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No More Mr. Niceguy

[whitespace] Fred Keeley Prepped for a Fight: Fred Keeley is much more than an eco-warrior in a cardigan.

Paul Schraub

Fred Keeley takes off the gloves

By Eric Johnson

AT LEAST ONCE EVERY YEAR in the three years since Fred Keeley got himself elected to the state Assembly, he has come by our offices in the ivy-covered bunker here on Union Street to say hey. And every year, editor Buz Bezore pulls out a more-playful-than- politically- correct photo of the local Democrat he has stashed away and threatens to publish it.

It's a blooper from the session that produced the photo above--which Buz probably got ahold of through devious means--and Fred hasn't been too excited about seeing it splashed around Santa Cruz. In it, he's mugging a cutesy pose that makes him look like a wimp. Politicians generally like to appear more commanding and virile.

Even in real life, Keeley is no macho man. He's comes across as a very easygoing, polite and reasonable guy. He is even a bit fastidious--after a Metro Santa Cruz forum, a bunch of us went out for a politics-and-beer session, and Fred didn't even loosen his tie.

Nevertheless, even his regular nice-guy presentation can sometimes be deceiving--as some folks in Sacramento may soon find out. When he dropped by the office last week for his annual visit, Keeley told a story that showed that when he has to, he can be a hard-ass.

Environmentalists recognize Keeley as one of their strongest allies in the capital. Right now, he is the point man on coastal protection. A bill he authored, the Clean Coastal Waters and Rivers Bond Act, would make $660 million available for a little cleanup work on California's coastline.

Winding that bill through the obstacle course of Sacramento politics this year will take some finesse, but it may also take some force. It sounds like Keeley is ready to break out the big stick. In his mild- mannered way, the assemblymember told us Friday about a strategy that he hopes will persuade his colleagues--even the ones who are less than passionate about clean water--to support his bill.

The first thing he's done is to link the bill to another bond that would send money to state parks. That's just plain smart, because almost every lawmaker has a state park in his or her district. But the next move Keeley's got planned is a bit more complicated--some would even say devious.

Keeley is going to capitalize on the fact that state Democrats have decided that their main focus in this session will be public schools. Polls all show that (finally) Californians are tired of the third-rate education that comes from spending less on its students than 40 other states do. To raise the money, Democrats and their Republican allies are trying to pass an education bond. Despite strong political will to do that, it's a difficult task because bonds like this require a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature. That makes Fred Keeley's vote--and those of the small army of environmentalists he hangs out with--very valuable.

Want Keeley's vote on education? Give his beach bond your vote. He is more polite when describing his plan: "We may exercise some leverage and look into political linkage with the school bond," he says demurely.

Keeley is, of course, a strong supporter of education, but so's everybody else in Sacto this year. Even Gov. Pete Wilson has stated a commitment to spending some money on schools. Nevertheless, every vote matters, largely because Wilson's eye is on the White House. "His job from a presidential-aspiration point of view is to look more conservative than he really is," Keeley observes. That means the governor and some of his conservative allies will be pulling hard for tax relief and away from schools.

Every Democrat in Sacramento, and a lot of Republicans who read the polls, are going to be pulling the other way. And if Keeley's hardball plan is in effect, they will also be pulling for clean beaches--whether they want to or not.

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From the May 14-20, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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