Quick Take:

When you are a Republican campaigning in Santa Cruz or a Democrat walking some of the more conservative zones of San Jose, there are conversations that sometimes strike a different tone. Liz Lawler and Gail Pellerin are seeing it firsthand, yet each candidate says she is far more about breaking down those lines that divide as both seek a seat in Sacramento. They face off in a Lookout candidate forum Monday.

Election 2022: Santa Cruz County

Get past the embarrassment of the unknown graffiti artist scrawling her name all over Santa Cruz, and Republican Liz Lawler says she really does feel like she’s making her mark in uber-liberal Santa Cruz County.

Her blush is nearly audible over the phone as she addresses the tagging bearing her name — in all caps, adorned with hearts, flowers and smiley faces. They keep popping up on buildings, benches and various other Westside and downtown structures.

The Liz Lawler tags have become a thing this campaign season.
The Liz Lawler tags have become a thing this campaign season. Credit: Contributed

“Damaging property is never a good thing. It’s really disheartening that someone’s doing this and they’re not stopping,” she said. Then, pressed for a bright side, she briefly found one. “I guess it could be something worse than a heart.”

Like her opponent for the state Assembly District 28 seat, longtime Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin, the Monte Sereno city councilmember is playing a game of “Get to know those folks on the other side of that hill — and try to win their votes.”

The newly redrawn District 28 takes over much of Mark Stone’s District 29, except it will now include a massive swath of Santa Clara County rather than Monterey County. In fact, 70% of the district is made up of residents of Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, San Jose and Morgan Hill, while the rest covers most of Santa Cruz, the North Coast and Bonny Doon, Scotts Valley and the San Lorenzo Valley in Santa Cruz County.

That has left a large chunk of territory for Pellerin, the lifelong Democrat, to cover in order to get known better by those would-be constituents in Santa Clara County. It was there in the June primary that she was outpointed by Lawler by 5,000 votes (27,000-22,000).

But thanks to Pellerin’s stash of endorsements and government experience, she is expected to collect many of the 22,000 votes that Los Gatos councilmember and fellow Democrat Rob Rennie procured in June, along with the 8,000 garnered by Democrat Joe Thompson.

Together, those three tallied 64% of the June votes in Santa Clara County.

Lawler, a Republican only four years into her political career as a councilmember in Monte Sereno (population 3,500; average home price $3.65 million), has had less terrain to navigate in Santa Cruz County. But the point-total sledding is even rougher over here.

Not surprisingly, Pellerin collected the lion’s share of votes (53%) in her home county. Lawler tallied just a few more votes than Rennie, both garnering 18%. And Thompson, the UC Santa Cruz student and union organizer, snagged 10% of the vote.

Assembly District 28 candidates, from left: Liz Lawler, Gail Pellerin, Rob Rennie and Joe Thompson.
Assembly District 28 candidates, from left: Liz Lawler, Gail Pellerin, Rob Rennie and Joe Thompson. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

In total, the Pellerin-Rennie-Thompson votes made up 81% of the county vote, so Lawler’s Santa Cruz County challenge is considerable — and maybe made more difficult since Pellerin hired Thompson to work on her campaign.

As Election Day draws closer, and both candidates prepare for Monday night’s forum at the Hotel Paradox, hosted by Lookout, it’s a good time to catch up with each on how the campaign trail is treating them (beyond clandestine graffiti art).

Real talk on reproductive rights

While still the Bay Area, there are pockets of District 28 that tend to skew more conservative. Pellerin, who is known to have been an early supporter of full reproductive rights, calls the upcoming vote on statewide Proposition 1 a key area where she and Lawler differ — and a topic she’s had some interesting dialogue about on that side of the hill.

“I was walking a precinct and had someone say, ‘Do you support killing unborn children?’” she recalled. “The way they phrased the question, I said, ‘Well, clearly this is an issue we’re not going to agree upon.’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m endorsed by Planned Parenthood. I’m an advocate for women’s reproductive rights.’ I said, ‘We’re not going to agree on this issue but here’s my flier, and maybe you’ll see there are issues we do agree on.’”

Gail Pellerin.
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

She was at a candidate forum in San Jose’s Almaden Valley when the moderator asked her if she supported abortion “up to, and including, the time of birth.”

