Santa Clara is home, more than any other place, for Bob O’Keefe. It’s where he grew up, and where he chose to retire. Now he wants a seat on the City Council for a say in how to maintain and improve his favorite place.
A retired California Highway Patrol officer, O’Keefe is running for the Santa Clara’s District 5 seat, which Patricia Mahan vacated in February for medical reasons. He faces Planning Commissioner Suds Jain.
O’Keefe grew up walking the streets of Santa Clara and went to St. Clare School on Washington Street. Since moving to his current neighborhood in District 5, he said he and and his wife have seen three families move in with young children, and then watched them grow and move on.
O’Keefe entered the California Highway Patrol Academy when he was a young adult. Upon graduating in 1985, he joined the force at its San Jose office. That began a 30-year career until O’Keefe retired as lieutenant in 2014.
“I believe in public service. I believe it’s a calling and I believe police officers need to be held to a higher standard,” O’Keefe said. “I set my standards extremely high.”
As a lieutenant, O’Keefe ended up in San Francisco supervising all CHP operations for San Francisco County. During his career, he climbed his way up the ranks, even working undercover in narcotics investigations while “on loan” to the Department of Justice for a few years.
The final years of his career he spent in the patrol’s San Mateo office in Redwood City. But Santa Clara has always been home.
New to politics
Though he was narrowly beat out for the city clerk position in 2018, O’Keefe said he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. “It was a great experience and I met a lot of Santa Clarans,” O’Keefe said. “It really opened my eyes to the campaign process.”
He spent a lot of time walking the city back then and knocking on doors, an experience he said he enjoyed. This time, he’s leaving door hangers and still traveling District 5, but without as much face-to-face interaction. which he said he misses.
He said he has still been able to connect with his neighbors in a way that reflects the time he’s lived in the district. When he approached a house, there was a woman out front working in the yard, and he introduced himself.
“She’s like ‘O’Keefe, are you any relation to Marge and Jerry O’Keefe?'” he said. The woman went and got her husband inside the house. “‘She said, ‘Come here. Little Robert O’Keefe is here and he’s running for City Council!'”
It had been decades since anyone had called him “Little Robert,” he said, but it was nice because the couple had stories to tell him about his parents, both of whom died years ago.
O’Keefe said he is confident he knows what his district needs.
“I have a few friends and lots of neighbors that I kind of look to for getting a pulse and feel of the neighborhood,” O’Keefe said. “Even while I was running for clerk, I would ask what they think is good for the city.”
He said he hears the same issues today that he heard two years ago, mainly bringing back a thriving downtown area and lingering concerns with Santa Clara University, including the school’s future development plans. But this time he said he knows District 5 needs a strong voice at the city level.
“I know what I’m doing better now than I did back then,” O’Keefe said jokingly.
Housing and the downtown project
O’Keefe’s voice becomes more urgent and assured when he talks about the city’s housing needs and its problems.
“We’re building the wrong type of housing, mostly for a high-tech type of transient worker,” O’Keefe said. “It fits a certain type of economic level. I want to see affordable housing, especially in the downtown project.”
O’Keefe prides himself and has placed emphasis during his campaign on that fact that he’ll be able to vote on the downtown project, if elected.
“I would be able to fully engage in conversations, council study sessions and ultimately voting on what goes in there,” O’Keefe said. “I would be able to champion this on council… The city can direct what goes in there by negotiation agreements. It’s different than a developer going in there and saying this is what I’m building.”
O’Keefe has garnered the support of Mayor Lisa Gillmor, councilmembers Kathy Watanabe and Debi Davis, Santa Clara Firefighters Local 1171 and the Santa Clara Police Officers’ Association.
“We support Bob O’Keefe because he has a history of public service and is the only candidate who can vote on downtown issues, a fact that’s really important to our many members who live in Santa Clara,” said Alex Torke, president of the police officers’ association.
According to campaign finance reports, O’Keefe raised $8,251 and spent $3,712 this year until Sept. 19.