Q&A with Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley

He’s served the county and the state in multiple capacities as a public official. Now Fred Keeley is the first popularly elected mayor of his longtime hometown.

PUBLISHED DEC 16, 2022 4:44 P.M.
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Fred Keeley was interviewed via Zoom on Wednesday, Dec. 14—the day after he was sworn in as mayor.

Fred Keeley was interviewed via Zoom on Wednesday, Dec. 14—the day after he was sworn in as mayor.

You represented Santa Cruz in the California Assembly, where you rose to the position of Speaker Pro Tempore. In that position, you authored what were at the time the two biggest environmental protection bonds in the nation’s history. So how does it feel, after having served in a higher office, to be sworn in as the first elected mayor of Santa Cruz?

With each one of the offices I’ve had the honor of holding, I end up with the same emotional response upon being sworn in. The feeling that I had last night, with Barbara [Keeley] standing next to me, my hand not on a Bible but on the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California, as I took my oath of office, it felt exactly like when I was sworn in as county supervisor, sworn in as a state legislator, sworn in as county treasurer. There’s an emotional reaction that I have entered, again, a space where there is a serious obligation that goes with this moment and the next four years.

Okay, let’s jump right into Santa Cruz policy. With the plans for the new neighborhood south of Laurel Street , you decided to discard planners’ recommendations regarding 17- and 20-story buildings in favor of a hard cap at 12 stories, and to bake in a hard requirement for 20% affordable housing. What was the result of that move?

The city, I think, made a relatively boneheaded move a few months ago when they said, as planners, we want the city council to adopt the following ideas, and we will submit those to the California Environmental Quality Act review process: We’re going to have 1,600 units minimum in this new downtown [neighborhood]. And we will allow density bonuses in order to increase affordable housing—but the actual effect is that instead of 20% affordable with density bonuses, you end up with 14% affordable.

In the 43 years I’ve lived in Santa Cruz County, I’ve never met one person who said: “You know what we need downtown? We need 17- and 20-story buildings.” So the community reacted the way you would imagine they would react—they said, “oh hell no.” And so by making that impolitic move, city staff and council put themselves in place where they were completely on defense. 

So three weeks before the election, I said, if I am elected, my first act at the first January meeting of the city council is to carry an agenda item that says 12 stories maximum; 1,600 units maximum, not minimum. And after you fool around with density bonuses and everything else, you still have 20% honest, affordable housing in the project area.

And in talking to folks on the council before I was elected, before I was sworn in, I think there is something between a six-to-one and seven-to-nothing vote to reset the question of this new neighborhood downtown, which is going to economically revitalize our downtown, add more affordable housing in one setting than we’ve ever had before, and help us grow up as a city, both figuratively and actually.

Some folks feel that this development is going to fundamentally change the city. Why is that a good thing?
I would take exception with the word “fundamentally.” And the only reason I say that is between Laurel Street and Beach Hill, which is an area about three blocks wide, that’s an extension of our existing downtown. The uses there are largely commercial and retail currently, but they’re all one story. There’s a tire dealer, there’s a used car dealer, there’s a closed CVS, there is an artist loft and community center that’s two stories. To me it is a significant change, but I don't think it’s a change of character. 

This is a continuation of the downtown we love. A 12-story residential building is one story taller than the Palomar building. [While] the Palomar is six stories, it’s an old building with very tall ceilings. A 12-story building today is one story taller than the Palomar and the St. George, and that’s totally in keeping with our downtown.

When I moved to Santa Cruz to this community in the late 1970s, and through the 1980s, into the 1990s, the major issue was managing our growth. As we went from a sleepy retirement community to a town with a University of California, next door to the most powerful economic engine in the world, we were in danger of becoming what somebody else wanted us to be, rather than have self-determination as a community. So for about two and a half decades, what trumped everything else was managing our growth so we could retain that character of our town.

As a county supervisor, as state legislator, I was part of that effort to manage our growth. And when I went back out and was campaigning this last election, the people who are in their twenties, thirties, forties, like I was in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, those people all say "you did a great job of protecting the environment. You did a good job managing our growth. Thank you very much. We don’t have offshore oil drilling. We got the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. We don’t have this community of 30,000 homes and a nuclear power plant in Davenport. That’s all baked in to the politics and values of our community. What I want"—this is knocking on doors, talking to voters, going to forums, doing everything else—they only talk about two things. "Let’s get our arms around this homeless issue, and let’s build housing so that I can live here. I grew up in this town, I want to live here. I just got married, we’re gonna have a kid, I want to stay here."

