On the Santa Cruz City Council, then as mayor, and then as county supervisor, Ryan Coonerty learned to love politics.
Then-Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty speaks at a TEDx event in 2020. “As a local official, every day I get to wake up and try to take action to make our community a little bit better place.”
I recently interviewed Ryan Coonerty, former city council member and mayor of the city of Santa Cruz, California, and more recently Santa Cruz County supervisor. Coonerty currently lectures at UC Santa Cruz and CSUMB’s Panetta Institute, and is co-host of the podcast An Honorable Profession, which features interviews and discussion with local and state elected officials from across the country.
I’d like to start off from the notion of elected office as a career, a way to make a living, or as you call it, “an honorable profession.” What led you to choose elected office as a career path and at what point in your life?
Well, there’s a little bit of me choosing elected office and a bit of elected office choosing me. When a big earthquake hit our town in 1989, my dad ran the local bookstore and he was drafted to run for city council to help rebuild downtown. And so, at a formative point in my life, I saw that elected officials, specifically local elected officials, can have a transformational impact on a community, and also, frankly, are just human beings doing their best.
So there’s no superpower you need to be in elected office. And it drew me in, and I’ve always been interested in politics, and I came back to Santa Cruz after working in Washington. And some folks approached me about running for city council, and it just seemed like the debate would be improved if I could add my voice to it, representing members of the community. At that time I was younger and they were younger, and I thought we needed that perspective on city council.
And from there you just get engaged, and you start to see projects that will take longer than one term or two terms, and you stick with it. And overall, you try to make it, as Bobby Kennedy said, an honorable profession. Where you take it seriously, give it everything you have, and do what you can for your community.
Let’s focus on your experience, and the experience of some of those folks you’ve interviewed, of being an elected representative at the local level. What does an elected member of the city council or county board of supervisors do? What’s the job description?
It’s amazing in that it’s similar for a smaller city of 10,000 all the way up to a major city of 10 million. Fundamentally, it’s a few core tasks. The first one is devising the budget. Any community should be measured on how it spends its money, as a reflection of its values.
By the end, when I left Santa Cruz County government, we were at a billion dollar a year budget, with 2,400 employees. And so you’re trying to run an effective and impactful organization, and using the budget to do that.
You also have the ability to make laws and local ordinances. And in doing that, you can shape what are, again, the values of the community, and establish new programs and policies.
I can’t overstate how much local government impacts people’s lives.
And then, finally, you are the community’s representative to the government. So—working with individuals, small businesses, organizations, all kinds of folks to help them overcome obstacles or take advantage of opportunities, and do the constituent work that is really fundamental to all levels of government service.
No two days are alike. You’re expected to know water systems and street paving as well as social service programs, anti-poverty programs. Frankly, I spent, as we all did, three years becoming versed in public health as the coronavirus hit, something I didn’t expect to do when I was elected.
And so the job is constantly changing, reflecting, sadly, emergencies and challenges, and also new opportunities. But it’s always exciting and the impact is really significant.
I can’t overstate how much local government impacts people’s lives—in parks and libraries, open spaces, service programs and other ways. Most people’s lives are profoundly impacted by how well or sometimes not well their government is functioning.
In the Honorable Profession podcast episode featuring Mayor Rosalyn Bliss of Grand Rapids, Michigan, you start the interview by asserting that “Being mayor is one of the best, but also one of the toughest, jobs in American politics.” You were a mayor, and you speak with a lot of mayors on your podcast. Can you go into more detail about what you meant? And you’re smiling.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. I have a soft spot in my heart for mayors, and their role in the community. I think part of it’s that most of us don’t necessarily know what a school board member does, or a lieutenant governor, senator and beyond. But everybody has a sense of what a mayor is, right? And that is a person that rolls up their sleeves to help their community, and is engaged with their community.
Politics starts out as an individual sport, during elections, and then becomes a team sport, if you want to get anything done.
One of the very true things about being a mayor is that you are hands-on. So when you go to the grocery store, you meet your bosses, your constituents, and when you walk down the street, when you go to a restaurant. People want to engage with the mayor, often positively, occasionally negatively, about what’s going on in their city.
