Buck McKeon lives in Virginia now, but as he stood on a stage at College of the Canyons in Valencia last week, he paused, looked into the crowd and smiled, and said, “It’s good to be home.”
The former 11-term Republican congressman from Santa Clarita – and its first mayor, back when the city was still in swaddling clothes — is 78 now, but he looks at least 10 years younger.
On this Friday night at COC, as he’s introducing the featured speaker for the college’s second “McKeon Leadership Forum,” he is wearing a blue pin-striped suit, crisply ironed white shirt and snazzy, pink-toned tie that’s perfectly knotted.
He looks like he just left the hair-and-makeup room at Meet the Press, ready to head onto the set to do battle with some unlucky Democrat.
Buck McKeon is two years out of Congress, but he is still very much in politics — as a lobbyist and consultant with his own Virginia-based firm, the McKeon Group, and as the driving force behind his eponymously named, periodic speakers’ forum at COC.
McKeon is also still a fount of opinion and insight and Santa Clarita history — dishing on the current state of American politics, the birth of the city as it nears its 30th birthday, and all manner of other matters during a 45-minute phone chat with The Signal on Wednesday from his Beltway office.
“I was really disappointed with the campaign – I mean, at one point they were talking about the size of their hands. … I was almost hoping kids weren’t watching,’’ McKeon said.
But after what he acknowledged were “several low points” in the campaign, McKeon said, “I thought early on that Trump would win.’’
“I think America was crying out for change,’’ he said.
Since Trump’s triumph over Hillary Clinton, McKeon said, he’s been impressed by the president-elect and his cabinet picks, and he’s optimistic about the upcoming administration, despite widespread cries that Trump will become a great divider.
“I know a lot of the people he is appointing,’’ McKeon said. “They are good people.”
He said Trump’s business record bodes well for success in the White House.
“I know what it takes to build a business, and to have that big an impact around the world (as Trump has had), you have to work with people to make that happen,’’ McKeon said.
And, where Trump has taken some shots in recent days for his phone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, McKeon sees that talk as a good thing.
“Why can’t people talk?’’ he said. “Why can’t they break the mold? I thought we needed somebody like that (Trump) to come in here and break the mold, because it’s paralyzed here.
“It’s disastrous what’s happened to us the last eight years in particular. … But I am very optimistic that he (Trump) is going to change the way things are done here, and hopefully the leadership of Congress will as well.”
McKeon, in theory, could still be a part of that leadership.
Still ready for prime time
But in 2014, when he was termed out of his chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee, “I thought it would good for me to move on. I was 76, I thought I’d been there long enough.’’
But then the thought occurred: “I can’t see myself sitting on a rocking chair.”
And so the McKeon Group – now with 10 employees, including son Howard and daughter-in-law Heather — was born.
The firm lobbies and consults and, in general, taps McKeon’s knowledge of the Washington labyrinth to “help (clients) get things through the bureaucracy.”
It also runs the McKeon Leadership Forum with COC. Now in its second year, the program promotes civic engagement by getting prominent speakers – last week, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley – to come to the college and dialogue with students.
McKeon gets back to Santa Clarita “two, three, four times,” a year … always for his forum.
Looking back on his days in Congress, he recalled his “biggest thing for the (Santa Clarita) Valley was getting legislation passed to eliminate Elsmere Canyon as a landfill.”
That law – which mandates that no part of a national forest can be turned into a landfill — had a huge impact on the area, both aesthetically and economically, McKeon said.
“Disney does a lot of filming (at the Golden Oak Ranch) and they told me that if that landfill went through, it would have been the equivalent of four Statues of Liberty piled on top of each other,’’ he said. “It would have been visible all over the valley, and it would have destroyed their ability to shoot films there.
“So if you fast-forward, now they’re responsible for thousands of jobs in the area.”
McKeon also tells the story of how he came to be Santa Clarita’s first mayor … and how he almost didn’t.
City’s debut mayor
This was just after the city was incorporated in 1987, when “there was only one (traffic) signal in town, at Soledad Canyon and Sierra Highway.’’
At the time, McKeon was operating Howard and Phil’s Western Wear clothing stores, and was mulling a run for City Council. Then he got a call from a political pal saying he actually lived outside the city’s newly drawn boundaries — so was not eligible to run.
“But then I got a call a little later saying that was a mistake, that I did live within the city and that I could run,’’ McKeon recalled. “This was on a Thursday, and I had to file by Friday at 5 in downtown in L.A. I had to race to get 25 signatures and then race to downtown L.A.’’
If there had been a traffic jam on the 5 on that day long ago, McKeon might not have made it.
He chuckled over the phone about that close call, but then said, “There’s a power that kind of oversees things.’’
Indeed, McKeon believes he’s been guided by an invisible hand throughout his long journey.
He and his wife of 54 years, Patricia, have six children, 30 living grandchildren – “one passed away at birth, so eternally we have 31” — and two great-grandkids, with one more on the way.
“I’ve been very blessed,” he said.