And so, rather than using the values of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, we’re now pivoting. And this is not an abandonment of our previous values. It’s a celebration of the success of those values that we managed our growth and protected our environment. And we don’t have to do violence to either of those in order to now respond to the voters who want housing in this community.

The City of Santa Cruz experiences the problem of homelessness much more acutely than the unincorporated parts of the county. But the county has vastly more resources for helping get unhoused individuals off the street. As a former county supervisor, how do you plan to work with the county on this problem?
As a county supervisor, I realized that county governments are actually small versions of the state and federal governments. Counties exist to deliver health and human services and criminal justice services. They are in the social service business, by and large. Cities are municipal corporations.

And the role of the city of Santa Cruz with regard to homelessness is building. As a mayor now in a city government, I want to do what cities are good at, and that is, I intend to manage toward a bond on the 2024 ballot which would provide for the development of a shelter, a navigation center, permanent supportive housing, and very-low-income housing.

I was asked by [Mayor Hillary Bryant] and the city council a few years ago to be the convener of something they called the Council Advisory Committee on Homelessness. I do know that the city’s responsibility and resources are not limited to simply building things, but we are not in the social service business. We have a role there, but it needs to be distinguishable from these other levels of government who are designed to do other things in that same policy space.

And do you have a plan to work directly with the county yourself?
Yes. The newly elected Third District county supervisor, Justin Cummings, just ended four years on the Santa Cruz City Council. And 85 percent of his district covers the city of Santa Cruz. He and I are already in conversations about two things. One: How we stay in our own lane and don’t cross over each other, because that’s efficiency. And where we do have shared responsibilities, we’re talking about how we get that done.

Regarding the rail trail, you helped lead the opposition to the Greenway Initiative, which would’ve forced the county to remove any mention of rail service from its general plan. Bicycle advocates were thrilled and surprised last week when the state awarded the county $115 million for the trail element of the rail trail. Do you expect similar good things for the rail element?
We have two pieces of forward momentum on getting the rail and the trail. The first one is that the wrong-headed ballot measure called Greenway would have upended decades of investment of time, money, and political capital in designing out and buying the rail line from the private railroad owner, putting it in public ownership, and putting the right of way in public ownership so that a trail and rail are possible.

So with the defeat of that measure 70 percent [of voters] countywide said “Do not tear that rail line out. Let’s give it every chance in the world to see if our community can go to the California Transportation Commission, go to the Federal Railroad Administration, go to whoever we need to go to to make electrified light rail a reality within the next five to seven years. And I think that’s entirely doable because of the second reason.

In politics, you need friends—folks who believe in you and you believe in them. And we assist each other. Not in some cynical, transactional way, but in a way that says we have shared values, so let’s help each other. That person for us is the vice chair of the California Transportation Commission, Carl Guardino.

Carl and I have known each other since the 1980s when we were each chiefs of staff to two members of the legislature who happened to share an apartment together in Sacramento. And we have maintained a professional and personal relationship ever since. When I was in the legislature, he was CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. He understands us, and he’s willing to be our advocate when we’ve got really good projects. 

So I think the combination of doing very good work, seeking to return state tax dollars to our community together with someone who really knows us, I think we’ve got a real chance on this. This is not some pie in the sky dream. 

You told Good Times reporter Todd Guild this week that you want to “help set both policy and behavioral precedent for the city.” Please say more about that. 

The look and feel of council meetings is directly a function of how the elected officials comport themselves—especially the presiding officer. So now for the first time in the history of the city, we’re going to have a permanent presiding officer who will preside for four years. And how that presiding happens, including what gets on the agenda, how much time is given to things, and so on, is the primary responsibility of the presiding officer. And I’m not unused to that.

I was speaker pro tem under three speakers. My primary responsibility was to be the presiding officer of an 80-member assembly where every member wanted to go racing through the legislative intersection at the same time without getting hurt. And my job was to make sure that nobody got hurt. Things were done fast, but fair. No one’s right to speak got shut down or abridged. There’s a lot that can be done in that regard in the management of city council meetings by the presiding officer. I will always comport myself in a way that is deeply respectful of whoever shows up in city hall. Not just the elected officials—whoever shows up there and has something to say and contribute.