And part of it is the policy piece. Part of it is setting up new programs and policies in the community. A big part of it is also just being there to represent the community at special moments.
So, cutting ribbons when new businesses open. Giving out keys to the city when important people come to town. Proclaiming days, kissing babies, shaking hands.
At the time it can feel overwhelming, or not as substantive, but what I’ve seen firsthand is that it’s some of the most important work that you do. Recognizing people who are doing good things in the community and fostering that spirit of the community, when times are good. And also when times are tough.
In Santa Cruz, one of the things that the mayor does is set the agenda for the city council meetings. So there’s being the public face of city government, the baby kisser, the ribbon cutter, but there’s also being the gatekeeping of the public meeting agenda and the timing of when things are considered, which are very important aspects of the game. Is that common for mayors across other parts of the country?
It is. And this is where you sort of blend that executive with the legislative function.
And I think it’s increasingly important, as we face people disrupting meetings and incivility and all the modern challenges, to create effective meetings where the public body’s able to get their work done, but also do it in a way that people feel welcome to come participate even when they have deeply held disagreements with other members of the community.
It’s not an easy role. And in a setting where you’re either one of five or one of seven or one of 11 elected officials. Politics starts out as an individual sport, during elections, and then quickly becomes a team sport if you want to get anything done, where you need to find a majority to move things forward. And so often mayors have to have a lot of different skill sets, in order to understand different mindsets, frankly, in order to succeed.
That coordination across the elected council in California is made a little bit more difficult by the Brown Act, which says that coordination of policy behind closed doors is problematic, for good or ill. So, sometimes, especially in California, democracy takes a while. There are structural reasons and lessons learned over time.
We have this rule that you really can’t talk to a majority until you and your colleagues are meeting in public. Which is obviously very different than how Congress or state legislatures act, where all the votes are counted before they vote, and then they go through the business of casting their ballots.
And it makes it even more important that as a leader you understand your colleagues and sometimes understand their districts in really fundamental ways. Because you need to be able to anticipate where people will likely be supportive, where they may have concerns, and what kind of compromises may be available. And you’re not gonna be able to do it until you’re an open session.
This is governing sometimes on the fly. And it’s a real challenge. People often talk about making government more like business. And there are certain aspects where I think government could learn from business. But the governance structures are so fundamentally different that it’s really apples and oranges.
Yeah. Nobody wants government to “move fast and break things.”
In a number of the interviews on your podcast, your guests note that their careers in elected office started off by being appointed members of boards and commissions. The genius of democracy in America is that whenever public money is being spent or a public resource being administered, members of the public are appointed to advise and oversee the expenditure of money or administration of that resource.
Can you talk more about the opportunities for members of the community to participate in non-elected public service roles?
I’m so glad you brought that up. Because I think it’s one of the underappreciated, under-talked-about ways to engage and shape your community. And these boards and commissions can play a really vital role in a number of ways.
One is, as you mentioned, they do create essentially a pipeline of talent into elected office. And so if you’re not sure whether you want to run or should run, serving on these commissions for a couple years, seeing how decisions are made, seeing what kind of decisions are made, and getting to know all the people, whether it’s city staff or other people in the community, constituents, you get to sort of understand some of the dynamics, before you commit to four-year terms or eight-year terms or whatever it is.
The second part is, when you’re on a city council or a board of supervisors, you’re dealing with 50 or 60 complex issues per meeting. And so you can go a little bit into depth, but not a lot of depth, because there’s just not the time or space.
And so you rely on these commissions to flesh out issues, whether it’s the water district or parking rates or planning issues, or beyond. And it gives a chance to bring the public, and people who sometimes have some professional experience, into these policy debates in a really helpful way.
So that we’re not trying to do it all at the last minute at the council meeting or this board meeting, but instead there’s been a process where input’s been solicited and people have had time to think in more depth about this.
The idea behind NewDeal is we can’t wait for leaders to be elected to Congress to start paying attention and supporting them.
