“Wheelhouse Kelley” Wins Me Over.

Steve Villano
4 min readJan 22, 2024
(Photo by Steve Villano, in Healdsburg Plaza, December, 2022)

“Wheelhouse Kelley.”

Turn that name over on your tongue a few times and what comes to mind?

A Formula One race car driver? A boxer with a terrific move? A candidate for public office who never gives up?

The name jumped out at me as clear as the bell at the end of a boxing round, as I read the Press Democrat’s lengthy story about the 7-way fight for our California Assembly District (#2), which, serpentine-like, snakes it’s way from Santa Rosa, all the way up to the Oregon border. This State Legislative district is the giant Salamander of all Gerrymanders.

As each of the six Democratic candidates were explaining why they would be best to represent our district, one comment leaped out at me. It came from Healdsburg Mayor Ariel Kelley about how her hands-on experience governing a small city, and running several public service non-profit organizations, made her the best choice for the Assembly district which represents a wide-range of communities:

They’re small cities, a lot of rural unincorporated areas, agricultural communities , environmental challenges, and those are things that are all in my Wheelhouse,” Kelley told the Press Democrat.

“Wheelhouse Kelley.” How perfect. Visions of precinct captains or local block leaders from the Pulitzer-prize winning writer William Kennedy’s Ironweed series leapt out in front of me.

Right in my Wheelhouse!” That’s what Kennedy’s lyrical literary characters said when they knew they could deliver on fixing your problem, because they wouldn’t stop until they did. Nothing could better describe Ariel Kelley’s indefatigable approach to problem solving, big and small.

Her approach to persistent public service became apparent to me as soon as we moved to Healdsburg three years ago, after living in suburban New York City; in several smaller cities in upstate New York State; in New York City, San Francisco, and Napa.

Having worked with one of the finest public officials in my lifetime, the late Governor Mario M. Cuomo of New York, and devoted several decades of my career to public service and public health, I hold anyone in elected office to a very tough standard. It was clear to me from the get-go that “Wheelhouse Kelley” had devoted her life to exceeding those high standards.

What stood out to me, as someone who headed three national non-profit organizations and worked at two major medical centers, was that Ariel Kelley, also served as CEO of Corazon Healdsburg, a model of modern, non-profit health-care delivery for a small city, serving thousands of citizens who otherwise would not have access to health care.

As a Healdsburg City Council member and then Mayor, “Wheelhouse Kelley” carried through on her commitments to create more affordable housing, to provide shelter for the unhoused, and bring greater diversity into every aspect of life in our town of 11,000 residents, almost 30% of whom are Latino.

Additionally, two tangible, specific actions of “Wheelhouse Kelley” impressed me.

At Healdsburg’s first joint celebration of Hanukkah and La Posada in our town’s Plaza, Kelley — herself, Jewish, like me — collaborated with leaders of our Latino community, to highlight the beauty of both cultures. Without missing a beat, “Wheelhouse Kelley,” moved from lighting a large menorah with Jewish community members, to — speaking in Spanish — handing off the torch of leadership to Latino community members — while dozens of young children walked with lighted candles to celebrate the feast of La Posada. It was a beautiful and moving illustration of how to gracefully teach different groups in the community about the shared love and meaning of each other’s culture. This was right in Kelley’s wheelhouse.

The second specific action came at a pubic meeting where proposals were unveiled for the expansion of the SMART Train to Healdsburg. I attended the community meeting with a predisposition to favoring placing the SMART Train station at the old, run-down railroad station, and cutting off the final segment of the train to Cloverdale, to save time and resources, and reduce traffic problems.

It was as if I had lobbed a softball into Kelley’s “wheelhouse.” Without missing a beat, nor losing her inherent desire to teach, Kelley explained to me why continuing the SMART Train past Healdsburg was essential, and that the money for it was already approved.

“Because it’s such an agricultural community, it opens up new pools of funding for us,” Kelley said. “And, many of the workers who work in Healdsburg, live up in the Cloverdale area where housing prices are a bit less expensive. Extending the train to Cloverdale gives those workers a direct means of getting to work, and helps serve the entire region.”

Kelley’s facts, her friendliness, her willingness to meticulously think through every detail with me, and her well-considered concern for all her fellow citizens of the area, won me over.

After all, I was in “Wheelhouse Kelly’s” wheelhouse now.

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