is to be expected in an election season, but the criticism this year has often been downright operatic in its cynicism. Colligan has been caricatured as a Silicon Valley opportunist and accused, without evidence, of everything from profiteering to bribery. In an interview with Lookout, one Colligan critic called his more vocal friends and supporters “Colligan’s sock puppets.” Online, the criticism has been of the scorched-earth variety. One fine citizen, hiding behind a Reddit username, pronounced Colligan a “filthy rich sociopathic racist egomaniac.” On the other side, some have labeled those who oppose Colligan as “Trumpian,” which constitutes just about the most serious slur you can utter in this part of the world.

Before he established Greenway, the nonprofit devoted to building a public trail over the rail line, Colligan’s philanthropy was relatively uncontroversial. But Greenway, his support for Greenway executive director Manu Koenig’s successful race for county supervisor in 2020, and his leadership in putting Measure D on the ballot has thrust Colligan into a political sphere that has made him into a lightning rod for attack.

To the degree that Santa Cruz County is subject to knee-jerk anti-Silicon Valley bias or tribal suspicion of those outside long-established social/political networks, Colligan has been a useful foil. Still, those on the other side of Measure D insist that Colligan himself bears some responsibility for the bruises he has suffered. Supporters paint him as focused, energetic, hard-working, and decisive. But opponents say he is aggressive, vindictive, and willing to do anything to win.

Colligan’s friends are mystified by such talk, insisting he’s decent, kind, and well-grounded. Is one side, or the other, blind or dishonest? Or does your view of this particular man have only to do with which side of the rail-trail divide you happen to be standing on?

Colligan’s status as a lightning rod in the narrow circumstances of Measure D also brings up questions of what role a philanthropist is allowed to play in a community. Does his good work in other arenas earn him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to questioning his motives? What do we owe a private citizen using his own wealth to make life better for others – when so many other wealthy people don’t even bother? Gratitude, scrutiny, or both? And how does that equation change once that person enters the political arena?

We heard from a few people on both sides of the Measure D debate that writing about Colligan was a bad idea, that we should stick to the strict pros and cons of the issue, that “personalities” didn’t matter. In an ideal world, the fate of the corridor is the only thing that matters. But in the real world, this election and other elections are always about revealing Santa Cruz’s character, its values, its prejudices, and its social alliances.

Lookout believes that providing a better understanding of the protagonists behind these issues gives voters more context to make a more informed decision. So we do that and Monday, publishing stories on leaders of both groups. (Our story on No Way Greenway leaders Mark Mesiti-Miller and Melani Clark will appear tomorrow.)

And doing our best to answer the key question here: Who is Bud Colligan?

From Silicon Valley to Monterey Bay

Before he became a central player in Santa Cruz, Colligan, 67, had a long career in tech. A native Angeleno, he earned an undergrad degree from Georgetown University and a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford. In the early 1980s, he joined Apple, at the time not the tech industry death star it is today but still a scrappy dark horse in the battle for the home-computer market. He was part of the team that developed the Macintosh. Moving into the realm of education, Colligan at Apple directed a team that made a now-famous short film in Silicon Valley around a concept called “Knowledge Navigator,” a voice-activated software agent that prefigured Siri by two decades.

After leaving Apple, Colligan co-founded and served as CEO of Macromedia, a multimedia software company that developed a number of web tools and applications including the animation platform Flash, the video player Shockwave, and the once-popular web design tool Dreamweaver. After running Macromedia, he became an investor in tech startups and served as investor, board member and/or advisor for a number of companies including lynda.com, CNET, and Brightmail.

Colligan and his wife, Rebecca, came to Santa Cruz, buying their first home locally in 1996, while Colligan was still at Macromedia. They moved to Santa Cruz full time in 2012. Colligan’s family roots in the area, he said, go back 50 years. An older sister first came to UC Santa Cruz in 1971, triggering a series of family visits to the area. Later, a brother also moved to Santa Cruz, then another brother. Shortly after Bud and Rebecca Colligan came to Santa Cruz, his parents also moved to the area.

