As I wrapped up a Sunday afternoon phone interview with Fred Keeley, the veteran Santa Cruz politico circled back to make one thing clear: He has not yet made the decision to run for Santa Cruz Mayor.
“I still have a number of steps in front of me before I’ll make a final announcement or decision,” says Keeley, 72.
The candidate nomination period for the upcoming Nov. 8 election opened on July 18, and Keeley, the former State Assemblyman and Santa Cruz County treasurer and supervisor, was among the first potential candidates to pull papers to run for office. As Keeley says, he is not yet an official candidate. For one thing, he must gather anywhere between 20-30 signatures from registered Santa Cruz voters in support of his candidacy before Aug. 12.
Given Keeley’s more than 50 years of political experience—both in elected office and behind the scenes at the local and state level—gathering a few signatures from supporters shouldn’t be a problem. But the 72-year-old says the next two weeks won’t simply be about getting people to sign an election department document. Keeley says that he wants to make sure that the skillset he’s developed over his decades of service is exactly what the city not only wants at this time, but needs. Discussions with people throughout the city and region have gone well, he says, but there’s still work to be done.
Keeley says the Nov. 8 election is an important point in time in Santa Cruz politics for various reasons—chief among them the city’s move from at-large to district elections. In the near future, Santa Cruz will be governed by six council members, each elected by their own slice of the city, and a mayor who will be voted into office in a citywide election. The at-large mayoral election was approved by voters in the June 7 primary by a wide margin—some 66.5% of voters elected to implement the new system.
Although this political shift has been well-covered, Keeley highlights a wrinkle in the inaugural at-large mayoral election that has been overlooked: A mayor could very well be elected without receiving a majority of the vote. In 2026, Santa Cruz’s mayor will face a primary and, if needed, a runoff election in which they will need the majority of voters to give them the nod. But that won’t be the case this year, and if three or more candidates qualify for the Nov. 8 ballot, the new leader could be voted into office on a plurality, meaning they simply receive more votes than the runner-up.
“I think that would be unhelpful,” Keeley says. “What would be helpful, I think, is that the first directly elected mayor does get a majority vote. It will make a big difference in terms of the mayor’s confidence to exercise some leadership with the confidence that a majority of voters who choose to vote elected that person; that what they ran on resonated with a majority of the voters. That’s important for the city.”
After all, Keeley says, whoever is elected mayor will have an enormous to-do list when they take office. On top of dealing with homelessness and housing affordability issues, the mayor will also have to tackle drought-related issues, the battle with UCSC over its Long Range Development Plan and the city’s ongoing downtown expansion plans. They will have to do all of it while trying to accommodate council members trying to balance the wants and needs of their districts with citywide efforts that might create conflict with their constituency.
While many know of the city’s long-standing issues and might have initiatives they’d like to implement to help solve them, few potential candidates have the experience that Keeley has working in a district-based system. Along with his six years in the state assembly, Keeley served eight years on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors. It is for this reason, Keeley says, that folks approached him to help lead Santa Cruz through the first years of district-based leadership in which “neighborhood politicians” (Keeley stresses he means that as a compliment) with little political experience will likely step forward as candidates—and win.
“There are going to be people who really know their district, who know every street, who know every issue, who know every place that needs something done—just like when I was in the Assembly or on the Board of Supervisors. They know their district inside and out,” Keeley says. “But there’s going to be one person who’s elected citywide and thinking citywide. I think what all of this means is that it’s imperative for whoever is the mayor that that’s someone who has a proven track record of working collaboratively and effectively.”
Asked what a Keeley mayorship might look like, he says it would be an “action-oriented” term.
“I don’t have much interest in spending time putting different colored post-it notes on whiteboards and doing visioning and deep listening. We’ve done that. We’ve done that on homelessness on housing on our water system,” Keeley says. “There are people who like to do that kind of thing and still think that’s where we need to be—and they should do that—but that’s not me.”
As of Monday evening, Councilwoman Renee Golder had pulled papers to run for the District 6 seat, which will oversee neighborhoods west of Columbia Street south of Younglove Avenue and Highway 1, as well as a portion of UCSC. Councilman Justin Cummings could have run for another term on the council in District 4, which encompasses downtown and the Beach Flats and Mission Street neighborhoods. But he will be in a runoff election against Councilwoman Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson for the 3rd District seat on the County Board of Supervisors in November. In his place, Gregory Hyver and Bodie Shargel have both pulled papers to run.
No one else had emerged as a potential mayoral candidate as of Monday, but Keeley says that will likely change over the course of the next few weeks.
