Joy and Fred: A mayor’s race in high contrast

Santa Cruz mayoral candidates Joy Schendledecker (left) and Fred Keeley.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The immediately apparent differences between career politician Fred Keeley and political newcomer Joy Schendledecker deepen as they begin to talk about their platforms in the campaign for Santa Cruz mayor. Keeley, with nearly three decades of public office experience behind him, takes a more traditional approach to addressing the city’s most pressing needs. Schendledecker, an artist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America who came to Santa Cruz in 2015, speaks of the necessity of paradigm shifts she thinks the city needs.

The gulf between Santa Cruz’s two mayoral candidates begins to reveal itself in the first five minutes of meeting each.

In the tradition of career politicians, Fred Keeley, the career politician, welcomes visitors to his noon table on the patio of Kianti’s on Pacific Avenue, a downtown haunt he’s frequented “two to three times per week” since 2005. A pair of metallic pink fishbowl eyeglasses and a shiny pair of orange and white Air Jordan 1 Mid sneakers bookend his day’s outfit and speak to a levity the former state assemblymember carries. Keeley, who doesn’t eat his pizza crust, calls the server by name and the server, Berto, knows what he drinks. “The Fred” is cranberry juice, club soda, three drops of raspberry syrup, shaken together in a cocktail mixer and strained into a martini glass with a lemon slice garnish. The mocktail suffices on this October afternoon as Keeley is a teetotaler.

Joy Schendledecker arrives for a 10 a.m. at Cafe Delmarette on her stormy blue e-bike, a campaign yard sign sticking out from the bike’s cargo area as if it were a flag. “JOY” fills out much of the sign, with a rose placed at the center of the “O,” indicating her ties to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Schendledecker, wearing a California Starbucks Workers United T-shirt, is barely able to dismount before she is approached for a light conversation by a man on the street wearing a tie-dyed backpack. Before she makes it inside to order her chai tea latte and pear and cardamom scone, she recognizes a fellow cafegoer as the singer in a local band. They make plans to talk about a gig at an upcoming Santa Cruz for Bernie election event.

The surface-level disparities only deepen when the candidates discuss how they would lead as Santa Cruz’s first directly elected mayor in the brand-new era of district-based city council representation.

Keeley, 72, says his résumé promises a steady hand in guiding the city through this transition into a new form of local governance. His career as an elected official began in 1988 after a successful run for Santa Cruz County Supervisor. Eight years later, Keeley rose to the seat of state assemblymember, where he served until 2005. After leaving Sacramento, voters here elected him to two terms as Santa Cruz County’s treasurer, a post he held until his retirement in 2015.

“I didn’t know I wanted to be mayor until three months ago,” Keeley said, seated in the garden of his yellow Victorian-style home one late afternoon in October. After voters in June agreed to amend the city charter and go from seven at-large city council members to six district-based city council members and an at-large mayor, he began receiving calls from key community members. They urged him to run, saying his government experience could help in what could be a rocky transition.

For Schendledecker, a 47-year-old artist, mother and community organizer, her mayoral campaign is her introduction to electoral politics. As a DSA member, she began working in community organizing in 2020. After it was clear the city was moving toward district-based city council representation, she set her sights on the District 3 seat; however, District 3’s election was pushed back to 2024. Then she noticed no one had challenged Keeley for mayor.

“We were facing just having one candidate and then that person just gets appointed,” said Schendledecker, who arrived in Santa Cruz in 2015 after her husband, T.J. Demos, received a professorship in art history and visual culture at UC Santa Cruz. “I thought about it for two weeks and met with my campaign team, and ultimately I just decided to do it.

Keeley and Schedledecker sat down with Lookout to discuss where they stand on a range of issues, from housing and development to homelessness and the two major measures on the ballot.

Housing and development

Keeley sees the ramp-up in major development projects — such as the Six Blocks redevelopment along Front Street, and the proposal to redevelop the neighborhood south of Laurel Street as part of a downtown expansion, featuring a new Warriors arena and early proposals for tall residential buildings — as progress, especially as the city faces a state mandate to plan for 3,736 new housing units by 2031.

“The Six Blocks development and the south of Laurel project in the new downtown is our opportunity to literally and figuratively grow up as a community,” Keeley said. “You need to go into your urban core and make it what urban cores are: a place for density and height.”

Santa Cruz mayoral candidate Fred Keeley
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

However, Keeley says the challenge is for the city to add to its affordable housing stock through these major redevelopment projects. He wants to see the city council move away, when it can, from allowing developers to pay a fee in lieu of building affordable housing onsite. Keeley also said he would oppose any project with 15- or 17-story residential towers, such as those outlined in early proposals for the downtown expansion project.

Schendledecker talks of the need for a paradigm shift in local housing development where projects feature higher percentages of onsite affordable housing, as opposed to the conservative 10-20% seen today. To start, she wants to get rid of the fee-in-lieu program.

“The whole ‘pencil out’ argument drives me crazy. We hear this over and over again from the YIMBY networks that projects have to ‘pencil out’ for the developers,” Schendledecker said. “What’s not penciling out is our economic and housing crises. It’s not penciling out for the community.”

