Robert Steffen starts a brand new walk—directly toward a city council seat
Robert Steffen is looking to prove he can talk the talk, not just walk the (very slow) walk. Two years after Steffen, the prominent downtown Santa Cruz character formerly known as “The Pink Umbrella Man,” put away his parasol and pink clothing and ceased walking ever so slowly from one end of Pacific Avenue to the other, he’s announcing a run for Santa Cruz City Council in November.
“There are a lot of local ordinances that I think are completely wrong,” Steffen says. In fact, he hopes to repeal an array of local ordinances, such as those that prohibit panhandlers from being within 14 feet of building entrances, open-air cafés or crosswalks, and 50 feet from any bank or ATM. Steffen calls his political position a “progressive platform very strongly based in humanitarian ideals.”
Mayor Mike Rotkin, whose term comes to an end in January 2011, says he is unfamiliar with the particulars of Steffen’s platform, but believes that Steffen is better known for his notorious downtown slow walking routine than anything else. “Of course it’s up to the voters,” says Rotkin. “But that by itself is not significant qualifications to be elected to the city council. At this point, I’m not persuaded that he’s a viable candidate.”
“No qualifications?” Steffen responds with a smile, thinking back over his record. “I have a college degree. I know a lot of people around town. I enjoy working with people.
“I don’t see why intelligent people shouldn’t be able to get together and work out some sort of compromise where needed,” he adds.
The upcoming election might just give Steffen his shot. Three of the seven city council seats will be opening up, including Rotkin’s, Councilmember Cynthia Mathews’, and Councilmember Lynn Robinson’s. Mathews and Rotkin are currently in their second straight term and will be unable to run again until November 2012 due to consecutive term limits. Robinson plans to run again. Community activist and grant writer Steve Pleich will also be running, and Santa Cruz Transportation Commissioner David Terrazas, who ran in November 2008, is strongly considering it.
Steffen says he is relatively well informed about local ordinances but less familiar with other areas of city politics, such as the proposed Arana Gulch bike trail, recently increased alcohol fees, and UC Santa Cruz expansion, on which he had no comment. While he does not much have experience mediating difficult decisions, he says, “I can certainly give it a try.”
In addition, he worries the job might grow dull: “My main concern is that I am going to get too bored sitting in the city council chamber. I’m afraid that it’s going to be way boring through those long city council meetings but I’ll bring my laptop [to] have something to keep me occupied if it gets too boring.”
If the risk of extreme boredom is so high, why run at all? Steffen is running for city council partly because, in his words, “it’s a place to start.”
Curiously, Steffen also made a run for president in 2000. He talks at length about his frustration with human rights violations around the world and loathes the influence that the Evangelical Christian Right wields in American politics. He would also like to see a reversal of Proposition 13, a controversial ballot initiative passed in 1978 that has made it harder for the California government to balance its budget.
Whether locally or internationally, most of Steffen’s beliefs are fundamentally about liberty and freedom. He opposes Santa Cruz’s “party ordinance,” which issues hefty fees for “unruly gatherings.” Steffen would also like to decriminalize underage drinking in the city. But the central issues for Steffen remain the local ordinances that regulate loitering, panhandling, and street performing. Steffen believes the laws are unpopular, but Mayor Rotkin disagrees.
“I predict he’s going to go down in flames on those issues” Rotkin says. “I would say the single biggest issue by at least a factor of 10 or 20 over everything else is people saying ‘When are you going to do something about these people making a mess downtown?’”
Steffen, however isn’t worried about the “mess.”
“Societies can be a messy place, ” he says. “As long as [people are] not blocking traffic, they should be able to sit on the sidewalk or even up against buildings … Writing laws against them isn’t going to make the problem go away. We’re talking about people, and we have to address the issues and not hurt the people or try to stifle their voices.”
Robert Norse, a local radio host and homeless advocate, has been a longtime critic of the Santa Cruz City Council and believes, like Steffen, that Santa Cruz’s street performers and homeless persons have been unfairly targeted. Norse says he would “consider supporting anyone who wants to see civil rights restored for poor people in Santa Cruz.” Norse is concerned, however, that without a large fundraising campaign and the backing of several organizations and institutions, Steffen will be unable to run a successful campaign. Norse mused that people “might vote for Robert [Steffen] as a person, but it’s hard to imagine he could ever win the election.
“But I think registering concerns about these issues is really important and raising them in forums is really important, and I’m glad he’s doing that,” he adds.
After years of (slowly) walking silently up and down Pacific Avenue, Steffen has finally raised his voice—now he awaits the fall election to see if anybody will have heard it.