Quick Take:

Embattled District 4 Santa Cruz County Supervisor candidate Jimmy Dutra didn’t shy away from highlighting what he feels are key differences between him and opponent Felipe Hernandez at a recent forum. Dutra was believed to hold a commanding lead before charges alleging he molested a 12-year-old family friend when he was 30, 17 years ago, surfaced on Oct. 5. Can he survive the political tempest? He told Lookout he believes he can.

Election 2022: Santa Cruz County

Jimmy Dutra, very much on the defensive one week earlier amid legal allegations he claims are politically motivated, was assertively on offense in a head-to-head meetup with 4th District Santa Cruz County Supervisor opponent Felipe Hernandez last week.

Both during and after a forum at Watsonville City Hall, Dutra took an aggressive approach to differentiating the two candidates vying to lead the Pajaro Valley in the post-Greg Caput era. Dutra is branding himself as the anti-establishment choice needed to shake up South County governance, and declaring Hernandez the option for those who prefer the status quo.

“I’m not in anyone’s pocket, I’ve never taken any handouts,” he told Lookout afterward. “And I’m not going to switch my beliefs and flip-flop in order to win votes. I’ve always been an independent thinker.”

In essence, Dutra said a vote for Hernandez is akin to a vote for Caput, who has represented District 4 for eight years, gave Hernandez his endorsement and was among the 35 citizens who turned out in person at Watsonville City Hall for the forum hosted by the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce and KSCO.

Dutra, who comes from a longtime farming family in the Pajaro Valley, didn’t mince words afterward and noted the irony: “He’s in the pockets of the farmers — he’s their talking piece — which is funny since I’m the one with the farming background. I’m not willing to do that. I’m only here for the people.”

Attempts to reach Hernandez afterward for response to Dutra’s post-forum comments were unsuccessful.

Hernandez’s own stances on multiple issues related to the future of Watsonville differed from Dutra’s, most notably on the growing community concerns over harmful pesticide use around schools and neighborhoods (“We’ve got to look out for the farmers, too.”) and on Measures Q and S that will determine whether the city can grow beyond its current urban limit line (“We can’t pave over our farmland.”).

Hernandez is a Watsonville native, Cabrillo College trustee and an Army veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm before returning home and getting a degree in community studies from UC Santa Cruz. Then he went to work as a community organizer and fell into politics.

He says he learned the value of hard work by watching his parents be able to afford a house off the money earned from his mother’s job at Richard Shaw cannery and his father’s job picking apples for Pecchenino Farms — and it’s why affordable housing solutions tops his agenda.

The strongest dividing line on recent issues between the candidates, in Hernandez’s mind, was the hotly debated Measure D that was defeated by an overwhelming margin in June, keeping open the possibility that a rail trail extending to South County will help alleviate the transportation issues and better connect Watsonville to the rest of the county.

While Hernandez was staunchly for keeping the rail corridor in play, Dutra played it softer and less decisively.

Like Dutra, Hernandez is also a born-and-bred local and a former Watsonville mayor who has served on the city council and attempted to win the supervisor seat several times previously. Here’s a closer look at where he and Dutra separated themselves on the issues Wednesday night.

The campaign’s uneasy backdrop

The unspoken backdrop to the candidates’ first and only scheduled meetup was the civil suit filed against Dutra by onetime family friend Stephen Siefke on Oct. 5. The only mention of it came afterward when Dutra — believed to be a heavy favorite before the charges emerged — was asked by Lookout if he thought he could weather the storm.

“Oh, absolutely — I’ve been knocking on doors, people have been really supportive, I’ve been getting a lot of hugs,” he said. “Now we’ve just got to let the courts take over from here. And I’ve got to win a race.”

Dutra, who became the city of Watsonville’s first openly gay mayor in 2020 after beginning his political career six years earlier as a council member, said his independent nature has been a thorn in the side of the city’s traditional political machinery — and it has put him in the crosshairs.

“The establishment — I’m a threat to them. I have a target on my back all the time,” he said. “It’s because I’m effective, I get things done and I don’t have to depend on people for everything.”

And, he said, it’s no surprise to him that he’s under intense fire just as he has become the favorite to lead South County as District 4 supervisor.

“That’s politics these days,” he said. “If you’re not part of the establishment, if you’re not part of how they want to see the community move forward, if you don’t follow the line … then you’re a threat.”

There was zero talk about the civil suit at the candidates forum, which was by design. “We’re making sure it plays no part in this,” said Shaz Roth of the chamber.

Hernandez previously sent out a statement about the allegations, saying:

“These serious allegations from the complaint against Jimmy Dutra are troubling on many levels and should be thoroughly reviewed by the courts. It took courage for Stephen Siefke to come forward publicly regarding his traumatic experience as a child and to seek justice for what he suffered. My heart goes out to Mr. Siefke and I hope he receives the justice and healing he deserves.”

‘We matter too’: Equity for South County issues

Both candidates said they believe that Watsonville gets short shrift in countywide politics.

Hernandez said he believes in “building bridges, building coalitions” with other county constituencies and referenced efforts he’s made to build intragovernmental committees that help hold everyone accountable.

Felipe Hernandez during last week's Watsonville forum.
Felipe Hernandez during last week’s Watsonville forum. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

For instance, Hernandez said, the cities of Capitola and Scotts Valley should have to shoulder their fair share of homeless services along with Santa Cruz and Watsonville.

Dutra was much more animated in his concern over that perceived inequity and said it’s a major tenet of what he hopes to do differently than Caput.