Schendledecker also opposes 15- and 17-story residential towers, and wants to see the city take a more active role in real estate and pursue ordinances that would give the government the right of first refusal on foreclosed properties, as well as prioritize city-owned lots for affordable housing projects. Keeley also sees an opportunity for the city to become more of an active partner on affordable housing projects through use of city-owned lots.


“It’s the modern stain on our country that the richest country in the world cannot figure out a way out of the homelessness crisis,” Keeley said. “Nor one of the richest communities in the richest state in the world’s richest country.”

Keeley said the statistics on the low number of people willing to move from outdoors into a shelter or sanctioned encampment are telling. While the county is responsible for offering services to people experiencing homelessness, Keeley sees the city’s role as responsible for building facilities. He called the oversized vehicle ordinance “seriously flawed” and said he supports the Benchlands clearing as long as the city can provide a safe shelter for people to move into.

“If elected, my desire is to publicly negotiate an affordable housing bond for 2024,” Keeley said. The bond, in his mind, would finance affordable housing construction and the “brick and mortar” response to homelessness. He wants to see an expansion of the Housing Matters facility on Coral Street into a campus for homeless care. Keeley sees the city’s responsibility in homelessness response — construction of facilities — as distinct from the county’s — providing services and health care.

Schendledecker strongly opposes the Benchlands clearing and says the city has failed to provide options for people experiencing homelessness.

“Sweeping people is never the answer,” said Schendledecker, who also criticized the city and county for failing to provide adequate and safe living spaces for the local homeless community.

She wants to see each neighborhood step up and negotiate, through a community process, new homelessness service facilities, whether it is a camp, shelter, navigation center or permanent supportive housing.

“I think communities need to step up and say, ‘These are our neighbors, and they are part of our community, too,’” Schendledecker said. However, she acknowledged the challenge between the issue’s divisiveness and its urgency, and said the city could eventually need to use a stronger hand in deciding where homeless response services will be set up.

Measures O and N

Keeley is refusing to publicly endorse a position on either ballot measure coming before city of Santa Cruz voters; however, he said as a voter he plans to cast a no vote on both.

Measure O seeks to upend the city council-approved downtown mixed-use library project that would put a new library development with affordable housing and parking on the current site of the downtown farmers market. Supporters of Measure O want to keep the library’s downtown branch and the downtown farmers market where they are, and require to the “maximum extent feasible” permanent affordable housing on eight other existing city-owned parking lots downtown.

Keeley prefers the “affordable housing birds in the hand as opposed to the promise of a hamburger to be paid for on Tuesday for a hamburger today.” In other words, the existing plan for the downtown library mixed-use project guarantees affordable housing already. For Keeley, that’s a win.

He will vote against Measure N, the annual tax of up to $6,000 on housing units that are occupied less than 120 days out of the year.

“If you line up economists from the left, right and center, and ask what are the features of a good tax, they will all agree on three things: low rate, broad base and ease of administration. That’s why sales and property taxes work,” Keeley said. “For this, the rate is too high, the base is too narrow and the administration is not simple.”

Santa Cruz mayoral candidate Joy Schendledecker
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Schendledecker said she will support both measures. She came out early in support of Measure N as a way to pull revenue from underused properties in the midst of a housing affordability crisis. If Schendledecker is elected mayor and Measure N fails, she vows to keep the conversation alive at the city council level.

On Measure O, the decision to support the reimagined downtown project came after some thought.

“The argument for the [existing plan’s] affordable housing is really compelling and we do need it,” Schendledecker said. “But you have to look at the bigger picture and all the development that’s happening downtown.”

Stances — hard and soft

Schendledecker considers herself a “pragmatic ice cream socialist.” When talking about the issues, she admits she has ideals that aren’t necessarily hard-line stances.

“I’m a realist now that I’m middle-aged,” Schendledecker said. She considers her mayoral run as part of a larger “working-class movement” that aims to improve the lives of the majority of Santa Cruzans: the “underpaid and overworked, tenants, essential workers, teachers, nurses, students, young people, people who care.”

When Schendledecker moved to Santa Cruz in 2015, her family bought a multimillion-dollar, multifamily property on the Westside, the sale of which displaced existing tenants — something she readily acknowledges but said she didn’t know at the time.

“The house was going to sell no matter what; I don’t know if there was anything we could have done differently,” Schendledecker said in an interview, but then followed up with some clarifying thoughts in an email. “Technically, owning a house doesn’t make someone not working class, since they probably still don’t own the means of production, but it is important to acknowledge that it probably corresponds with privilege (more money, more security).”

Keeley has been criticized for playing both sides in some of the more contested elections this cycle. Although he hasn’t publicly endorsed a position in either measure through declaration, he has, sort of, with his wallet. He donated $250 to the Yes on O campaign, and $500 to the No on O campaign, according to the most recent campaign finance filings.

Keeley also endorsed both Justin Cummings and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson in the June primary race for District 3 supervisor. Cummings and Kalantari-Johnson survived the primary and are now facing off in the general election — Keeley informed both that he would make no further endorsements in that race.

“[A double endorsement] is not unusual for me,” Keeley said. “I’m with my friends and I’ve got friends on both sides. This is part of me not wanting to bigfoot my way into the mayor’s race.”