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Note To Bankrobbers: About the $650 million portfolio that Keeley manages? Very little of that amount is actually deposited in the vault in Keeley's office.

Expired But Not Unplugged

Termed out of the Assembly in 2002, county treasurer–tax collector Fred Keeley still longs for the political spotlight

By Sarah Phelan

On the first of September--a stellar blue-skies day on which intimations of fall hang in the air like tendrils of smoke--Fred Keeley is cruising along Pacific Avenue on his lunch break. At 55, Keeley stands out from the usual flip-flops-, jeans- and T-shirt-wearing crowd by dint of his exceptionally well-tailored suit--a suit he wears with the same confidence and ease that infuse his words when discussing all things political.

Field polls on this fabulous fall day show that 57 percent of voters want Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to cancel his upcoming special election, a topic that Keeley will soon dissect as neatly as the pasta he's about to enjoy at Kianti's Pizza and Pasta bar--the chic Pacific Avenue eatery that's become the former Democratic assemblymember's favorite lunch spot since he returned from Sacramento eight months ago to become the county's treasurer–tax collector.

The waitstaff at Kianti's already fuss over Keeley like he's Bill Clinton, and they have good reason. Keeley may be termed out of the Assembly, but he's still very much a political player--and everybody in town knows it.

As county treasurer–tax collector, Keeley has three basic responsibilities: collecting property taxes, collecting delinquent accounts due in the county and running what is essentially a public sector bank.

"My clients, which include all the special districts that the Board of Supervisors governs, are required to use this bank," says Keeley who manages an impressive investment portfolio of $650 million, funds that are deposited in the county treasury and then invested by Keeley until they are needed by customers.

But today's lunch conversation focuses less on how Keeley invests all that money and more on why, as a Democrat, he supports Proposition 77, which is the initiative to reform redistricting on this fall's ballot.

Right now the polls may not look good for Prop. 77, but in the event the initiative does pass, the state Legislature would appoint a panel of "special masters," composed of retired judges, to draw up redistricting plans for the state.

Local Democrats characterize the initiative, which is backed not only by Arnie, but also by Republican Ted Costa (the same folks who brought us Gov. Gray Davis' 2003 recall election), as yet another attempted power grab.

But while Keeley is the first to admit that Prop. 77 is "flawed," he contrasts it with the current legislative process, which he says was "fatally flawed" for the Central Coast when our Senate seat was redistricted in the wake of the 2000 census.

"I don't like this measure, but solely in terms of putting the Central Coast back together as a Senate district, well, I see that as far more likely to happen under a panel of retired judges than under the machinations of the current system," says Keeley, picking up his fork and spearing a bow of meat-sauce-laden pasta. "So, I'll take bad over worse. Santa Cruz and Monterey County are clearly a combined community of interest, and I believe that voting 'Yes' on Prop. 77 will return us to a condition where the Central Coast is respected as a community of interest."

Three Uneasy Pieces

For those tracking Keeley's political career, it comes as no surprise that the former Boulder Creek resident is passionate about the need for redistricting reform. Keeley, who first moved into the area in 1979, began his career as an elected official when he won a seat on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors in 1988. He took that career to the next level when he was elected to the state Legislature in 1996. But after the 2000 census, a series of redistricting deals led to the butchering of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties into three uneasy pieces--a move that simultaneously wiped out what undoubtedly would have been the soon-to-be-termed-out Keeley's best shot at the Senate--and his most obvious next career step.

A more paranoid person might interpret that carve-up as a premeditated political assassination, but Keeley views it as a drive-by shooting--or so he maintains over lunch.

"It had nothing to do with me. It just happened that I was standing there, but I was not the target," says Keeley, who subsequently turned down an offer from then Gov. Gray Davis to become director of the state Department of Finance--a job offer that Keeley attributes to his tendency to gravitate to where the financial decisions are made--at least on the public bodies on which he has served.

In the end, Keeley became executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, remaining at the statewide environmental lobbying organization for two years before returning to Santa Cruz in January of this year.

"No one has an entitlement to go to the Senate, or whatever," he says, in between sipping from a glass of water. "It's never somebody's 'turn.'"

