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Mayor Christopher Krohn leaves a one-year legacy of controversy

Off the hot seat:

Mayor Christopher Krohn leaves a one-year legacy of controversy


November 17, 2002
Sentinel staff writer

Christopher Krohn is the only mayor in local history to promote
medical pot on the opinion pages of The New York Times. He is the
only one to chat about a possible U.S. attack on Iraq with Wolf Blitzer
of CNN and Greta Van Susteren of Fox Network News.
Santa Cruz has had peace activist mayors before, but it’s hard to
find one who got his message out to millions of people.
But the 6-foot-4, bearded mayor will soon lose his high-profile role
and become a stay-at-home dad in search of a job. Krohn, a former
bilingual teacher who last taught high school five years ago, opted
not to seek re-election. Krohn, who said he spends between nine and
11 hours a day as mayor, wants to devote more time to his family.
Admirers call Krohn an articulate leader and activist who represents
the slogan, “Think globally, act locally,” in the best sense of the
words. Others call him naive, and say he’s in over his head. A few
critics accuse him of catering to a small circle of backers,
championing “pet causes” that embarrass the city, sometimes on a
national scale.
On Wednesday, Krohn strolled the downtown farmers market with his
daughters, 7-year-old Sophia and Isabel, 2. He was chatty with most
everyone he met: acquaintances, vegetable vendors, even the No
Smoking Man, who runs around telling people to snuff their cigarettes.
Krohn ran into Mr. Twister the clown, another Santa Cruzan who had
a brief spell of national notoriety. Mr. Twister became a cause celebre
in the mid-1990s after getting in hot water for feeding strangers’
parking meters.
“Someone back East saw me on CNN,” Krohn told the clown. “But he
said it didn’t top that Mr. Twister story.”
For all of its warm and fuzzy reputation, Santa Cruz has politicians
who aren’t afraid to take the gloves off. Councilman Scott Kennedy
once referred to Krohn as the “Newt Gingrich of the left,” leading a
revolution that fizzled before it really began. He later apologized to
But getting a barbed quote out of Krohn is like going to the Saturn
Cafe and trying to order a kielbasa.
“Politics is very personal here,” said Krohn, who served a one-year
stint as mayor. “There’s a lot of bile involved in this job, and you end
up drinking a lot of Maalox. It can be very hard on your stomach
and your psyche.”
Krohn said it’s time to help out his family financially, though he
wouldn’t reveal his employment plans. As mayor, Krohn makes $24,000
a year and holds no outside job. His wife, Rachel O’Malley, earns
$42,000 a year as an associate professor in environmental studies at
San Jose State University.
Krohn’s last day at the city’s helm is Nov. 26. Vice mayor Emily Reilly,
expected to be his successor, said Krohn was passionate about many
causes including San Lorenzo River restoration.
“He has such a big heart,” she said. “He always included me and
helped me learn. I think the city’s loss is his family’s gain.”
Progressive ‘revolution’
Four years ago, Krohn, Keith Sugar and Tim Fitzmaurice beat out a
group of more “moderate” council candidates in a so-called
progressive revolution.
The trio, dubbed “The Three Amigos,” made good on its pledge to
scuttle the Beach Area Plan, which had been several years in the
making. It would have turned the aging La Bahia apartments into a
250-275 room hotel and conference center, and expanded the Beach
Boardwalk amusement park through a city partnership with the
Seaside Co. It also included affordable-housing plans.
Opponents called the plan drastic, saying it would displace residents
and snarl traffic.
But other campaign goals, such as changing the structure of local
government and taking bold steps to solve homeless problems
including a reconsideration of the city’s ban on camping or sleeping
outdoors proved much more elusive.
Only Fitzmaurice, who won his re-election bid, will stay on the
council. Sugar, like Krohn, bowed out this year. The two will be
replaced by Mike Rotkin and Cynthia Mathews both ex-mayors
themselves whose backers call them more moderate. Rotkin was
top vote-getter, then Mathews, with Fitzmaurice a distant third.
Some liberals believe the council is being shoved a few notches to
the right. In the world of Santa Cruz politics, it’s hard to quantify
such terms. Mathews is a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman while
Rotkin is a folk-singing ex- Marxist whose community studies classes
at UC Santa Cruz encourage young activists.
Rotkin made national headlines in 1981 as the city’s first
“socialist-feminist” mayor, and was one of Krohn’s early political
But some on the left now accuse Rotkin of selling out because of his
willingness to work with large and small businesses and perhaps
because he strongly opposes lifting the city’s camping ban.
Sugar and Krohn appeal to certain elements of the progressive
movement that once embraced Rotkin, but Rotkin said
characterizations of a more right-leaning council are silly.
“I’m just as progressive as anyone on the council,” Rotkin said. “(But)
I know how to get things done.”
He said he seeks more community input, efficiency and less
“tortured” discussion so meetings “do not go till 3 a.m. or whenever
the hell it is.”
