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Photograph by Dina Scoppettone
Hot Mama: A stylish Mardi Wormhoudt, the epitome of ageless California cool, was photographed in April for the 15th anniversary issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Madame Mayor

In Memoriam: Mardi Wormhoudt, 1937-2009

By Traci Hukill

I NEVER met Mardi Wormhoudt. In the late 1990s, when I was getting my start in journalism and relegated to the sandbox of features writing, I would hear her name uttered in the newsroom and wonder at the hallowed tone employed by my usually cynical hero-colleagues. In the same way children take cues from their parents, espousing essentially baseless opinions about frivolous aunts or shiftless uncles, I came to understand that Mardi Wormhoudt was one of the good politicians. I didn't know why. I just accepted it.

By 2007, when I returned to Santa Cruz in a professional capacity, Wormhoudt had finished her 12 years on the Board of Supervisors, capping a 21-year career of public service that included the mayoralty of Santa Cruz during the Loma Prieta earthquake. Her accomplishments, it seemed, were measured more by what hadn't happened than by what had: gorgeous Wilder Ranch hadn't been overtaken by subdivisions, Pogonip and Coast Dairy hadn't been developed, Lighthouse Field didn't have a conference center. But there was a flip side to the protectionism that had secured those important victories: not enough good hotels to balance out the cheap ones, a strident and oversimplified public discourse, a staggering price of admission to life in Santa Cruz. People referred to Mardi--always by first name--as the godmother of an elitist, some might say real estatist, cabal. She had successors, protégés, causes, enemies. When she was photographed by Dina Scoppettone for the 15th anniversary of Metro Santa Cruz, this paper's predecessor, her pixieish appearance came as a surprise. Petite and coifed in a fashionable blonde shag, clad in jeans and peasant blouse, she seemed too diminutive, too casual and stylish, to be a political powerhouse. Only the hint of steel in her eyes gave that part away. We ran a photo of her leaning on John Laird's shoulder, as if about to whisper in his ear. I worried that it gave short shrift to them both, but looked at another way it acknowledged the undeniable lineage of the Santa Cruz progressive movement.

Lately there's been much reminiscing about Mardi Wormhoudt and her legacy. Of the many things she left Santa Cruz--a beautiful greenbelt, a potent sense of its unique place in the world, a vibrant downtown--maybe the most important is the confidence to just say no to a future it didn't want, because that makes it possible to say yes to one it does. The boundaries have been drawn, the template set for smart growth and a denser, greener future several steps beyond what Mardi herself envisioned. History may decide that Mardi Wormhoudt was a woman far ahead of her time--more so than even she herself may have realized.

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