Casey Tanaka is no stranger to local politics. Although most know him as former Mayor of Coronado—he served from 2008 until 2016–he actually attended his very first city council meeting when he was in middle school.
A self-professed history nerd, Casey says his love of U.S History started at a young age. As his interest in history grew, so did his interest in Coronado, and ultimately, its government. This year, Casey starts his 22nd year teaching advanced placement U.S. History at Coronado High School.
“When I was in fifth grade, we specifically covered U.S. History and my teacher, Mrs. Bardtman, did a wonderful job piquing my interest in the subject,” says Tanaka. “I couldn’t shut up about the stuff I had learned in her class.”
A few years later, in 1988, he found himself at his first Coronado City Council debate. While most of his peers were at the beach or hanging out with friends, Casey sat in the audience, enthralled by what he saw.
“I’m pretty sure I was the only middle schooler attending that debate,” said Casey.
Casey says Councilmember Patty Schmidt made a big impression on him with her serious and solemn demeanor. He was so intrigued with the meeting, he started reading the Coronado Journal and following all the city council votes on various issues. Fast forward and he ran against Patty for a seat on Coronado City Council in 2000.
Casey lost, but he has fond memories of his campaign. He remembers being asked a question about whether or not he supported the home-porting of nuclear aircraft carriers at NASNI. It was right up his alley; in fact, he had written his undergraduate thesis at UCSD on the very subject.
“I explained how nuclear carriers didn’t burn diesel oil like our non-nuclear carriers did, and therefore didn’t belch smoke into the air,” said Casey. “They also run indefinitely at full-speed on the power produced by their nuclear reactors while also powering catapults, desalinating water, etc.”
Patty’s turn came to answer the question right after Casey. She simply leaned into her microphone and spoke one word, “Ditto.”
“That surprised me and was easily the best moment during that campaign,” says Casey.
He ran again two years later. This time, he was the top vote-earner, and he sat next to Patty when he was sworn in. He won again in 2006.
In 2008, Mayor Tom Smisek decided to step down, after serving as mayor for 12 years. Casey saw an opportunity to serve Coronado in a greater capacity: he ran for mayor, and won.
For two consecutive terms.
Casey served from 2008 until 2016, when term limits prohibited another run. When asked what he is most proud of during his tenure as mayor, Casey says maintaining Coronado’s lineage to its past, while maintaining a healthy budget.
“Patty and Tom both served on the city council for 16 years and were famous for watching the City’s spending like a couple of hawks,” says Casey. “They both took important steps to protect Coronado’s history by putting ordinances in place to allow homes to become historically designated and in some cases, recipients of property tax reductions.”
Casey continued developing and supporting polices to maintain Coronado’s charm, while working hard to control spending.
“As someone who values history and tradition, I am most proud of maintaining Coronado’s lineage to its past,” says Casey. “I tried my best as councilman to support that philosophy of tightfisted fiscal management of the budget and Coronado’s history. As Mayor, I had more leverage to fight for maintaining the city’s strong financial position and in protecting our city’s history and neighborhoods. Ultimately, I am proudest of leaving the city in at least as strong of a position as I found it when I took over as mayor.”
Though Casey stepped down in 2016, he continued to take an active interest in Coronado politics. In fact, he’s only missed three city council meetings in fourteen years.
So, why run for city council? Why now? Now, when the city and the nation as a whole are embroiled in a global pandemic, hotly contested political debate, civil unrest, and an economic crisis the likes of which we have not seen since the Great Depression?
“While other people bleed red blood, I exclusively bleed green, white and gold blood,” said Tanaka in a recent Facebook post announcing his run for City Council. “I want to jump off the sidelines and help our citizens problem-solve and move forward in the midst of these challenges.”
Casey says the COVID crisis has presented massive new challenges to the city.
“In particular, the city’s revenues from the Transient Occupancy Tax—the tax on people staying at our hotels—has dropped the city’s revenues by millions of dollars,” says Casey. “I very much want to lend a hand to the council and to the city’s management team. How our city handles its budgeting priorities in the near term will have significant impacts on our city’s residents, and I want to share my insight that I might have to make sure that strong public policy is developed.”
So how do we help the city financially, after we’ve lost much of our hotel tax revenue?
“The city will need to make some tough decisions about the size of its workforce and about the extent that it wants to dip into reserves to balance its budget and avoid cutting back on the size of its workforce,” says Casey. “I believe that the reserves built up by the city councils of the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s were intended to get our city through a major crisis…like the one we are now facing.”