It’s too early to know how Krohn’s departure will affect the council.
The tone was bound to get more pragmatic no matter who was sitting
on the council.
The economy is the reason. When Krohn was elected in 1998, the
city was flush with cash. The new council is now saddled with $2
million in recent budget cuts and a $500,000 deficit, with more cuts
and possible layoffs expected next year.
City leaders say they’re getting down to the business of digging out
of the financial muck. Krohn won’t be there to see if they succeed.
But he said he’s thinking of running again two years from now when
seats occupied by Mark Primack, Kennedy, Reilly and Ed Porter are up.
An activist in City Hall
Krohn, 44, was a different kind of mayor. At meetings he never blew
up at the council or the crowd a restraint that is rare in town.
Even when an audience member called council members bloodsuckers
and “psychos” last week, Krohn quietly asked him to be respectful.
He said his political consciousness developed early on. The youngest
of five children, he grew up in Baldwin, N.Y. but knew since age 10
that he was California-bound. He speaks of his parents as “good union
people.” His mother had a master’s degree in community health
education and worked in a nursing home. His father was an engineer
for NBC-TV.
In the ’70s he moved to San Diego, where he was an apprentice
carpenter and briefly attended San Diego State University. He later
moved to Santa Cruz, earning an undergraduate degree and a
teaching credential from UC Santa Cruz. He said being mayor was the
fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
But Krohn discovered it’s no easy task.
Krohn and Sugar together opposed tougher downtown behavior
ordinances this year when most council members, including
Fitzmaurice, backed them.
The rules were drafted in response to many complaints about sexual
harassment and aggressive panhandling. They include tougher space
restrictions for beggars and a ban on street “sports” like Hackey Sack
and Frisbee. Opponents called the rules rushed, part of a
preconceived agenda, and a mean-spirited slap on the poor.
“Nothing against my colleagues,” Krohn said. “But I didn’t see (the
rules) as addressing the blunt issues of drug abuse, urination,
defecation, sexual harassment. What we passed became political.”
Sandy Brown of the Santa Cruz Action Network, the progressive
group which urged the council to hold off on new rules, called Krohn’s
position honest and brave.
“I think Christopher’s contribution to the council comes from his
background in grass-roots activism,” she said. “(He) represented a
constituency that doesn’t often have representation.”
But many rule backers called Krohn’s position harmful. Peter Eberle,
prior to his departure this summer from his job as Downtown
Association executive director, accused the mayor of leaving the city
“leaderless” during a crisis.
“Pull your people together, be the figurehead we need right now,
Eberle said.
Candi Jackson, a merchant who rallied for the ordinance changes,
called Krohn a nice guy but said he ignored the concerns of shoppers,
merchants and downtown residents.
“He forgot he was running the whole town, that he was supposed to
be the mayor for everyone, not a select few.”
She said the next council will have to “clean up after his lack of
knowledge in the dynamics of running our city. I wish him well. I look
forward to a new council.”
Peace park
Krohn’s admirers, meanwhile, praised Krohn for standing up for a
peace park to be named after the late Doug Rand, a peace activist
and political organizer for Krohn, Sugar and Fitzmaurice when they ran
for the council in 1998. Krohn said the park was a thoughtful way to
reflect on violence worldwide while honoring a man who was part of
the city’s history of dissent.
At first the $93,000 park generated little reaction, but supporters
faced a sudden backlash after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,
especially when word spread that park backers were considering
World Trade Center rubble to display in a “Wall Of Consequence.”
The people leading the backlash including outspoken Red Cross
volunteer Karen Christopherson, who did relief work at Ground Zero
accused supporters of being disrespectful to the dead and said park
backers were using the project as political payback to Rand’s friends.
Primack called it a “pet project and not the result of any real
The rest of the council backed off its early support of the park,
citing lack of consensus and budget woes. They were also fearful
that controversial council actions might anger more
middle-of-the-road residents to vote against the $8.4 million utility
tax, which faced a challenge at the polls earlier this month. (The
voters kept the tax, by an almost 75 percent margin.)
Krohn and Sugar held the line on the peace park but were
outnumbered. The council pulled the plug on its funding this summer.
But Krohn said he would like be remembered for the projects that did
see the light of day.
He supported the refurbished Del Mar Theatre, voted for a teen
center and advocated for recycling and garbage cans around Pacific
Avenue. He worked on a pesticide-regulation ordinance and urged the
city to buy the Fun Spot parcel, where a skate park is now located.
He said he’s proud of being “thrust into the position of being the
highest-profile spokesperson touting alternatives to widening Highway
Sugar said he handled that task with aplomb.
