People frequently refer to someone as “the mayor” when that person is well known by all. When I sat down to interview Mayor Casey Tanaka at one of Orange Avenue’s businesses, Mayor Tanaka, who donned one of his signature Hawaiian shirts, proved why that expression exists. Several people stopped by our table to say a quick hello, to tell him news of some of his former high school students who are now away at college, or to mention something that was going on in the city. It is evident that after serving on the City Council from 2002-2008 and then serving as Mayor from 2008 to present, Mayor Tanaka, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. History and U.S. Government at Coronado High School, is someone who is known for wearing just as many hats as he does Hawaiian shirts.
What accomplishments as Mayor are you most proud of?
“I’m happy that the city is doing well financially. I think that’s one of the things that any elected official that’s a city council member or Mayor is concerned about. What were the finances coming in, and what have you done to help make sure that those finances remain as secure or more secure? I think when I leave office that’s something that I’ll be very happy with. The city’s finances were strong when I got there, and they’re as strong, if not stronger I think, as I leave so I’m happy about that.”
Is there anything about your time as Mayor that you wish you could change, or do you have any regrets?
“I think my initial answer would be no, but I’m not happy with how some of the bicycle stuff has turned out. If I had some of that to do over again, I might have handled that differently, particularly anything bike-related to the beach; the public’s opposition to that, the way it formed, how loud it was, that they weren’t interested in any details. They just knew immediately that they didn’t want to consider anything. Those reactions from the public surprised me a little bit.”
If you had your way, would you have wanted the bicycle paths on the beach?
“I don’t know. That’s why we wanted to study it. The public’s reaction was, ‘We don’t want to study it,’ and that surprises me. My view of the job is my job is to carry out what the public wants. The public was so opposed is what surprised me. I don’t think I would have pursued it if I was aware of the public’s opposition to even finding out more details.”
What do you like best about being Mayor?
“I think it’s just nice to walk around town and recognize people, and to feel to some extent that you can help them with what their issues are. That’s being the Mayor at its best. I think being the Mayor at its worst is when you can’t help people with their problem; whatever problem they’re posing that’s something that isn’t within your ability to fix it.”
Some citizens tagged you on comments on social media, asking you to help determine which store replaced Haggen. How do you handle situations like that?
“There’s a difference between something that’s opinion-related versus something that is a government service. I’ve had to tell a lot of people that I see that as a free market issue not as a government one, and not everyone agrees. There are some things that I don’t think are within my purview or it’s not something that I should be unilaterally responding to.”
What do you still hope to accomplish during your remaining time as Mayor?
“There are really only about twelve months left so I just want to make sure that things continue to be steered in the right direction. I don’t look at it as the last twelve months to do something I wasn’t planning on doing. I don’t have any big ambitions to push through this item or push through that. In any given year I want the city’s direction to be steered properly. I want to make sure that I don’t screw up the direction of the ship before I leave.”
What are you planning on doing with all of your spare time once you’re no longer Mayor?
“The obvious answer is I’ll redirect some of that time back into my work as a teacher. I’ll have more time for either school events or planning, and thinking about things that I do in class. Perhaps I might run for something else. I haven’t entirely decided that yet either.”
You served on City Council prior to becoming Mayor. Would you consider running for City Council again?
“I will certainly not run for anything that’s a City of Coronado position in 2016. One way of looking at it is clearly I’m term limited for being Mayor again so that’s not a consideration. I wouldn’t run for City Council in 2016. I think people are unclear whether or not I’m prohibited from it, but I’m prohibiting it because I think that’s clearly what the point of term limits is. They’re for us to step away for at least for a couple of years before deciding to run again. At some point in the future I might consider it.”
Once you’re no longer Mayor will you still attend City Council meetings?
“I am very certain that I will not attend City Council meetings for a while. I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I’m trying to look in on them. They deserve their space. I don’t want people to be looking to see what I think. I don’t want to cast a shadow on the next City Council. Plus that’s one of the benefits of not being in office anymore. I don’t have to be at every meeting. I think I’m certainly looking forward to that element of being a private citizen.”
While all candidates have not yet announced that they are running yet, which candidate will you endorse as the next Mayor of the City of Coronado?
“I expect that Carrie Downey will announce that she’s running at some point between now and July. She’s definitely who I’ll be supporting to be the next Mayor.”
You were born in Honolulu, Hawaii, where you spent a few years before moving to Coronado. In addition to your colorful shirts, how have you brought the spirit of “Aloha” to Coronado?
“I think I’m more laid-back than most Mayors. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. I just know that I tend to be, and I think that’s something that I’ve observed in Hawaii that they probably take themselves a little less seriously. They’re less prone to get dressed up than more prone so that’s probably true of me. Something that I’ve enjoyed is I think sometimes people look for permission to be a little bit more informal. I don’t know that everyone approves of what I do, but I do get the sense that sometimes people are glad that they can be a little more informal as well. I think I see that in a positive way.”
How do you use your role as Mayor to tie into teaching U.S. Government?
“One of the units that you’re supposed to teach in government, a semester long class, is local government. I would suspect that there aren’t any 12th grade government teachers in the county that cover SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments). That’s the unit I’m on right now. There’s no textbook for that. You either understand city, county, and state government, or you don’t, and I think I’m certainly well-positioned to understand some of those inner-workings, and to expect my students to know about those things now as well.”
“Even things like attending a council meeting . . . I think other government teachers will require that, but I don’t always do it, but when I do require it, the requirement is just that they attend. They don’t have to do a write-up for it, and they just have to make eye contact with me so I can in my own way check that they were there. I think that’s an advantage that other government teachers don’t have. They’re not going to attend every City Council meeting, whereas I am so it’s easier for me when I require those things. One of the nice things is that when a teacher attends a sporting event or a play, it’s a chance for the teacher to see the student in a different setting, which is kind of nice, and I think that’s one of those weird opportunities for students to see me in a different setting. They know what a Mayor is vaguely, but they don’t really see them in action a lot. I think in a weird sense when a kid has the chance to attend a council meeting that’s the upside of it. Obviously if their teacher isn’t involved in that way, it’s more of a clinical thing to just sit there for thirty minutes. It probably is a little amusing for them to see their teacher have to interact with the rest of the council or the public.
Will you still require your Government students to attend City Council meetings occasionally even when you’re no longer the Mayor?
“Yes, the way I teach that unit wouldn’t change. It will just be a little different in terms of I might not be at a meeting that I’m asking them to attend, whereas certainly for the last fourteen years or so I have been.”