Campaign Headquarters: Neal Coonerty plots his next move from the comfort of Santa Cruz's living room.
Man About Town
Neal Coonerty trades in his day job for another shot at political stardom
By Leyna Krow
Sitting in his second-story office of the bookstore he has owned for over three decades, Neal Coonerty seems very much in charge. And why shouldn't he? As a former mayor and city councilmember and as a successful local business owner, Coonerty has often found himself in positions of leadership during his years in Santa Cruz.
Now, after 12 years outside the political arena, he says he'd like to try his hand at District 3 county supervisor, provided the voting public agrees.
As a progressive Democrat pitted against two other progressive Democrats, Coonerty is banking on his 33 years of Santa Cruz experience and insight to distinguish him from his opponents.
"I've been here for over 30 years and I know what the core values of the community are," says Coonerty. "I know what the issues are and I know who is involved."
A testament to the breadth of his influence, Coonerty has already received endorsements from a number of Santa Cruz's most influential, such as County Treasurer Fred Keeley, Mayor Cynthia Matthews and Councilmembers Mike Rotkin and Emily Reilly, as well as a variety of local organizations including People Power and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trangendered Alliance.
According to Carol Fuller, president of the Santa Cruz County Democratic Woman's Club, whose members voted 4 to 1 to endorse Coonerty: "We voted as a club and clearly the confidence was there that Neal would be the best candidate with democratic values to do the job."
In preparation for the daily demands of political campaigning, Coonerty is handing over control of Bookshop Santa Cruz to his daughter, Casey. "It'll be interesting to see what she does with the place," says Coonerty. "I'm sure she's going to do a fine job."
His son, Ryan, a lecturer in legal studies at UCSC, is currently serving on the Santa Cruz City Council.
"I'm very proud to have raised children who have a sense of civic responsibility," says Coonerty.
A local business owner, Coonerty has a personal interest in a healthy and sustainable economic future for Santa Cruz County.
"Having a vibrant downtown as well as thriving east side and west side shopping centers is a good start," he insists, but these things alone will not be enough to provide the city with long-term prosperity.
For Coonerty, preserving a thriving economy means considering projects like the Coast Hotel, which would have allowed for the expansion and renovation of the existing Coast Hotel on West Cliff to include a conference center, parking structure and over 100 new rooms, but was nixed by voters in 2005.
"I was in favor of the Coast Hotel. It was a union project and a relatively green one as well," says Coonerty. "There are 1000 ways to say no to a project in Santa Cruz and sometimes it's hard to say yes."
One project that Coonerty was willing to say no to, however, was the widening of Highway 1. Coonerty, who voted against the initiative, advocates expansions of bus service as well as additions to the city's existing system of bike paths, including the highly contested rail-trail project to solve the county's transportation woes.
"I do think we need to commit ourselves to alternative transportation," says Coonerty. "I support the folks trying to build the rail trail and I'm certainly pleased with our bus system."
Like his fellow candidates, Coonerty has also expressed concern about the impact of UCSC's proposed Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) on the county's resources. The most recent version of the LRDP, which calls for the construction of facilities to accommodate upward of 6,000 new students, has drawn criticism from those who claim the expansion will tax Santa Cruz's already overstressed roads and water supply as well as further straining the housing market.
"We need to encourage the university to house more of its students," says Coonerty. "Right now they house a little less than 50 percent and they are planning on growing by 6,000 students in the coming years. That puts a lot of pressure on the rental market."
Despite the efforts of vocal community members to draw the attention of the university to the impact of expansion on the city, Coonerty fears that proponents of the LRDP will continue to turn a blind eye to the county's concerns.
But that doesn't mean he's not willing to try. Coonerty says he favors Mardi Wormhoudt's proposal to deny the extension of water and sewer services to the area UCSC plans to develop as per the LRDP as a means of getting the university's attention.
"Reading the headlines these days, it's hard to imagine what gets their attention, but I think they'll have to deal with this," says Coonerty. "I support it fully."
For Coonerty, the city's relationship with the university depends on a delicate balance of diplomacy and leadership.
"We have to find ways to keep local control of the discussion and make sure that the community's voice is being heard by the university," Coonerty insists. "This will be the major battle of the next four years."
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