Details Sch-meal-tales

Digesting all the details of the 2002 redistricting fiasco takes time and energy and is an endeavor undoubtedly best undertaken over a leisurely pasta-filled lunch. Suffice it to say that it was a complicated jig that involved California Republicans relinquishing a state Senate seat in Merced to state Democrats, a step that then necessitated transforming the seat of Republican Sen. Bruce McPherson in Democratic-leaning Santa Cruz into a "real" Republican district, lest Democrats senators end up with a two-thirds majority in Sacramento. And all this was further complicated by the decision to guarantee the GOP no loss of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, in exchange for which Democrats got an urgency clause that guaranteed the redistricting deals could be immediately signed into law.

"Not many people believe that the original sin was in Merced," Keeley jokes, "but that is how Santa Cruz and Monterey County went from being the dog to being three tails of three different dogs."

Not that Keeley allowed this descent into dog-taildom to go down without a fight. He recalls how the Legislature gave the pretense of having some open public process. "They held hearings all over the state and in Sacramento--and absolutely ignored 100 percent of what the Central Coast said about how to redistrict its state Senate seat." All of which led Keeley, along with fellow Democrat Leon Panetta and Republican Bruce McPherson, to run nonpartisan display ads in newspapers throughout the Central Coast--a move that resulted in thousands of people contacting the Legislature and then Gov. Gray Davis.

Keeley also retained a noted voting rights lawyer in Los Angeles, who provided him with the legal opinion that the proposed Senate seat redistricting was in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act, because it divided up several communities of interest in terms of communities of color.

Keeley took that opinion to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., where he challenged the state Senate redistricting proposals in an administrative appeals process.

"They rejected it," Keeley recalls. "I wouldn't have expected the Bush administration to do anything else."

Redistricting Blues

For all his criticisms of the current method of redistricting, Keeley doesn't hesitate to identify the weakness in one of the central arguments put forward by Prop. 77's proponents, namely the notion that impartial special masters can draw fair and competitive districts.

"The idea that an objective of redistricting is to create competitive districts is silly," says Keeley. "This state is what it is. It's a state that elects more Democrats to anything. Not just in Legislature but in statewide elections and offices, Democrats almost always win in the last 25 to 30 years. And nowhere in the law does it say that the goal of redistricting is to create competitive districts where either party can win. In fact, it shouldn't be."

Taking Los Angeles as his example, Keeley imagines standing in the center of the downtown area that is largely low income, largely Latino.

"When you move out five miles in any direction, it's likely to be in an area of low to moderate income, of mixed ethnicity, including Latinos, recent Asian immigrants and African Americans. Another five or so miles, and you're likely to get to more economic diversity and less cultural diversity. Also, you'll find that in the first circle, closest to the center, 80 to 90 percent of voters are registered Democrats. In the second circle, 60 to 75 percent are Dems, while in the third circle, 50 to 60 percent are Dems. It's not until you get into the fourth circle in the suburbs of San Fernando Valley and Orange County that you have less than a majority of Democrats."

All of which means, says Keeley, that if making downtown Los Angeles a "competitive district" were a priority, "then you'd now have to draw a line 25 miles long and half a mile wide and start dividing all kinds of communities of interests.

"Federal voting laws and redistricting laws don't allow that and they shouldn't."

As Keeley explains, there are two fundamental legal aspects that do underpin any attempts to redistrict.

"The first is the concept of one person, one vote," he says, noting that "districts need to be adjusted after every census so that they are approximately of identical size in terms of population, if not in terms of registered voters, or even citizens."

The second underpinning aspect is the notion of communities of interest.

"This means that you don't divide a city in half, unless you can't avoid it, as in the case of Los Angeles. You try to keep counties and schools and service areas together, along with geographical districts like a valley or a postal area, or a lake and its surrounding population."

Acknowledging that the state has elected Republican governors in recent years--"Gov. Pete Wilson, Gov. Ronald Reagan, and Gov. Deukmejian all served two terms; and we've had Republican lieutenant governors and Republican U.S. senators"-- Keeley nevertheless insists that if you look at all the elections for statewide office, it's clear that more Democrats win and more Democrats vote.