“My dad died in 2005 and his ashes are scattered right here on the coast,” said Colligan at an outdoor cafe in Santa Cruz. “I grew up in a big, loving, Catholic family. I went to a Jesuit high school and college [at Georgetown], and what I learned and how I grew up was to always give back to the community. My mother was very active in the St. Vincent De Paul Society.”

Santa Cruz philanthropist Bud Colligan
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

When Colligan turned to philanthropy, he didn’t go the traditional Catholic route of working through church charities. “I’m an entrepreneur,” he said. “I’m good at conceptualizing ideas and figuring out how to bring resources to bear to create something that needs to exist.”

Colligan’s path to Santa Cruz philanthropy began in 1998, when he co-founded Silicon Valley Community Ventures, which directed Silicon Valley venture capital, as well as training and mentoring, to small non-tech companies in the South Bay, a new model for investing at the time. That company enlarged its vision to the Central Coast and Monterey Bay and became Pacific Community Ventures in 2002.

PCV was not philanthropy, per se; investors expected a return on their money. But it set a tone for community engagement, as well as economic development work, that Colligan began in earnest in Santa Cruz County and the greater Monterey Bay. Over the course of the past decade, Colligan has been in near-constant motion, funding projects, providing direction and attention when asked, then turning over the reins to someone else, and moving on to the next project. The Colligans’ philanthropy has covered a wide range of areas: business development, health care, housing, research, education, the arts.

In some instances, Colligan set out to mobilize support for efforts that had failed before. The Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP), founded in 2015, was designed to bring together public, private and nonprofit entities in Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Benito counties to develop a larger-scale Monterey Bay focus on networking and sharing resources in areas like broadband, housing and job training. Its mission, in part: Break through what some perceived to be the narrow parochialism of the separate communities and encourage a sense of community and common purpose across the Monterey Bay region.

Kate Roberts first met Colligan when he asked her to gather data on the rail line; her research was the basis for the Greenway proposal. Later, she became president and CEO of MBEP. Roberts, who has since retired, pointed to a partnership between the nonprofit Housing Trust Silicon Valley and MBEP to work toward specific housing projects. She credited Colligan for playing a central role in making the partnership happen.

Bud is not one of these guys that’s gonna sit back and tell people what to do while sitting in the house and watching television.

— Greenway’s Robert Stephens

“He came up with the idea,” she said. “He fundraised for it, and he made that whole thing happen. There are housing projects in this county that would not be built without him — like seniors in Watsonville, a complex that was going to be torn down and all those seniors were going to be put on the street literally. And because of the housing trust fund and the work we did with the Silicon Valley Housing Trust, that project came to fruition and those people were saved. Sometimes in my job, I almost get teary, thinking how we were impacting people’s lives in an amazingly positive way. And that all comes back to Bud. I mean, it was his brainchild.”

Some of the projects carry the Colligan name, such as the home of Jewel Theatre Company at the Tannery Arts Center. The 182-seat Colligan Theater opened its doors in 2015.

Lance Linares spent 22 years as the executive director at Community Foundation Santa Cruz County before his retirement in 2017. Before that, he ran the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County and KUSP-FM. Linares said that before Colligan’s involvement, hopes for a new theater at the Tannery Arts Center were dim.

“They were dying over there,” he said. “They really had nobody who would fund that. Then Bud stepped up, and that’s a great thing. We never had a professional theater before. I was involved in about five studies on how to build a performing arts center in Santa Cruz; I can recite you chapter and verse on that subject. It was always a struggle. But now we have [the Colligan Theater].”

The Colligan Presidential Chair in Pediatric Genomics at UCSC provides the Treehouse Childhood Cancer center with an endowment that serves as a stable base of funding. The Colligan Clinical Diagnostic Lab, also at UCSC, was established to provide diagnostic research in pediatric cancer genomics, but was repurposed during the pandemic for rapid and widespread COVID-19 testing.

UCSC data scientist David Haussler was a central player in the Human Genome Project two decades ago and now leads the university’s Genomics Institute. Haussler said the Colligans’ gift of an endowed chair provides “longevity and stability. We know it’s always there. It’s not a year-to-year grant or renewal.”

