Toni Casey: 'Fearless' on LAH council, in life

Town Crier File Photo
Toni Casey participates in a November 2002 Los Altos Hills City Council meeting.

Toni Casey, arguably the most outspoken and controversial member of the Los Altos Hills City Council in the town’s 61-year history, died Feb. 21 after a lengthy illness. Ms. Casey was 72.

Described by friends as “fearless,” the Bristol, Va., native did not back down from unpopular positions she felt strongly about. Her defense of homeowners’ rights led to a fast-track process for housing approvals still in place today. Her concerns over pathways policies resulted in system improvements. She initiated townwide surveys to solicit residents’ feedback, surveys now conducted annually.

“Tenacity” was also a vital part of Ms. Casey’s makeup, according to her daughter, Alison.

“My mom was a champion for helping people navigate through contentious policy and viewpoints,” she said.

Born Mary Anthony Cunningham (“Toni” came from her middle name), Ms. Casey grew up in a time when discrimination and segregation were still rampant in the South.

“She impressed on my brother (Patrick Carson Casey) and me not to be discriminatory,” Alison said.

Education and career

Ms. Casey earned bachelor’s degrees in history and political science from Emory University in Atlanta. She met John Raymond Casey while at Emory, and married in 1967. The marriage ended in divorce after 16 years, but the Casey name stuck.

Ms. Casey traveled to California in the early 1970s to attend Stanford University. She earned a master’s degree in health administration from the Stanford School of Medicine and an MBA from Stanford.

Her work on the Los Altos Hills City Council was a small part of Ms. Casey’s life’s achievements. She found success in both business and politics, in which she frequently played the role of maverick.

She began her career in marketing for Saga Corp. in the mid-1970s. Her “fearless” personality was apparent early on, according to fellow Saga employee and longtime friend Kathleen Christman.

“It was an interesting time,” said Christman, a fellow Stanford Business School alumna. “Women were (just beginning to be) accepted, but not that well accepted. We were kind of the odd ones (versus the number of men employed).”

Nonetheless, Ms. Casey spoke her mind, Christman said, and showed an ability to focus on the big picture when a project threatened to get bogged down in detail.

“She could see the forest for the trees,” Christman added.

Ms. Casey served 10 years as a lobbyist for the biotech and insurance industries, working with a wide range of legislative bodies and regulatory agencies across the country. Through much of the 1980s, she managed T. Casey Inc., her own marketing consulting firm.

She worked at a frenetic pace, all the while raising two adopted children as a single mother.

Networking in LAH

Ms. Casey moved to Los Altos Hills in 1978, and it wasn’t long before she developed a strong network of neighbors and friends. She organized functions for residents, including the “Spirit of the Hills” celebration and fund- raiser, a precursor to the annual town picnic.

Cory Shepard answered an ad to serve as nanny to Ms. Casey’s children. He became a longtime confidant and friend of the Casey family.

“It was an educational experience for me,” Shepard said. “She introduced me to arts and culture and politics. … She was a person who had done so many things. She was a great source of inspiration to me.”

Now a financial adviser living in Washington state, Shepard said Ms. Casey “planted a seed (to become) what I didn’t think was possible.”

Ms. Casey was elected to the Los Altos Hills council in 1988. She was re-elected in 1992, and again in 1998.

Alison recalled people “in and out of her house, pleading for assistance” after encountering what they thought were overly restrictive building rules.

Steve Finn, who served with Ms. Casey on the council, first met her when facing the prospect of being forced to tear down his historical home following the 1989 earthquake.

“She reached out to me,” said Finn, who eventually secured a variance and building permit with Ms. Casey’s help. “If anybody drives by my house, it’s there because of Toni Casey.”

Neighbor and friend Amir Rosenbaum recalled that there was “never a dull moment” with Ms. Casey.

“She was larger than life,” he said.

Rosenbaum reminisced about the time he returned from a trip only to discover that Ms. Casey had signed him up to serve on the town’s Utilities and Information Systems Committee.

“I said, ‘Toni, what’s this about?’ She said, ‘You need to serve the community,” Rosenbaum said.

He served and was glad to have the experience.

“Toni put me on there,” he said. “I never would have done that myself.”

Washington calls

Ms. Casey got a taste of regional politics while volunteering for Ed Zschau’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in 1986. After serving on the Los Altos Hills council, she turned to Washington, D.C., where she served as a delegate on the Republican Convention’s Platform Committee. As usual, Ms. Casey went against the grain of Republican politics by pushing for women’s reproductive rights as part of the platform.

She worked with the George W. Bush administration in the early 2000s as director of intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Small Business Administration. She waged an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Barbara Boxer in 2004.

Los Altos Hills City Councilwoman Courtenay C. Corrigan, who first met Ms. Casey at Corrigan’s 2001 wedding, worked with the U.S. Senate candidate on her campaign.

“I had the time of my life,” Corrigan said. “It really inspired me to serve.”

During the course of the campaign, Corrigan recalled having to give Ms. Casey “very critical feedback. She was so capable of taking that feedback and taking corrective action.”

As a lobbyist, Ms. Casey was influential in the development of point-of-care devices. She lobbied successfully for nurses to use the devices to monitor cholesterol and other conditions. Alison said she beams with pride when she enters a Walgreens and sees an item her mother helped bring to market.

Ms. Casey was at the forefront of encouraging AIDS awareness by founding Californians for AIDS Prevention. She also was an ardent supporter of Planned Parenthood.

She served on numerous nonprofit boards, including the Alliance for Community Care, now the San Jose-based Momentum for Mental Health. Again, she advocated for those suffering from oft-stigmatized mental illnesses.

Approximately seven years ago, Ms. Casey’s health began a downward spiral, triggered by a series of problems. Depression and anxiety sapped her once-boundless energy. Alison said her mother died peacefully and surrounded by loved ones.

“Intense, educational and inspiring,” Ms. Casey energized people, her daughter said, and empowered them to speak out – as she had done throughout her life.

“She was so much more than pathways in Los Altos Hills,” Alison said.

Ms. Casey is survived by daughter Alison ​and granddaughter Lenna ​of Oakland; son Patrick Carson Casey of Los Gatos; ​sister Lynn Kessler of Marietta, Ga.; and brothers Billy Cunningham of Tucker, Ga., and Tommy Cunningham of Temecula.

A public service is scheduled 1 p.m. April 21 at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Los Altos. A private reception will follow.

Donations in Ms. Casey’s name may be sent to Planned Parenthood of Santa Clara County, the Ron Clark Academy or Amnesty International. 

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