Casey favors careful evaluation on how these reserves can be used for the next 12-18 months to weather the COVID storm. He says he is willing to consider budget and staffing cuts, but hopes that won’t be necessary.
“Our reserves have been built up for a moment like this one,” says Casey.
Casey says that Coronado has an “exceptional” city manager, and a wise and resourceful management team that continually develops policy and strategies to deal with the problems that pop up almost daily.
“The kind, capable souls who serve as our city’s employees have met their challenges head on, and have maintained their fidelity to our community,” says Casey. “The mayor and the city council have been wonderfully supportive of their management team and their city employees.”
But many challenges remain. Casey advocates fostering a safe environment for local businesses to be successful, without posing a greater risk of virus transmissions. It’s a tricky line to walk.
“One of the main challenges that Coronado’s leaders are facing is how to balance support for local businesses and the local economy without making residents of Coronado feel that they are facing greater undue risks to COVID exposure and transmission from an increased number of visitors, day trippers, and tourists,” says Casey. “I am concerned that we are creating more COVID exposure risks from out-of-towners than is wise.”
Casey hopes the city will continue to help local businesses survive the pandemic by moving operations outside.
“I have seen the city aggressively use its sidewalks and parks to create outdoor opportunities for restaurants and businesses to move some of their elements safely outdoors,” says Casey. “I applaud those efforts and I think we need to continue to think about ways to use sidewalks and streets in this manner. The biggest dangers of transmitting the COVID virus occur indoors, and the more we can continue to help our businesses operate outdoors, the better.”
When it comes to another heated topic–social justice–Casey says there are certain things we can do to unite the island in the wake of civil unrest. The most important? To listen.
“The most important thing we can do is continue to listen to people,” says Casey. “Many of the problems discussed by our residents or by people around the nation do not have clear fixes or solutions attached. In the absence of these solutions, we must continue to make ourselves available to hear from those who have been harmed or victimized. If there are solutions to be found in these problems, the embryos of these solutions will be discovered by listening to our fellow citizens and their cries for help.”
While the global pandemic and civil unrest have dwarfed many other issues facing the Coronado community, it will always remain important to protect our beaches from cross-border sewage issues, and help the island retain its small-town charm.
When it comes to pollution, Casey says we are on the right track. The key is follow-through.
“The city has succeeded at partnering with other government entities to create pressure on the Federal Government to fund a partial solution to the border sewage crisis,” says Casey. “The next steps involve holding the feet of these federal partners to the fire to see to it that these new funds are properly spent to fight this sewage problem.”
Finally, preserving Coronado’s charm is now, as it was in the past, an important part of keeping the island special. Casey says there are several important elements of Coronado’s charm that he works towards: fighting against overbuilding and overcrowding in Coronado; keeping Coronado a pleasant place to walk, bike, jog, or recreate in; protecting our parks and beaches; protecting the medians on Orange Avenue; continuing to maintain streets and sidewalks at a high level; doing our best to take care of local businesses and restaurants; and maintaining a high level of city services.
Casey says he’s ready to embrace a spot as councilman and has what it takes to help Coronado make it through the pandemic and economic crisis.
“I have empathy for people,” says Casey. “I try to put other people and their needs first. I try to approach problems and issues with logic and reason. I try to avoid emotional responses. I try to identify my mistakes and biases. I make every effort to be honest and direct with the people I encounter.”
Casey says good leaders are reflective, and think about how things went, and if there was a better way a situation could have been handled.
“I spend lots of time thinking, and rethinking issues, and I am excited about the chance to rejoin the city council because I relish the chance to reflect on the problems and the issues that our people face,” says Casey.
Casey says although Coronado is perhaps more divided than it was in the past, Islanders–as a collective group– have a unifying sense of positivity and gratitude, upon which much can be built.
“Islanders are grateful for what they have here in Coronado, and wish to celebrate their good fortune with others,” says Casey. “Islanders see the positivity in their surroundings and want to contribute to this positive environment that we are so grateful to be part of.”
Despite our differences, Casey maintains that good leadership can help unite us.
“The political divisions I am most concerned about locally and nationally have to do with people and groups placing their own selfish needs ahead of the needs of their peers as a whole,” says Casey. “The most trusted leaders are the ones who demonstrate selflessness the most. If people believe that your motivation lies in the collective good, you can be a force for unity.”