Building blocks of the Coonerty political dynasty? A bookshop, an earthquake, condoms and Rush Limbaugh
THE HERE & NOW: Not all of the above, of course, carry even remotely the same weight. But Ryan Coonerty’s political career mirrors that of his dad, Neal, who helped create Santa Cruz’s unique post-university personality and bridged the gap between business and government.
Of all the clichés of political journalism, the most threadbare is the old trope “end of an era,” pulled out of mothballs whenever a long-serving political brand name leaves the arena.
But in the wake of Ryan Coonerty’s announcement that he will not seek re-election to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, my mind goes back to the beginning of an era.
With nearly two years left in his term, there will be plenty of time to assess Coonerty’s political triumphs and failures. Today, however, I think it’s more appropriate to think of a family story, to look back upon the Coonerty family’s role in shaping what Santa Cruz has become.
Coonerty has famously followed in the wake of his father Neal Coonerty, both men having served as mayor of Santa Cruz, as county supervisor and — in what has to be yet another “only in Santa Cruz” moment — having gotten public lashings from the late Rush Limbaugh (over completely separate incidents).
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As news broke that his son would not seek a third term, I called Neal to reflect on his and Ryan’s dual careers. When I reminded him that Ryan’s departure might be the end of the line for Coonertys in elective office, he reminded me, “well, my sister (Sheila Coonerty) is still on the school board,” laughing. “But, look, I’m glad (Ryan) made the decision.”
If you yank at that root long enough to trace the Coonerty family’s deep background in local politics, business, and culture, it brings you all the way back to the most meaningful socio-cultural shift in Santa Cruz’s history: the establishment of UC Santa Cruz.
Before politics, the UC and Bookshop
If you’re looking for the first butterfly’s wing flap that led to the long Santa Cruz legacy of the Coonerty family — Neal and his late wife, Candy, who operated Bookshop Santa Cruz for decades, along with son, Ryan, and daughter, Casey, who now owns and operates Bookshop — it’s best to start with Clark Kerr.
Here’s how the dominoes fell: Kerr was the president of the University of California back in the 1960s. He, more than any other single individual, steered the way for a new UC campus to land in Santa Cruz in 1965.
More than 300 miles to the south in the San Fernando Valley, a high-schooler named Sheila Coonerty saw an article in the Los Angeles Times announcing the proposed campus at Santa Cruz and became fixated on attending school there. As it turned out, Sheila was part of the very first class at UCSC in ’65.
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Years later, Sheila’s brother, Neal, having graduated UC Berkeley and having met Candy in Ireland, was living in Boston where Candy was finishing her degree. Neal’s dream was to own a bookstore, and it was Sheila who floated the rumor to Neal that Bookshop Santa Cruz, less than a decade old at that time, might be for sale.
Eventually the Coonertys struck a deal to buy Bookshop and move to Santa Cruz in 1973.
A few months after the sale, Ryan was born.
Bookshop Santa Cruz was not incidental to the establishment of the UC. The university gradually but dramatically shifted the culture of the town from sleepy retirement community to a kind of Berkeley-esque hub of intellectual and political ferment.
At their bookstore, Neal and Candy Coonerty nurtured the small but growing college counterculture in Santa Cruz, with able help from their neighboring business The Catalyst, then a coffeehouse/sandwich shop/after-class hangout. Bookshop was a signature business on the old Pacific Garden Mall, near where today is Lulu Carpenter’s coffee shop. At the same time, it acted as a seed bed for Santa Cruz’s young literary culture.
Then came the Loma Prieta Earthquake.
An earthshaking entry into public service
At 75, the elder Coonerty still lives on the Westside of Santa Cruz. The earthquake drew him into city politics as the city looked to rebuild from the ruins of the damaged downtown. “There was a great division in the town between the downtown business interests and progressives and they didn’t trust each other,” he recalled on Tuesday.
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As a downtown business owner who considered himself a progressive, Neal Coonerty felt he could speak the language of both sides and serve as a bridge between them. He had grown up in a particularly political family, he said. But he was an impressionable teen when another Irish-Catholic, John F. Kennedy, ran for president.
Years later, Ryan Coonerty developed a deep interest in the career of Robert F. Kennedy and has cited him as an inspiration, despite the fact that he was born years after RFK’s assassination.
Though his wife was not happy about it, Neal entered the political arena, eventually moving from Santa Cruz City Council to the county Board of Supervisors.
From an early age, Ryan showed much of the same kind of taste for the brash political gesture. As editor of the Santa Cruz High paper, he put a condom in each copy of the paper in the wake of Magic Johnson’s dramatic announcement that he had AIDS. The gesture caught the attention of Rush Limbaugh, who blasted Ryan on his radio show. (Limbaugh had also taken a swipe at Neal for selling Limbaugh’s book for the price of baloney).
Similarities ... and differences
Ryan Coonerty’s early tenure on the Santa Cruz City Council overlapped a bit with Neal’s final Board of Supervisors term. The father and son, said Neal, have been simpatico on almost all political issues.
“I think he’s always been much better at politics than I was,” Neal Coonerty said of his son. “I would take a look at an issue, figure out how I felt about it, and just go from there. Ryan tends to work with a larger community, stay in touch with people. He can work a room a lot better than I could, which is a political necessity.”
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Not surprisingly, Dad has warm words for his son’s political career. Unlike many dads, however, he intimately knows the terrain his son has crossed.
“I think he’s done a fantastic job as supervisor and on the city council, and that he’s left those offices in better shape than how he found them. It’s a tough job. You know that in order to be in those positions, you have to tackle some of the most contentious problems we face as a society with thousands of people looking over your shoulder — which is the way it should be. But that doesn’t make it any easier.”
Of bestowing a benediction on his son’s local political career, Neal Coonerty said only “You know, I love Santa Cruz. The Coonerty family loves Santa Cruz. But all that love has been returned many times over. People have supported us both politically and through personal losses — the earthquake and Ryan’s and Casey’s mom passing away in 1999, and COVID-19 and all the rest.
“The community has helped us out and we’ve always been grateful for that. That’s the core of the whole thing. It’s a good place to be from, Santa Cruz.”
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