“This happens to South County all the time,” he said in reference to ongoing transportation projects from 2016’s Measure D that he said benefit the northern part of the county more than Watsonville. “It seems like we’re always getting the bottom of the barrel and we need to make sure that we’re at the top. I tell people every day, ‘We matter too.’”

Dutra said giving people in South County a long-overdue seat at the table is part of his plan.

“I feel people often lose hope down here because they feel like nothing gets done,” he said.

Split on Measures Q and S

The future of Watsonville’s urban limit line (or ULL) is an area where Hernandez says he’s changed his course over the years after learning more about the agriculture industry. Dutra calls that a flip-flop based on political interests.

Hernandez is supporting Measure Q, which was put on the ballot via 2,000 signatures and would extend the current limits for another 20 years. When a coalition backed largely by agricultural interests put that forward, the Watsonville City Council drafted a countermeasure, Measure S, that would include consideration of specific parcels currently used for agriculture for future development.

Hernandez was heavily involved in Measure U, which was passed in 2004 and set the current ULL after much community discourse. That’s the main point of contention with Q for all city council members who support Measure S (all but Mayor Ari Parker).

“Last time the city was involved and there were a lot of voices at the table. This time there was no public process,” Dutra said. “Measure S can bring everyone back, we can have a conversation and figure out how to move forward.”

Hernandez said his change of heart had to do with learning about “sustainable planning and new urbanism” but his bottom-line feeling is that “we’ve got to keep our farmland.”

Dutra said afterward: “All of a sudden he’s had an epiphany and is switching his view on it. That’s not who I am.”

Can the embattled, increasingly anti-establishment candidate persevere in a District 4 race he once appeared to be in solid control of? He says he feels confident he will.

“I’ve always been a free thinker — I think that’s why people like me,” he said. “I have 350 individual endorsers. They see the work I do. I don’t owe anyone any favors. I don’t owe any organization any favors. I don’t owe any developer favors. I’m not gonna change my views just to win votes. I’m going to be who I am.”

Pesticides and the future of organic

In a question asked by Lookout, and based on our recent reporting on pesticides, the two candidates took very different tacks.

Given the increase in scientific evidence that pesticides are causing harm to those near conventional farms, would they as District 4 supervisor prioritize the health of the community’s most vulnerable members: school kids, seniors, farmworker families?

“I think that’s an important question,” Dutra said. “I would work with the farmers and the Farm Bureau to transition them to organic to hopefully be safer around those communities.”

Hernandez took a different view, saying it was more of a “jobs and economic development question” and he’d have to work with organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reassess how organic standards are applied and see how to mitigate the economic harm done to farmers who face a three-year conversion process

“Some of these are small Latino farmers, and for them to close, that’s their entire lifeline,” he said. “So I want to make sure we have some type of funding mechanism that can help them out during the transition. We have to find a way as a county to bring in our state legislators. We need to be reasonable and pragmatic — that’s how I’m looking at this.”

Transportation — and the two Measure Ds

Hernandez took multiple opportunities to call himself the candidate who was definitively for pushing forward on a rail corridor plan.

“I had my pulse on the public,” he said. “I took a position firmly for rail/trail. I’ll make South County a priority. I’ll make sure the RTC pursues the environmental review and preliminary engineering studies for Segment 17 and completes Segment 18 of the trail. I want to make sure that Pajaro and South County do not come last.”

Dutra made the point that he was the original Regional Transportation Commissioner for South County who pushed forward the possibility of an active rail transit corridor and simply felt it was better to listen to the people’s will on Measure D rather than be a persuasive voice in it.

Jimmy Dutra during last week's forum.
Jimmy Dutra during last week’s forum. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“During the election I said I’d support the will of the people,” he said. “The people have spoken and I’ll do everything possible to support it. I sat on the RTC in 2015 and I was one of the voices that made sure that Watsonville was included in this is all.”

Dutra cites that stand as the most recent example of him not succumbing to the establishment: “During the election I took a ‘Let the people vote’ approach and I became an enemy of the establishment,” he said. “But people did speak; I will honor that.”

The state of roads in the Watsonville area, both candidates agreed, is not good. Which is what the majority of the half-cent sales-tax hike of countywide Measure D in 2016 was earmarked for.

“You look at the list of Measure D use and we have hardly any projects on there,” Dutra said. “People should be really outraged about that.”

Hernandez said the key to changing those disparities will be through political channels that he’s prepared to work within.

“It’s really about bridge-building. To make projects happen and to bring the bacon home to South County,” he said. “I have the endorsement and full support of incumbent supervisor Greg Caput, as well as the former supervisor, Tony Campos. I’m running for supervisor because we need a leader that’s known to deliver results by building bridges, positive relationships among community members and elected officials. It’s vital to build trust.”

Hernandez’s endorsers include Santa Cruz mayoral candidate Fred Keeley, county schools superintendent Faris Sabbah, county sheriff Jim Hart, former state Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning, District 3 supervisor candidate Justin Cummings and incoming Watsonville Mayor Eduardo Montesino.

Montesino has also endorsed Dutra, whose list includes District 3 candidate Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, council members Francisco Estrada and Rebecca Garcia, Scotts Valley council member Derek Timm, Santa Cruz County Board of Education trustee Abel Sanchez and community leaders Mas and Marcia Hashimoto.

Follow Mark Conley on: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Mark joins Lookout after 14 years at the Mercury News and Bay Area News Group, where he served as Deputy Sports Editor on a staff that covered three...