The diagnostics lab was an entirely separate gift from the Colligans. UCSC was looking to contribute to testing soon after the pandemic shutdown, he said, as the county had limited testing capacity. “There was a massive national and international problem to crank up testing fast. And so, we put the word out that we were going to start up a COVID testing laboratory,” he said. “And again, Bud and Rebecca responded.”

It took six months to build the lab, “but once it was operational,” said Haussler, “we came on very hard and very fast. And it provided record turnarounds for test results.” In late 2021, the lab pivoted away from COVID testing back to its original mission, to focus again on pediatric cancer.

Other organizations Colligan was instrumental in funding include Digital NEST in Watsonville, Housing Matters, Santa Cruz Community Health, and Santa Cruz Works. The Colligans have established scholarships for first-generation students at Cabrillo College. According to the Community Foundation, the Colligans give plenty anonymously as well. “There have been major crises in this county where Bud and Rebecca are the first people I call, and they’re the first people to step up,” said Community Foundation CEO Susan True. “And, you know, I’m really moved by that.”

“Bud cares deeply about our community and about using the limited resources our community has in the best way possible,” said ally and friend Scott Roseman, the now-retired founder of New Leaf Community Markets. “And I think that it’s as simple as that. He doesn’t have to do all this. But he’s an altruistic individual. That’s what it comes right down to. He is passionate about doing the right thing.”

The (Green)way forward

A rendering of the proposed pedestrian/bike trail along the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line
(Via Santa Cruz County Greenway)

Also in the Colligan philanthropy/community betterment portfolio: Greenway, the aim of which was to propose, develop and advocate for a bike/walking trail along the county’s rail corridor as an alternative to the county’s Regional Transportation Commission’s already in-motion plan for a shared trail and light rail. Greenway brought Colligan into the local political realm in a way that no other project had. It turned out to be a fateful step away from a largely uncontroversial image as a philanthropist into a more contentious arena.

The fate of the rail line became a driving force in county politics when Greenway’s Manu Koenig, with Colligan’s high-profile support, launched an effort to unseat longtime incumbent John Leopold in the race for the 1st District County Supervisor race in 2020.

Koenig first met Colligan in 2013 at an event hosted by Koenig’s civic-engagement start-up Civinomics. The two later joined forces at Greenway, where Koenig was briefly executive director. Koenig said it was after the passage of the Greenway-supported Measure L in Capitola, in 2018 – which required the RTC to keep the proposed trail along the Capitola trestle and not to re-route the walking path through the village – that Koenig decided to run for supervisor.

“When we saw that even after passing that ballot initiative, some elected officials weren’t going to change their minds,” he said, “it was going to become necessary for me to run myself.”

Koenig said it was his own idea to run, but Colligan had been an early supporter. “He was certainly encouraging,” said Koenig of Colligan. “He just emphasized to me early on how much work I would have to do in planning that campaign and encouraged me to get started.” Bud and Rebecca Colligan both supported Koenig’s campaign with the maximum allowable monetary contributions, according to state finance records.

Colligan has played a much more central role in the Measure D campaign than he did in the Koenig campaign, during which he was serving as an advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom in Sacramento, say both Koenig and Colligan.

Significantly, many of the mudslinging themes of the Koenig-Leopold race — lethargic complacent government inaction vs. arrogant Silicon Valley-financed bulldozing of the political process — have reemerged and metastasized in the 2022 Measure D battle.

“He and his group have basically wanted to intercept the public process and insert their vision into the system,” said Casey Beyer, the CEO of the Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce. “And that upsets a lot of people.”

Beyer himself has experience in Silicon Valley and said that, in the Measure D fight, Colligan was stuck between two worlds, between two conceptions of time.

“[In Silicon Valley,] the pace permeates the community, in terms of ‘I’ve got a top technology tool that I’ve got to get to market within 12 to 18 months, or I’m going to be eaten alive.’ That’s just the nature of Silicon Valley,” said Beyer. “While [in Santa Cruz,] it’s more laid back, ‘Well, we’ll work it out, but we just want to surf and ride our bikes to the beach.’”