And I cannot encourage people enough. As people are working and trying to balance all these different demands on their times, it’s hard to find commissioners, especially ones that represent underrepresented communities, to serve. To be able to bring a youthful perspective, or a renter’s perspective, or a small-business perspective, or whatever it is, to a board or commission is incredibly valuable to the institution, frankly. And to the people who choose to serve, in my experience.
And so, I do hope people go look at their city and county websites, look at the boards and commissions, see what vacancies are open, talk to their elected officials and say, “I might be interested in serving on this. Tell me more.”
More often than not, elected officials are thrilled [laughs], because oftentimes we’re knocking on doors, begging people to serve. And if people would come forward, we’re excited to have new, fresh voices in the system.
“An Honorable Profession” is affiliated with the NewDeal Forum, a nonprofit that promotes “innovative future-oriented state and local pro-growth, progressive policies and leaders.” Can you speak more about that?
The NewDeal was formed 10 years ago, I believe, with the idea there was a group of state and local elected leaders on the Democratic side who weren’t getting the attention and support from the party that they otherwise should. And that if we created a place where they could come together and share ideas, we could take some local ideas and then quickly spread them across the country and have major impact.
And so people like Stacey Abrams and Pete Buttigieg were in the first class, and some have gone on to do great stuff. Some have left government service altogether. But I think the idea behind NewDeal is we can’t wait for leaders to be elected to Congress to start paying attention and supporting them.
We need to start getting them when they’re fresh off of the advisory board or maybe newly elected to a city council or school board or county board of supervisors or beyond. It’s an investment in the future leadership of the country.
And if somebody can figure out innovative wastewater systems or public health strategies or childcare strategies or beyond in their city, there’s no reason it can’t be replicated across dozens if not hundreds of other cities, and have a national impact without even having to worry about who’s in control of the House of Representatives right now, which seems to change every two years.
How and why did you become part of NewDeal?
They called me up, and asked me to join, and to be frank, I hadn’t heard of them, but I went to one of their conferences and it was really engaging. And then the way the podcast happened, it was 2018 and we were in the depths of the Trump administration. And I would go to a NewDeal conference, hear about all these really cool, exciting things going on, and then I’d come back and everybody in our community was so down on government and democracy and the possibility of making our world a little bit better place.
And so that disconnect between what I was hearing at the conference and what I was hearing from people in our community led me to create this podcast, where we can bring some of those leaders to a broader audience and give them a platform and introduce maybe the next Pete Buttigieg or Stacey Abrams, and the cool things they’re doing in their community.
You’ve interviewed dozens of local and state elected officials. Can you tell us about two or three that surprised you?
There’s no one that surprised me because I’ve known these folks privately without a podcast microphone between us for years now. But Paige Cognetti, who’s the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, came in [to office] after a corruption scandal, and had to clean house and is now trying to revitalize the president's hometown—in a tough part of America that’s faced a lot of challenges in the transition from industrialization. She has been a really exciting person to talk to.
And Jazz Lewis, a young African American legislator in Maryland who I think is gonna be a game changer. We had some people who have now reached prominence, like Mandela Barnes and others, who have become national figures.
The fun part about the podcast also is that before they become big, they’re not sticking to their talking points, they’re just talking honestly about their experience, good and bad. So that’s been a thing that has been a pleasant surprise about the podcast is these folks come on and just talk about the ups and downs and positives and negatives of trying to serve their community.
Thank you for talking with me today, Ryan, and thank you for your public service in elected office, and thanks for hosting the podcast. It’s really great to know that there are so many articulate, creative, smart people working in local government to make their communities better.
Thanks for those kind words. I’m hopeful with the podcast and I’m getting messages from people who are smart and talented and hadn’t thought about serving an elected office, that they are now doing so, or planning to do so.
So what we want to do is just bring more of these folks in, and I can say that it’s not always easy, but it’s immensely rewarding. And hopefully, there are folks out there who, at this time, a moment when we need more good people, will put their name forward and try to serve their communities.
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