"So, in this sense, the current redistricting proposal tries to cure a problem that doesn't exist. There's been a generation of control by Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly, and while it's entirely possible that the Republicans will win the governorship, it's not likely they'll get control of the Assembly or the Senate.

"The state just doesn't trend that way in terms of growth and voting patterns. There isn't anything they can do but weaken the institution of the Legislature. Costa and other very conservative folks who are backing this initiative don't care if they win or not. They just want to make the Legislature as irrelevant as possible. The irony is that if they win, I think the Legislature will become more Democratic."

Keeley supports his "more Democratic" claim by citing the fact that Republican U.S. Rep. John Doolittle, whose congressional district stretches from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe and up the Sierra Nevada range to the high desert on the Oregon border, is working overtime to try and defeat Prop. 77.

"Doolittle and most of the Republican delegates from California are livid, because they do think they could lose seats to Democrats," Keeley observes.

Understandably Opposed

Democrat John Laird, who currently holds Keeley's former seat in the Assembly, finds Keeley's support of the initiative "totally understandable."

"What happened to our Senate Central Coast district was a massive injustice for the region and for Fred," says Laird, who does not however support Prop. 77.

"Given what happened to the Central Coast, it's hard to support the current system, but since the last census 3.6 million people have been added. And to turn over the most diverse state in the union to a panel of retired judges, which is a very undiverse group ... I'd support an independent commission, or an independent commission with legislative review, or some other kind of hybrid."

Laird notes that currently there is in fact a bipartisan effort to defeat Prop. 77, an effort that involves Democratic U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, as well as Republican Rep. John Doolittle.

"The fact that so many congressional seats are noncompetitive is not fair, but one state reforming the way it does redistricting is like unilateral disarmament," says Laird, who finds it "interesting" that Republicans Abel Maldonado and Bruce McPherson, who both supported the 2002 Senate redistricting, are now supporting Prop. 77.

'I feel there can be better reform," says Laird, who wonders, if Prop. 77 passes, whether redistricting reforms would be implemented before the 2006 election--a hectic-sounding timetable to say the least.

(Calls to our former state Sen. Bruce McPherson, who is now the secretary of state, went unanswered as of presstime.)

Where to Now, Fred?

With the lunch hour rapidly drawing to an end, it's time for Keeley to get back to his job as county treasurer–tax collector, a post to which the county Board of Supes appointed him this year and to which he intends to seek election in 2006. That said, he doesn't hide the fact that he already has $60,000 in a Senate campaign committee and has been eying the District 15 state Senate seat, ever since incumbent Republican Abel Maldonaldo declared his candidacy for the state controller race in 2006.

To run for that particular Senate district, Keeley would have to move from the city of Santa Cruz where he currently lives--unless, of course Prop. 77 passes and those special masters end up restoring the Central Coast's Senate district to its former unified glory, a situation that, Keeley admits, is far from guaranteed.

Still, what reason other than a run for state Senate would motivate Keeley, who remains involved in statewide public policy (he sits on the state board of directors of the California League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood, as well as on several administration advisory groups), to return to a sleepy little surfside town where his penchant for sharp suits and matching ties seems almost as out of place as Umbrella Man's burgeoning "scary clown" look?

Always the smooth politician, Keeley notes that he's "personally very happy to be home in Santa Cruz and enormously grateful to the county Board of Supervisors" for appointing him to his latest job. He also sends a shoutout to District 3 Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt for making the first call to him in Sacramento to see if he'd be interested in becoming the county treasurer. And while he says he's trying to return the favor by serving locally on community issues such as transportation, affordable housing and the management of public funds, he admits that legislating is "enormously satisfying and enriching for the soul and intellect."

"I don't mean this in some immodest way, but I'm probably on the short list for state senator, statewide office or Congress," says Keeley, noting that as long as Laird is a sitting member of the Assembly, he still has first choice on the state Senate or Congress.

"I have no particular plans," says Keeley with the smile of a political animal who knows his own strength, "but I'd be silly to limit myself."

Money Shot: A Keeley employee does his vaguely humorous Uncle Scrooge impersonation.