The heady, breakneck speed at which the Colligan Lab at UCSC was built and made operational didn’t apply to the rail-trail debate.

“I have never seen, in all my years here, an issue that means so little that takes so much community capital,” said Lance Linares. In his time at the Community Foundation, Linares saw many good-hearted citizens who made their wealth in the private sector get frustrated by the nature of the public sector. “You’ll always get these high-powered guys in there, thinking, ‘Oh, no, we have to do something different.’ But it’s like turning around an aircraft carrier. You just can’t do it quickly as a nonprofit, and government is even more complex. So these guys in the private sector get in there and say, ‘Hey, let’s go. This is ridiculous,’ and it gets very frustrating.”

Colligan himself is frustrated: “If there’s one thing people should learn about this contentious debate going on right now about the future of the rail corridor, it’s this: When people in power don’t listen to legitimate input on projects and plans, and cover everything up with sticky-note public meetings, then people get polarized. And the reason you don’t listen to input is because you have political power, and it’s all or nothing, not, ‘Hey, that’s a really good piece of input that will improve our plan.’”

One term often applied to wealthy philanthropists exerting their will in the community that certainly does not apply to Colligan is “shadowy.” Colligan has been front and center in campaigning for Measure D, engaging the media, showing up at debates and meetings. He’s given presentations to elected officials and committees, faced off with No-on-D partisans in radio debates. He even rides around town on his bicycle with a giant “Yes on D” sign. This weekend, he is out canvassing neighborhoods.

The defunct Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line runs alongside a recently completed section Rail Trail corridor
The defunct Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line runs alongside a recently completed section of the trail portion of the Rail Trail corridor through Santa Cruz. Whether commuter trains will ever run next to the trail is core to the Measure D debate.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Colligan has invested more than money (“Measure D: The latest on who’s funding each campaign, visualized”) and time in the Greenway battle; he’s staked his reputation on it. Why, with so many commitments in other critical arenas like housing, health care and jobs, has he spent so much equity on a recreational trail?

Colligan is convinced that a trail across Santa Cruz County similar to the one in Monterey County would be “transformative for our community in a way that almost no other project is, for health, safety, transportation, free recreation, free socialization, places to walk your dog.”

Some Colligan critics contend that the Measure D debate is less about the merits of his plan and more about a rich guy trying to buy his way around democratic consensus. Colligan flatly dismisses ideas that he’s a win-at-all-costs opportunist.

“At the end of the day,” he said of the Measure D outcome June 7, “if the people say that’s not what they want, that’s all we ever wanted to know. We felt it was, but maybe it’s not. And if it’s not, godspeed.”

For all his philanthropy and work to positive social ends, Colligan has still had to face accusations that Greenway is a profiteering move, that he is philosophically hostile to public transportation, that he is an elitist indifferent to working people, and even more lurid charges. He and his supporters regard such allegations as smears. His aggressive, sometimes combative style in the political arena has led people to label him condescending and vindictive. Critics say that whatever mischaracterizations and attacks he has suffered, he has returned in kind.

If he gets disenfranchised, and says, ‘Look, you’ve got this entrenched, highly opinionated group of people and if you don’t agree with them, they’ll cancel you or whatever,’ that would be a huge loss for us all.

— David Haussler, UCSC data scientist

As a board member of Friends of the Rail & Trail (FORT), Barry Scott is on the opposite side of Colligan on the Measure D issue. Scott said he does not know Colligan personally, but has watched him closely during the campaign. Scott said Colligan and Greenway are applying lessons and tactics of the tech world in the realm of local politics, which he feels is not respectful to the public process.

“That tech sector thing says, ‘rapid prototype, build, build, build, get government out of the way, let us take care of it,’” said Scott. “In some ways, it’s a libertarian approach, a business-first approach and government gets in the way of that kind of business model. That approach says, ‘attack your enemy, kill your enemy, and when they get up again, you need to kill them, kill them twice.’ I just wish he wasn’t so successful at it.”

