There are too many ex-Santa Cruz mayors to count, and they’ve served in times of celebration and horror. Mike Rotkin served five one-year terms as mayor, Cynthia Mathews four and Don Lane three. Now, as the city of Santa Cruz adopts a more traditional four-year mayor position — with a newly districted system of city council — a new civic experiment begins.
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If you live in Santa Cruz, you might think you’ve voted for your mayor many times before. But you haven’t.
You’ve voted for the city council, and each year those folks in turn have chosen among themselves who will be mayor. And they’ve done that year in and year out, election year or not, going back to the 19th century. Like gift-buying anxiety, ruined diets and sad office holiday parties, a new mayor in Santa Cruz is a dependable end-of-the-year tradition.
On Tuesday, Santa Cruz residents will, for the first time, get to vote directly for their new mayor, which is to be either (to list them alphabetically) Fred Keeley or Joy Schendledecker. And that election will result in a full four-year term. To put in relevant sports terms, Santa Cruz’s mayor will no longer be the World Series (chosen every year), but the World Cup (chosen every four years).
Why does all this matter? Well, it might not matter much. Back in June, Santa Cruz voters passed Measure E, which chose an entirely new system of electing its citywide representatives. Before, the seven members of the city council were all elected at large, from across the city, and the mayor was chosen by the newly elected council after the fact. With Measure E, voters decided on a system in which one mayor would be elected citywide, along with six city council members elected by district, their belief apparently being that a four-year mayor was the kind of leadership Santa Cruz needs now. The first two districted seats are up this year and the four others in 2024.
Wonks often refer to the “weak mayor” system and the “strong mayor” system in city government. That nomenclature won’t really apply in Santa Cruz. A “strong mayor” system, which prevails in many big cities across the U.S., gives the elected mayor an independent staff and broad hiring and firing privileges. That’s not what’s happening in Santa Cruz. In this case, the newly elected mayor will still be only one vote on the city council. His or her “soft power” will come from having been elected by the whole city instead of a smaller district, and from whatever leadership mojo he or she can muster. Essentially, Santa Cruz will shift from one kind of “weak mayor” system to another.
Still, it’s worth pondering what the city might lose or gain by saying goodbye to the rotating-mayor system. Until now, Santa Cruz has been committed to having a different face in the mayor’s office every year. In the past half-century or so, that tradition has been broken only once. In 1989, Mardi Wormhoudt was chosen as a mayor for a second consecutive year as a way to maintain continuity in facing the city’s largest crisis, the Loma Prieta earthquake. Otherwise, every calendar year, it’s been out with the old, in with the new.
Which is not to say it’s been a different new face every time. There are many multiterm ex-mayors in Santa Cruz. Now that the old system is finished, I suppose we can formally award the trophy to Mike Rotkin, who served five terms as mayor, the first in 1981, the last almost 30 years later, in 2010. The silver medal goes to four-term mayor Cynthia Mathews, the bronze to three-termer Don Lane.
Mayoral power was limited in the old system, and that won’t change much with the new. The mayor’s power is largely ceremonial and symbolic, and that part of it is likely to increase with an elected four-year mayor. But the mayor also presides over the city council’s meetings and gets to set the agenda for those meetings. Still, when it comes to a vote, the mayor’s is only one of seven.
Many ex-mayors I’ve talked to say that the job can be a lot of fun. Third District County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty — a two-term mayor as well as the son of a mayor, Neal Coonerty — was in office during pop singer James Durbin’s improbable journey to momentary national stardom on “American Idol.” In 2011, Coonerty got to help put together a tribute performance to Durbin and to present Durbin with a new guitar on stage at the Boardwalk in what might have been the largest music concert in Santa Cruz history. Lane gathered as many of the surviving ex-mayors he could find one April Fool’s Day, outfitted them in sashes, took them all up to the “Evita” balcony on the Rittenhouse building downtown, and proclaimed the day Proclamation Day, complete with a giant scroll of mock proclamations.
Yet the job is more likely to be challenging, stressful, even painful. Hilary Bryant’s single term as mayor was shaped by the horrific 2013 murder of Santa Cruz police officers Butch Baker and Elizabeth Butler. Justin Cummings was just getting his feet wet as mayor in early 2020 when COVID-19 brought the city, and the world, to a sudden halt. In a crisis, the mayor has to take on a bigger and more visible role. When the 1989 earthquake hit, state and federal agencies and the national media needed a point person and decision maker in Santa Cruz. When President George H.W. Bush came to visit, it was Mayor Wormhoudt who was his tour guide.
There is no ex-mayor — nor ex-councilmember, for that matter — who does not have a story or two about being the object of hostility or ridicule, either at city council meetings or in other settings. Santa Cruz’s incumbent mayor, Sonja Brunner, works at the Downtown Association as her “day job,” and is thus especially high-profile. I’ve witnessed her being screamed at by people whose passions have overwhelmed their manners.
So, yes, it’s a demanding job and a tough job. Those who’ve held it say it can dominate your life, all for about $41,000 a year. Some ex-mayors talked about how serving as mayor required them to put other priorities — professional, family or other — on hold, which was doable, they said, given the one-year term. You can endure almost anything for a year, right?
But what happens when that term is four years? Is it odd that only two candidates emerged for this new mayoral job, especially given that there are more than a dozen people in Santa Cruz with experience at doing it, and many more who are capable and qualified to do it? Without an increase in salary — maybe a big increase in salary — can we expect the pool of good candidates to go much beyond those who are retired or have another means of income?
Though it is not a move to a “strong mayor,” the new system is a nudge toward professionalizing the mayoral job. The outgoing rotating-mayor system worked as a way to honor citizen activism. As daunting as it was, it felt open to anyone with the gumption to try it. But the new system also has a distinct advantage. The learning curve as mayor has always been a challenge, particularly for first-timers and, several ex-mayors have told me, often a new mayor will spend the first few months of his or her term making missteps or figuring how the job works (and the last couple of months in lame-duck limbo). Presumably a four-year mayor will release the city from that built-in inefficiency.
The new mayor will also have to develop skills that the old one never had to — namely how to work with a council now beholden to individual districts and neighborhoods rather than to the city at large.
In some ways, the mayor’s job will be as it has always been, Santa Cruz’s official principal, mascot, spokesmodel, hall monitor. But in other ways, it’ll be a new thing, and either Keeley or Schendledecker will serve as the city’s George Washington, establishing precedents and norms where there had been none before.
The only thing we can say for sure is that some days will be fun, some days will be agonizing, and maybe every day, the new mayor will likely be confronted or yelled at by unhappy citizens. And that’s when they will learn, perhaps only for themselves, whether or not they’re really a strong mayor or a weak one.