Get 'Em In, Get 'Em Out

The pros and cons of term limits

Just because former Assemblymember Fred Keeley is a Democrat, doesn't mean he can't appreciate the positive in a Republican-driven power grab. Uniquely positioned to see the silver lining in the redistricting initiative that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing on this fall's ballot (see Cover Story), Keeley also sees the upside of term limits, a notion that became popular at the end of the 1980s and was driven largely by Republican interests in areas where Republicans hadn't been able to gain a majority.

"That certainly was the case in California," recalls Keeley. "It was not a movement by Democrats, the environmental movement or others who traditionally support Democrats in California."

That said, Keeley concludes that it would be hypocritical for him to be hypercritical of term limits, because he doesn't believe he'd have had an opportunity to serve in Sacramento without them.

"We had Sam Farr and Henry Mello [in the legislature]. Who knows how long they would have served?" says Keeley, who credits Assemblyman Bruce McPherson's takeover of Mello's termed-out Senate seat with his own opportunity to run for the Assembly.

Recalling how the case for term limits was mostly made on the grounds that the Legislature was allegedly "a moribund institution tied to a few special interests, whose members had grown roots into their seats, and where it wasn't possible to get things done," Keeley says another big force behind that particular initiative was the effort to get Willie Brown out of the Assembly.

"The idea was, 'Let's make citizen politicians, instead of career politicians,'" says Keeley, even as recent polls show that the current Legislature's approval rating is 27 percent--nine points lower than Arnie's 36 percent.

"That's the difference between asking people about a big nameless faceless institution and someone they have a personal interaction with," says Keeley, who thinks that so far the results of term limits are uneven.

"The prior system rewarded patience and loyalty. The new system rewards creativity and initiative. Neither of those systems is all good or all bad. It simply changed the value system of what gets rewarded," says Keeley, observing that the Legislature once was "the capstone" of a mayor or county supervisor's political career.

"They aspired to be a legislator, and once there, dug in. They wanted to master a specific area, and aspired to the chair of this or that committee."

By contrast, the new system limits Senate seats to two terms of four years each and Assembly seats to three terms of two years each. That means it's still possible for a legislator to serve 14 years in Sacramento as an elected official, before heading off to Congress, a "state treasurer" career path or what have you. The legislature, therefore, has become a means to an end, says Keeley, rather than an end unto itself.

"If you enjoy and value public service, when you arrive in Sacramento, you're there as a step to become, well, fill-in-the-blank. mayor of Los Angeles, member of Congress, member of Board of Supes in Orange County. That's had a big effect on Legislature. There's less collegiality, less bipartisanship. And yes, Willie Brown is no longer in the Assembly."

One very positive effect of term limits, says Keeley, is that members don't have to wait eight to 10 years before being permitted to carry out substantial legislation.

"In my first term as assemblymember, I authored a bill that became the Marine Life Management Act. When it was passed and the then-governor, Pete Wilson, signed it into law, the Associated Press said it was the most significant advance in Ocean Management in 50 years--and I was a freshman legislator!" said Keeley, adding that had he introduced such a bill as a pre-term limited freshman that never would have happened.

"The committee chair would have killed the bill to teach me a lesson of the impertinence of a freshman introducing policy. Or, if the chair really liked my bill, they'd strip my name off and put theirs onto it, before moving it out of committee. Or I'd have never have sent the bill for a hearing. What wouldn't have happened is for a bill to pass out of committee with my name on it."

But while there's more creativity and initiative in the term-limited environment, there's also, says Keeley, a lot more of what he calls "bumper sticker legislation." Since most members are now trying to get to somewhere else, to the next rung on the ladder, to build an instant record, they introduce bills to pad their legislative résumé, Keeley claims.

"It doesn't matter if these bills fail or are unrealistic. Members can say, 'I fought for such and such.' It gives them something to talk about in the rest of their campaign. Or their bills are driven by the headline of the week, which almost always emerges from a tragedy, with members arguing [that] had this bill already been law, the tragedy would have been averted."

As for the most positive effect term limits have had, Keeley readily proffers diversity by way of an answer.

"The Legislature looks more like California than it otherwise would have done. We have more people of color, more gays and lesbians, a wider diversity of background. It's a very different place in terms of the demographic of who serves there. It's looking more like the state of California. It would not have occurred on this timetable."

Sarah Phelan

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From the September 14-21, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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