Longtime labor and voting champion and community activist Glen Schaller died unexpectedly last week, three days shy of his 67th birthday. Political figures throughout the region say the impact of his work is reflected every day in the lives of people and policies of Santa Cruz County.
Before mail-in ballots became ubiquitous, early voting largely happened in person. So, when the Santa Cruz County Elections Department would open a voting site at the county building 29 days before each Election Day, it was like shooting the starting gun for residents to perform their most important civic responsibility.
Year after year, now-Assemblymember Gail Pellerin, who served as the county’s chief elections official from 1993 until 2020, would open the county building doors that morning to welcome in early voters and, election after election, she’d be greeted by the same person, waiting by himself: Glen Schaller.
“He always liked to be the first voter to cast a ballot in Santa Cruz County,” Pellerin said. “He was pretty consistent and very passionate about voting. And 100% of the time he was the only person there.”
Schaller, a longtime political operative, community activist and labor and voting champion in Santa Cruz County and the broader Monterey Bay region, died unexpectedly in his home on Oct. 30, three days shy of his 67th birthday. To his friends and colleagues, Schaller was an effective organizer with strong behind-the-scenes influence, who cared deeply about working families and building strong communities. Earlier this year, he retired after his most recent stint as political coordinator for the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, where he helped elect labor-friendly candidates to statewide and local legislative seats.
Liam McLaughlin, lead organizer with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521 described Schaller’s passing as “such a blow to the local progressive and labor movements.”
Daniel Dodge Sr., president of the Central Labor Council, said he spoke with Schaller every day when he was the council’s political coordinator. Schaller, Dodge said, was someone who “understood the bigger-picture scope of things,” and the importance of providing a powerful voice for working families who don’t have time to participate in local government.
“That’s a heavy responsibility and I think Glen took on that responsibility and worked hard to get people elected to government office who understood the issues of working families. Under Glen’s leadership, the labor-endorsed candidates won a lot,” Dodge said. “I lost a good friend, bro. It’s a different world and a different political landscape here without Glen Schaller.”
Schaller grew up in a large family of brothers and a sister in East Northport, New York, according to an obituary written by his family. After graduating Northport High School in 1974, he spent years hitchhiking around the U.S., eventually landing in Santa Cruz, the place he decided to call home. He worked in early childhood education as a teacher for 26 years, earning his training through a Cabrillo College program.
According to the obituary, Schaller’s first taste of activism in Santa Cruz came through campaigns against apartheid and nuclear power. Cesar Lara, executive director of the Central Labor Council and the one who hired Schaller as a political coordinator 14 years ago, said Schaller’s work on affordable housing and rent control campaigns in the 1970s proved “he was ahead of his time.”
In 2003, Schaller led the Measure B campaign to raise money and prevent the closure of schools in Santa Cruz, including Bay View and Branciforte elementary schools. “The campaign started a string of local school funding measures over the years, which helped ensure small class sizes, art, music, sports, counseling programs and improved facilities,” according to the obituary.
Schaller grew his reputation by leading the local campaign against Proposition 8, the statewide ballot initiative in 2008 to ban same-sex marriage.
Rachel Dann, a longtime political staffer in the county for national and local elected officials, first met Schaller when they agreed to work on Neal Coonerty’s county supervisor campaign in the early 2000s, which she called a “motley crew of people you’d never expect to be in the same room.” She said Schaller was someone you wanted on your team in a political battle.
“When Glen was on your side, he was very, very helpful, he was a strategic thinker. He was someone who, if he wasn’t on your team, it made it much more difficult,” Dann said. “On most consequential political issues in the region over the years, he was probably involved to some extent.”
As political coordinator for the Central Labor Council, Dodge and Lara said, Schaller’s leadership helped swing the politics in Santa Cruz County toward a greater embrace of organized labor and the issues affecting working families.
“The biggest thing he taught me was how to be an effective leader behind the scenes,” Lara said. “He was always focused on community. We were able to change the political landscape here in Santa Cruz County. The most important thing is that we have elected officials — not just assemblymembers and supervisors, but city council members and school board members — who really focus on community and speak for working families.”
Pellerin said Schaller was one of the people who encouraged her 2022 run for the District 28 seat in the California State Assembly. She said he helped to educate her “on the issues that working folks have to fight against and the importance of preserving the ability to join a union, to strike when you’re not getting the wages you need.”
“The thing about Glen is that, in this political world, you have the people who are out front, the show horses, the people who are out getting the credit for leading the charge; Glen was always the one who was beside you,” Pellerin said. “He was walking every step along the way with you, as a partner, as a collaborator, as a person in solidarity. He’s left a huge void for sure, and he will be greatly missed.”
In lieu of flowers, Schaller’s family and friends request donations for a picnic table dedicated to his memory at Natural Bridges State Beach. Please go to www.thatsmypark.org/donate/ to make a general donation, putting Schaller’s name in the note box, or send a donation in Schaller’s name to Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, 1543 Pacific Ave., #206, Santa Cruz 95060.
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