Mayor Fred Keeley? The county’s most veteran politico is considering a run for Santa Cruz mayor — here’s why

Fred Keeley at Michael's on Main for the No On D watch party.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Fred Keeley has been living and breathing politics since he wandered into the nation’s capital at age 22 a half-century ago. Might he be the person to help the city of Santa Cruz wade through a tricky time for local governance? His supporters hope and believe so.

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Nothing is official or a given yet, but Santa Cruz’s first mayor to be elected to a four-year term could well be its most familiar political face. Fred Keeley, the 72-year-old politico who first arrived here in 1977, is on the brink of stepping up.

Should that happen, and it will likely happen soon, it would be hard to find a more overqualified pairing of person and job, unless Steve Kerr were to somehow end up coaching the Santa Cruz Warriors next season.

On Tuesday, city voters, subject to final voting tallies, gave a big thumbs-up to Measure E, electing a mayor, after years of seeing one of the seven city council members rotate into the position for a year at a time.

The new district voting structure, adopted to avoid a costly lawsuit creates a six-district form of governance that includes a four-year mayor. That mayor, to be elected in November, would work with the six council members, each representing one of six districts in the city.

That’s a lot of change for a city grappling with lots of problems, and those who are following the city’s challenges closest say that this moment cries out for experience and a steady hand.

“This is not a job for a novice,“ says Cynthia Mathews, who along with Mike Rotkin, is among the all-time leaders of the Santa Cruz City Council with six terms of service.

Fred Keeley is the opposite of that. Elected 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.

Why would he consider dusting off his political cape after seven years of teaching politics, serving on boards, advising local politicos, and leading fundraisings for many Monterey Bay-related environmental causes?

It is the nuts and bolts of governance, in which he has deep experience, that will likely draw him back into the fray. Budgeting, probably, tops that list.

Fred Keeley.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“The single most important thing the city does every year is draw up a city budget — it is the policy blueprint,” he said. “ I believe that elected officials ought to have a very significant impact on that. It’s what I teach in graduate school at San Jose State. And I’ve been in the public budget business, whether (city) treasurer or on the budget committee in the legislature for all the time I was there. It’s something I have a bit of a feel for, and so I think that’s an area where I might be able to be helpful.”

If that makes it sound like he’s going to run, indeed it’s likely. “We’re sorting it out,” Keeley told Lookout on Wednesday, speaking of conversations with his wife Barbara about the life-altering move in process. Will he run? We’ll know in the next couple of weeks.

Keeley, in his 50th year of politics, saw it all coming — and has had a plan. He knew Measure E would create a need for experienced leadership. He even had a Plan A: someone specific in mind that was not him.

However, it won’t work because the potential candidate Keeley had been quietly endorsing, and nudging forward, ever since Measure E was put on the ballot, decided she couldn’t pull the trigger.

Hilary Bryant.

“It’s such an important moment for our community, and I care so deeply about it, that if I could be part of helping to make a positive difference here, I was considering serving,” said that would-be candidate, former mayor and councilmember Hilary Bryant. “However, there are just some family and personal reasons why it is not a good time for me to make that commitment.”

Did having someone like Keeley standing by, processing whether he could possibly do it himself, make that decision easier for Bryant?

“Absolutely,” she said. “Fred is one of the few people in our community so uniquely positioned to step into this role and really give the community what it needs in this moment. He is a strategic thinker. He’s a parliamentarian. He understands public policy.”

To County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, who has known Keeley for decades, it’s a unique George Washington moment, where the course of local history is being written from scratch.

“If you can set up the role for success, it will pay benefits for whoever else serves in it over the next two decades,” he said. “And Fred certainly has more than enough experience to understand and make the most of the role.”

With the Nov. 8 general election now looming large in the distance, here are a few key questions.

Has Keeley made up his mind?

“The phone has been ringing all day,” Keeley said Wednesday. “And people are being very kind and generous in their comments. And Barbara and I are discussing this. We just got married six years ago, and we have not as a couple lived in the elected world. Together, we are sorting this out.”

Keeley is talking with currently involved Santa Cruz politicians, across the spectrum, taking the temperature on how his presence would be received.

He teaches graduate courses at San Jose State and at Monterey’s Panetta Institute for Public Policy, while serving on multiple boards. The job requires a four-year commitment to the city for a position that pays a part-time wage ($50,000 a year) — but will require full-time engagement.

Keeley, who took his first job in Washington helping run a Senate campaign at age 22 and moved to Santa Cruz a few years later in 1977, said to expect word from him, yay or nay, in the next week to 10 days.

Why is the job so challenging?

Santa Cruz, like numerous other California cities before it, was strong-armed into changing the way it chooses its elected officials and the roles they play.

After 74 years as an “at-large” voting city with revolving one-year mayor terms, Santa Cruz will now have six council members representing small districts of roughly 10,000 residents. Currently, all seven members collectively represent the city’s overall population of roughly 64,000.

Fred Keeley is very close to jumping into the Santa Cruz mayoral race.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It will set up a hybrid situation in November where the incumbent council members will continue to govern under “at-large” terms, while newly elected council members plus a mayor will follow new districted voting.

The slate of challenges facing the mayor and council is daunting: homelessness, affordable housing, the contentious Long Range Development Plan at UC Santa Cruz, the redevelopment of downtown and possibility of a new Warriors arena.

Keeley believes that the class he and Leon Panetta teach on how to reach consensus in a partisan environment could bring useful dialogue to the city council chambers.

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“The clarity of purpose, of political mission, is something that I don’t think cuts right or left,” he said. “Everybody wants to deal with homelessness, everybody wants to deal with affordable housing, everybody wants to see the city on sound financial footing. The details of all of those things are what public policy development is about.”

Will there be other candidates?

Surely there will be. But, no one has vocalized their intention yet.

The one certainty: If Keeley does enter the fray, it will make it a far bigger challenge for others.

Members of Santa Cruz City Council sworn in on Dec. 8, 2020.
Members of Santa Cruz City Council sworn in on Dec. 8, 2020. Top row, from left: Sonja Brunner, Sandy Brown, Donna Meyers. Center: Justin Cummings. Botton Row, from left: Renee Golder, Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, Martine Watkins
(Images provided by City of Santa Cruz and councilmembers)

“I think that would affect a lot of people’s decisions,” Bryant said.

Coonerty, who chose to step down from politics after 18 straight years of city council and county supervisor service, laughed off the notion of his potential candidacy.

“I don’t think my wife’s gonna go for that,” he said.

As for city councilmembers, Donna Meyers and Renee Golder are the only ones with expiring terms in December, and Meyers told Lookout on Thursday her one year served as mayor in 2021 is enough.

Mayor Sonja Brunner, Vice-Mayor Martine Watkins and Sandy Brown are serving terms through 2024, and could run for mayor, with someone else backfilling their current position via special election if they won, according to city spokesperson Elizabeth Smith.

Fred Keeley cheers on the speakers at Michael's on Main alongside Donna Murphy at the No On D watch party.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Justin Cummings aren’t eligible because they are locked into a 3rd District supervisor showdown in November.

Ami Chen Mills, who ran for 3rd District Supervisor and apparently placed third, told Lookout on Thursday that she has been fielding many inquiries about her interest in the mayoral job, but says the answer for now is “not at the moment.”

She elaborated: “Car needs tires, cat needs to get to vet, kids need to go to dentist, I need to take a super big breath!”