“I was like, ‘Um, that doesn’t happen, but OK,’” she said, half laughing. “There’s definitely some different views from folks, but that’s democracy, right? That’s the beauty of it. Different people with different views and we’ve got to find areas of common ground where we can move forward.”

Getting the ‘D’ and the ‘R’ out of it

Lawler said she, too, as the Republican candidate campaigning in an overwhelmingly Democratic county has had some interesting dialogue.

But she goes out of her way to frame her Republicanism as a fiscal conservatism that is counterbalanced by social liberalism.

“I went to Berkeley, I love Santa Cruz,” she said. “Republicans are my base, but I actually have friends from all over the political spectrum, and I truly believe that most of us reside in the middle. Those are the folks that I really want to appeal to. Most of us are tired of the divisive nature of things and the rhetoric. We just want to get things done and we need to work together.”

Liz Lawler, state Assembly District 28 candidate
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Lawler said she loves engaging with lifelong Democrats and coming away with a feeling that common ground was discovered.

“People just make assumptions about what others think, but if you really speak to them you come away with an understanding of where they’re coming from,” she said. “Those tend to be very rewarding conversations. If we could take the D and the R out of it, there’s a lot we can agree on.”

The biggest issue of the moment: homelessness

No topic looms larger than homelessness in Santa Cruz County’s portion of District 28, with a high percentage of the county’s 2,299 unhoused living in and around the city of Santa Cruz.

Lawler said she would address the issue first by listening to “the folks on the ground who provide day-to-day services — the ones who really know what’s going on.” Then it would be about helping with the funding piece.

“They need to be able to provide those services,” she said. “And we need services that are seamless, where our agencies talk to each other, so that when someone who’s unhoused goes and seeks services, they can get it right then and there in real time.”

A protester holds a sign reading
A protester holds a sign reading “Homelessness is not a crime” outside Santa Cruz City Hall in March 2021 Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Pellerin said she’s the person to create collaboration among state, federal and local officials and the communities themselves.

“I have those relationships and connections with the federal side, with the state side, with the local government folks,” she said. “So I think I could be someone who really does bring everybody to the table.”

She said she has concerns about the structures that currently govern the $10.7 billion the state of California devoted to the cause of homelessness over the past year.

“There are nine different state departments that oversee 41 different homeless programs — that to me shows inefficiency,” Pellerin said. “We also need to make sure we’re getting money into the hands of the people doing the good work and the programs. So often, the state will pigeonhole money into exact certain purposes. And that may not be what one community needs just because it works for another. So we need more flexibility with providing that money to the experts in the field.”

Closing words

Both candidates have strong, passionate takes on mental health — and strong feelings about the actions needed to combat climate change and fire preparedness. Lookout Community Voices editor Jody K. Biehl will delve deep into those with Lawler and Pellerin as moderator of Monday night’s forum.

Until then, as the former county clerk she is, looking around at where the country stands, Pellerin’s overriding message is not whom someone votes for, but that they vote.

“Democracy is on the ballot,” she said. “I have been a fighter for voting rights and reproductive rights and LGBTQ community rights and safe community rights most of my entire adult life and I am out there delivering a message of ‘Please make sure you vote.’

Liz Lawler and Gail Pellerin at the Lookout forum in May.
Liz Lawler and Gail Pellerin at the Lookout forum in May. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“It’s so very frustrating when people don’t vote because these are real issues that impact your pocketbook, your community, your schools, your fire protection, your water, your resources. Voting is the great equalizer. My vote counts just as much as the billionaire next door.”

Lawler said her conservative belief system relates more to taxes (“We’ve got some of the worst taxpayer returns on investment in the country”) and hair-trigger government decision-making (“You know that saying ‘Haste makes waste’”).

And she wants people to know that there are Republicans like her out there who believe in reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights — including same-sex marriage (her gay son married in 2019) — and more funding for mental health services.

She also believes she holds a key experience advantage over Pellerin.

“My opponent may have been in the public sector for quite some time, but she’s never actually held a governance position,” she said. “I have that experience as a city councilmember and a mayor of making difficult land-use decisions and weighing public comments and public input and making these decisions for the greater good of the community.

“So I do have that experience. And I think that’s really important at the state level because I truly understand what cities are going through particularly with land use, but other issues as well. I have that knowledge and that experience.”

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...