“He’s done a great job of raising awareness of Highway 1, and
questioning the absurdity of highway widening,” said Sugar. “It was
very courageous, considering the flak (over Highway 1.”
Krohn’s critics
While council meetings were mostly cordial, councilman Primack, in
particular, has questioned Krohn’s ability to lead and his grasp of the
Primack would not comment for this article.
Councilman Scott Kennedy called Krohn excellent in some respects,
ineffectual in others.
“It has really been fun to see Christopher in his role as mayor,”
Kennedy said. “I think he has really grown into the position in terms of
its public, symbolic role. Doing proclamations and appearing at public
events, he’s at his best.”
But Kennedy said Krohn’s attempts to take on the structure of local
government, and to resolve a long-standing argument about
ownership and restoration of the San Lorenzo River tidelands, went
nowhere. The disputed tidelands are the site of a Beach Boardwalk
parking lot.
Kennedy said Krohn and Sugar would have had “great difficulty
“getting re-elected this year because there is a fiscal crisis and
“people want to make sure the city is in competent hands. It is very
telling that Tim (Fitzmaurice,) who proved himself more pragmatic and
reasonable, was the only one who decided to run again, and actually
was elected.”
Krohn said land-use issues like the tidelands can take years to
resolve, and took issue with the “pragmatism” comparisons.
“If you look at the record, I we have spent the majority of our
time on the issues of affordable housing, transportation and issues of
access and openness of government.”
Sugar, responding to Kennedy’s statements about his and Krohn’s
tenure, said “If Scott wants to go back to pre-1998 mudslinging,
that’s a dangerous sign for where this council is headed.”
Fitzmaurice said “Krohn did a good job this year. It’s very hard being
mayor during an economic reversal. He still managed to be a very
optimistic and positive leader. It’s purely hypothetical to say he
wouldn’t have been re-elected. He has passionate supporters and
passionate detractors. Don’t we all?”
In the spotlight
Krohn likes to wear his tie only on special occasions. This year, the
tie showed up a lot.
In September, Greta Van Susteren of Fox news put him under the
hot lights because of the council’s stance against a United States-led
war on Iraq. The city was the first in the nation to take such action.
Many e-mails and letters were supportive, though Krohn was also
“e-mailed threats and a lot of vituperative comments” from those who
thought the council was railing against the president.
While one writer called the council brave “for leading the nation to
common sense,” a Nevada woman wrote: “What’s wrong with you?
Your city is a disgrace.”
One dramatic moment was the city’s stand on medical marijuana. It
happened after the local Wo/Men’s Alliance For Medical Marijuana,
whose clients include terminally ill residents, was raided Sept. 5 by
federal agents wielding automatic weapons.
The collective’s founders were arrested and more than 100 plants
uprooted. Council members later attended a pot giveaway
restricted to medical marijuana users on the steps of City Hall.
The demonstration drew throngs along with a mystery helicopter,
widely rumored to be a Drug Enforcement Administration aircraft.
The result was Krohn’s biggest public opinion coup: a piece in the
op-ed section of The New York Times. The essay began with a
question: “How did I, a mayor of a small town in California, wind up in
a tug of war with the Drug Enforcement Agency?”
His answer: The founders “were not breaking the law. They were
growing marijuana specifically for people who had been legally
prescribed the substance to help them with chronic pain brought on
by cancer, diabetes and other illnesses.”
Issues like war and the rights of the oppressed are “quintessentially
local,” he said later. “Medical marijuana patients are some of the most
vulnerable people in this community. The least we can do is uphold
the laws of California. If not the City Council, then who?”
However, he said the past year’s focus was mostly municipal.
“Look at my calendar and e-mails, and the stuff I participate in, eight
to 11 hours a day,” he said. “That other stuff, it’s sort of icing on the
cake. ... I spend a great deal of time on recycling issues, river
restoration, nuts and bolts work.”
Krohn would later introduce a council resolution opposing aspects of
the U.S. Patriot Act on the grounds it gives federal agents excessive
snooping rights and rolls back civil liberties.
The entire council even Primack, who slammed some previous
Krohn-backed resolutions got on board. Most in the chamber
Vince Lombardo, a Free Radio Santa Cruz programmer who often
criticized the council for not lifting the sleeping ban, said he’s proud
to say he lived in Santa Cruz when the mayor supported resolutions
condemning a U.S. war on Iraq.
“For being in a position of working within the system, he did try to
make strides for change as best he could,” Lombardo said.
Krohn said the city itself was in the limelight this year, not him. All the
same, he said, he hoped his message resonated.
“I believe I have a notion of what progressive politics is,” he said.
“And I believed I stayed on that message. That is what people elect
you for.”
Contact Dan White at dwhite (at)


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