Though he says he’s become a “reluctant fan” of Colligan’s tenacity, Scott still views the philanthropist with a jaundiced eye, holding him responsible for much of the incivility spewing forth from social media. “There’s a fleet of bullies on that side that he could rein in, if he cared to,” said Scott, who himself has been slammed as a “fanatic” and “petroleum lobbyist.” “He’s certainly condoning it and supporting it and kind of boosting it without taking advantage of it specifically.”

James Weller is a land-title specialist who participated in the sale of the rail line to the RTC. He is also a frequent and vocal critic of Greenway and Measure D through guest commentaries and letters to the editor in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Weller has accused Greenway of being a “dark money” and propaganda organization and a get-rich scheme for wealthy landowners. He said Colligan represents a “private sector attack on a public asset.”

Weller said that Colligan e-mailed him the day after one of his commentaries appeared in the Sentinel with what Weller said constituted a threat. The email, which Weller provided to Lookout, was a point-by-point refutation of Weller’s original column. “This is not a simple issue regarding a difference of opinion; this is an issue of libel,” said Colligan in the email.

“So I looked at that as a threat, and I don’t take threats lightly,” said Weller.

To such criticism, Colligan is defiant, and he is plainly exasperated at charges of bullying and intimidation: “I haven’t built a reputation over 40 years of my working life to be condescending, or [whatever they say about me]. Talk to people at [venture capital firm] Accel Partners or lynda.com. Go talk to any of these startups I’ve been on the board of, go look at all the references on LinkedIn that people have posted who’ve worked with me for a long period of time. Go talk to other people that I’ve worked with on philanthropic projects. To me, that’s 95% of who I am. Not the 5% from [critics] that I’ve never worked with on a project.”

Santa Cruz philanthropist Bud Colligan
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Colligan’s allies and supporters range from puzzled to furious at the caricatures that have emerged of Colligan, particularly on social media. Considering everything he has done in so many other realms, said friend Margie Erickson, “it makes me so angry that we even have to be defending him.”

“He’s a natural born leader,” said friend and long-time Santa Cruz philanthropist Rowland Rebele. “Here’s a guy who’s willing to be totally out front and express his viewpoint. He’s just fearless. And that’s the reason I think that he gets the flak, because he is the frontman, and he’s not embarrassed to be the frontman.”

“I am a sucker for people who want to give to a lot of different things,” said Lance Linares. “At a certain point, to question their motives is somewhat hypocritical. Somebody gives to a church. Is it for the salvation of their soul? Why do people give? It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, he has an agenda. He’s going to do that or that,’ but I think if you did a little map of where he has given, you’d be hard pressed to trace it back to anything having to do with this rail-trail thing. He clearly cares about the environment. He clearly cares about people.”

“Yeah, he’s a bit of Type A personality,” said Greenway’s Robert Stephens. “I’m not like that. I’m more laid back. But you need people like him to get things done…. Bud is not one of these guys that’s gonna sit back and tell people what to do while sitting in the house and watching television.”

UCSC’s Haussler said that the vitriol over Measure D aimed at Colligan is “another self-inflicted wound” in Santa Cruz. “To put up with Santa Cruz and all its craziness is actually something,” said Haussler. “Bud and Rebecca have a sensible but very generous and very forward-thinking view of things. And if he gets disenfranchised, and says, ‘Look, you’ve got this entrenched, highly opinionated group of people and if you don’t agree with them, they’ll cancel you or whatever,’ that would be a huge loss for us all.”

Colligan is reflective when asked what he’s going to do after Measure D passes, or fails.

“I’m going to be 68 years old this year,” he said. “I want to spend more time with my family and my friends, working on positive things. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m going to let this play out and enjoy the journey.”

Despite the ugliness of the campaign, Colligan can see the value of what has been a bruising experience: “Where do your deepest friendships come from? I’ve found in my life that my deepest relationships, other than family, come from shared struggles, shared achievements, shared tasks of building organizations, working together to make the world better. I really don’t dwell on all this negativity. I focus on that.”

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