I also believe that there are procedural issues embedded in how city councils conduct their work, which, over the last few years in Santa Cruz, have grown somewhat out of control. And this is way inside baseball, but there’s about a half a dozen of these that have become customary practice that don’t help the public and don’t help the council get their work done. 

In an interview with Santa Cruz Local, you promised to bring your experience to bear to mentor the young politicians then running for city council, several of whom were elected. What is the significance of the 2022 election that put you in office and seems to have set the city in a new direction?
In June of this year, the city of Santa Cruz went from seven council members being elected at large by all of the voters to six city council districts and a directly elected mayor. I think the significance is rather profound. When you’re elected at large, there’s no real or implied obligation to the neighborhood where you live or any other subset of the city. These new council members, instead of representing 66,000 people, represent about 10,000 people. 

And what we’re seeing already is a shift in the kind of folks who can run for this office. You no longer have to raise forty or fifty thousand dollars to run for an at-large city council seat—you can do this on $5,000. You’re well known in your neighborhood; you know every issue in the neighborhood; you know where a little drug-dealing goes on; you know where there’s a park that needs its equipment replaced. These are what I call neighborhood politicians, and I mean that as a compliment to them. 

They know everything about their district, and they’re going to have less experience in governing—it’s just the nature of districts versus at-large. So to the degree that any individual council member wants it—this is not gonna be Professor Fred telling everybody how to do their business—but to the degree to which I can share 40 years in various elective offices and 50 years in the politics of this community, I can help. So it’s more of an offer to candidates who are thinking and running for office, newly elected council members, to pay it forward a bit.

What about your story? What inspired you as a young man to launch your political career?
When I was 18 years old and getting ready to graduate from Cupertino High School, we had the annual student government convention. As it turns out, I was the presiding officer. But anyway, we had invited the state legislator who represented our community: Assemblymember John Vasconcellos. He was at the beginning of his second term of a 40-year career in the California State Assembly and the California State Senate. One of the most unusual elected officials I've ever come across. Deeply into psychoanalysis, very deeply into a commitment to humanity.

He was oftentimes made a little bit of fun of—Doonesbury, for example, did eight or 10 panels on him that were terrific. But when he walked into that convention at Cupertino High School and spoke his truth, it triggered me to believe that it really was possible for someone—he was quite young at the time—for a young person to develop and operationalize their values in a political context. 

One of the great good fortunes in my life was when I was elected to the Assembly in 1996, while John Vasconcellos was a senior member of the state Senate. I told him that story the first time we got together, and then he was a North Star for me. 

Okay. Enough with the softballs. What’s your favorite political movie?
The Candidate, with Robert Redford. It’s a very thinly disguised story of Jerry Brown’s first campaign. [Redford's character] is running for the United States Senate; his father’s a bigwig with labor unions—a very thinly disguised Pat Brown. There’s two reasons I like it so much. One is that it’s California based. The other is that around a third of the persona are real people playing their real roles. Almost every one of the labor leaders is playing themselves. And so there’s a reality to it.

West Wing or Veep?
West Wing. Keep in mind that series ran when I was in the legislature. So it was what every staffer and every legislator did on Wednesday nights. If you were working late you’d turn on the TV in your office. That show just got it right.

Who would you rather hang out with—Seth Rogen, Willie Nelson, or Snoop Dogg?
Snoop Dogg. And I have a little story about Snoop. This was after I left the legislature and was running a statewide environmental organization [the Planning and Conservation League]. A friend had gotten me tickets to a Lakers game at the Staples Center, and I brought a developer who was considering making a contribution to PCL. My friend’s seats were in a skybox, and after the game, as we’re walking down the hall, we see Snoop and his posse come out of the skybox next door. And they’re all beautiful, and they’re all in these beautiful Lakers silks, and it’s just a star-studded show, and they’re walking right toward me.

So Snoop Dogg and I make eye contact, and for some reason I said, “Good evening, Mr. Dogg.” At which point Snoop’s posse freezes, and Snoop looks at me and goes [winking and giving a thumbs up] “Yeah!”


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