Bert Muhly, former Santa Cruz mayor and icon of progressive politics, dies at 88

Originally published by the Santa Cruz Sentinel Dec. 16, 2011.

SANTA CRUZ — Former Mayor Bert Muhly, the two-term city councilman and one-time county planning chief who as a university educator and political kingmaker championed progressive movements ranging from local growth limits to statewide coastal protection and the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, died Friday at his home on the Westside.

He was 88.

The cause of death was heart failure, said his wife, Lois, a retired elementary school teacher. The couple, who has lived in Santa Cruz for 50 years, celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary in October.

For decades, Muhly employed his education in urban planning to press for government policies that controlled development and safeguarded natural resources. He was also instrumental in electing regional officials to national posts, all while keeping a keen eye on local grassroots political talent who could help him advance liberal causes.

“It was a beautiful place when he moved here,” Lois Muhly said, explaining his political drive. “There were so many fine qualities that he wanted to preserve for his children and grandchildren.”

The former UC Santa Cruz and San Jose State University professor was remembered Friday as a passionate and diligent activist who, as part of the vanguard of California environmentalists in the 1960s, contributed to legislation that created the powerful Coastal Commission that now governs development along 1,100 miles of the state’s shoreline.

Countless Democrats turned to Muhly during the last five decades, seeking guidance, fundraising and moral support.

“Bert was a Santa Cruz icon,” Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, said Friday from his office in Washington. “I don’t think I’ve seen a person so outspoken on human rights and progressive politics, especially in Central America.”

Muhly traveled more than two dozen times to Nicaragua, including once to deliver a donated ambulance to Santa Cruz’s sister city of Jinotepe. He was strongly opposed to the Contra movement of the 1980s, which was backed by President Ronald Reagan’s administration to battle the Sandanistas after an overthrow of the country’s dictator.

The Muhlys cofounded Three Americas, a nonprofit organization that works to raise awareness and funds, often through the sale of fair-trade coffee, for communities in Central and South America. The group helped to raise $10,000 this year for the Chile-Santa Cruz Friendship Committee, Lois Muhly said.

Bert Muhly served on the City Council from April 1974 to November 1981, and was chosen immediately to serve as vice mayor and then as mayor in late 1974. During his years on the council, Muhly served as the city’s representative to the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments, and was at one point the organization’s president.

Retired physician and former mayor John Mahaney, a conservative member of the council, remembered his one-time colleague as standing firm on an anti-growth agenda.

“He was a really honest forthright guy,” Mahaney said. “Sometimes we didn’t agree, but I had a lot of respect for him and his abilities.”

Muhly also was adept at getting friends into places of power, famous for the earthy crab cake fundraisers he and Lois, a former Soquel Union Elementary School District teacher, hosted on their deck.

In addition to advancing Farr’s career, Muhly worked to elect Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, the former director of the CIA and chief of staff at the White House, to Congress from the Monterey area.

Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane, who worked with Muhly on Panetta’s congressional campaign, said Muhly was one of the first people he came to know when he became politically active in the 1970s.

“He was the sort of the beginning of Santa Cruz moving into a more environmentally conscious and progressive community,” Lane said. “If he supported a cause, then he just drove it forward. He just never let go of it.”

Farr said Muhly helped launch his first campaign for the state Assembly in the 1980s and was instrumental in his 1993 bid to join the U.S. House of Representatives. Farr said he felt as though he was Muhly’s adopted son at times.

“I practically lived in their house in Santa Cruz while I was running my campaign,” Farr said. “The house was full of fascinating people. Every meal was a think-tank discussion.”

Born Louis Bert Muhly in Maryland on June 18, 1923, Muhly earned a bachelor’s of science degree in business administration from UC Berkeley in 1948 and a master’s degree from the Department of City and Regional Planning at the university four years later.

He served as the director of planning for Tulare County for three years and worked for an engineering firm for two years before coming to Santa Cruz County, where he served as head of the planning department and is credited with drafting the county’s first general plan at a time when UCSC was being established.

After nearly a decade in that post, he chose to leave the professional side of municipal planning to be an educator. The move afforded him the opportunity to enter the world of advocacy free of the political constraints posed by his county post.

Muhly was an instructor in the environmental studies program at UC Santa Cruz and later the graduate planning program at San Jose State University, for a total of 19 years. He retired from San Jose State as professor emeritus in 1989 but maintained an active voice in local land use issues.

“He was one of the pillars of progressive politics in Santa Cruz and was particularly influential at a time when community dynamics were changing, and he certainly actively supported more candidates that you could count,” said former mayor Cynthia Mathews, who joined neighborhood activism in the 1970s. “He was certainly very encouraging to me even at that early level.”

The Muhlys wrote to the City Council and Sentinel last month, suggesting Beach Flats Park be named for Scott Kennedy, a former mayor and fellow activist for nonviolence who died Nov. 18.

Lane said the gesture shows Bert Muhly never tired of advocacy.

“He was plugging away until the end,” Lane said.

Lois Muhly said she and her family would wait until after the holidays to make arrangements for a memorial service.

In addition to his wife, Muhly is survived by five children: Patricia Vargas of Santa Cruz, William Muhly of Happy Valley, Jenifer Hutson of Santa Cruz, Janet Windt of Santa Cruz and Ernest Muhly of Soquel. A daughter, Sally, died in 2000. The couple has numerous grandchildren.


BORN: June 18, 1923

DIED: Dec. 16, 2011


OCCUPATION: Professor emeritus, San Jose State; former instructor at UC Santa Cruz, former planning director for Santa Cruz County

CIVIC LIFE: Mayor of Santa Cruz, 1974-1975; member of the City Council from 1974-1981; former president of the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments; co-founder of Three Americas nonprofit