“I don’t pretend for a minute that I’m the only person that has the requisite experience, and I don’t expect to be carried to City Hall on a sedan chair. This is the political world. I’m familiar with it and I understand it. I suspect there will be other folks seeking this office,” Keeley says. “What would cause me to pull the trigger on this is a sense that there is sufficient width and depth to my candidacy, should I launch it.”
Tried and New
Over the past week, three dozen or so people have joined Keeley in pulling papers for various offices across Santa Cruz County. While some have also been slowly testing the waters, others have been more bullish in announcing their candidacies.
This includes Pajaro Valley Unified School District Trustee Maria Orozco, who in November will vie for a seat on the Watsonville City Council. She pulled papers a day after the nomination period opened and submitted her signatures to qualify for the ballot three days later. She already has the endorsement of four Watsonville City Council members, including Lowell Hurst, who because of term limits will vacate the seat she is running for.
On the cusp of her 10th year on the PVUSD Board of Trustees, Orozco says that making the jump to city council was always the plan, but adds that she only made the decision because she feels the district—the largest in the county—is in a good place.
“I feel that I’ve done some great work on the school board,” she says, highlighting her efforts to televise their public meetings, move the district closer to universal preschool, implement career technical education programs at all high schools, improve access to music and art classes and renovate several PVUSD campuses.
Orozco was first voted into office as a 24-year-old in 2012. Since then, she has built a strong rapport with her constituents that shone through while defending her seat in 2020.
Making the jump to city council, however, comes with new challenges. Although the constituency between her current trustee area and that of the Watsonville City Council district she is running for largely overlap, she will still have to convince voters that her vision for the city—one that includes a focus on job creation, workforce housing, an expansion of housing assistance programs and investments in public safety and health—aligns with theirs.
The relationships she has built over the past nine-and-a-half years will likely carry over, she says, but so, too, will the decisions she has made as a board member. So while some might remember her work with the school board and the events she helped organize through her nonprofit, Friends of Watsonville Parks and Community Services, others might remember that she was the lone vote against bringing back school resources officers after the fatal stabbing at Aptos High School.
“There’s some great positives of having a track record with accomplishments, but with that, there also may be votes that may not be liked,” she says. “It’s a give and take.”
New potential candidates that have pulled papers to run for office face a different challenge: convince their constituents that they mean business.
Shargel, the candidate for Santa Cruz’s District 4, says this has been the first hurdle that he has faced since launching his campaign. When he started reaching out to locals embedded in the political realm, some encouraged the 19-year-old to go forward, but others said he should focus on finishing up his schooling at UCSC—his mom, he says, was at first among these people. This was despite his previous political endeavors, which include serving as the campaign manager for state assembly candidate Joe Thompson in the June 7 primary and canvassing for Bernie Sanders as a sixth-grader.
Running on a progressive platform, Shargel has lived in Santa Cruz County his entire life. He grew up in Felton and then moved to Santa Cruz to attend UCSC. He says that this experience gives him a perspective on the state of the city that is not currently represented on the council.
“I really think that getting new people running and getting students involved is a really important part of our politics,” Shargel says. “I hope that my campaign, my candidacy and, hopefully, my tenure on the city council can serve as a catalyst for that student involvement in politics.”
But few new candidates have come forward during the opening week of the nomination period, as many of the names that have pulled papers for the school boards, water districts and council seats that have upcoming elections are people seeking re-election.
Santa Cruz City Councilwoman Donna Meyers, who in November will leave the council because of the city’s move to district elections, says this is somewhat unsurprising considering the current landscape for public service. While she considers it a great privilege to serve on the council, she says it is also becoming increasingly difficult to do so. Low pay (at $25,000 a year, Santa Cruz pays its councilmembers the most of any city in the county), the time spent away from family, the complicated issues before elected leaders and increased public scrutiny have whittled down the number of people running for office.
“It’s just getting harder and harder to step forward—for people to make that commitment,” she says.
But, she adds, there are some silver linings. She points to groups such as Women in Leadership for Diverse Representation (WLDR), which has conducted workshops over the past year to encourage, inform and mold interested female candidates. WLDR, Meyers says, had some 95 people show up to a recent virtual workshop. She also says that organizations such as Equity California, a non-profit civil rights organization that advocates for the rights of LGBTQ+ people, has also started recruiting possible candidates to run on specific platforms.
“There’s a lot of really excellent training and recruitment going on,” she says, “and I think we’re going to see some major strides in the coming years.”