After serving six terms on the City Council, dating back almost 30 years, Cynthia Mathews looks back on the long-term...
In being sworn in to office on Tuesday night, Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers and Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra simultaneously made history as the first openly lesbian and gay leaders, respectively, of their cities.
Meyers and Dutra are taking on their roles as a wave of LGBTQ mayors has been stepping into office across the country. Between June 2019 and June 2020, the number of LGBTQ mayors in the U.S. increased by 35%, according to the Victory Institute, an organization that tracks elections of LGBTQ candidates.
In Watsonville, emotional community members called in to a City Council meeting aired online to express their support for their new mayor, who is Latino.
“I have never been so proud of Watsonville,” said one caller. Another, who identifies as a gay man, could be heard sobbing as he told Dutra that he was proud of him.
Dutra, 45, previously served on Watsonville City Council for four years, between 2014 and 2018. He returns to the council after losing his 2018 bid to represent Watsonville on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors. He also works as a middle school teacher in Pajaro Valley Unified School District (a few of his students called in to congratulate him).
“I promise there will be a seat at the table for everybody,” Dutra said Tuesday night. “I hope that we can move forward as a community that can respect each other despite our differences that we may or may not have.”
Dutra was vaulted into the mayor’s chair by winning the Watsonville District 6 council race in November. In Watsonville, the positions of mayor and vice mayor automatically rotate automatically each year from district to district.
On the other end of the county in Santa Cruz, voters elect candidates citywide, and then the council votes to pick a mayor who serves for one year. Justin Cummings finished his term this week before handing the gavel to Meyers, 55.
Meyers, a longtime city volunteer and executive director of the Salinas Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency, was unanimously elected mayor. She was the expected selection, since she served as vice mayor in 2020.
Meyers, the first openly lesbian mayor in Santa Cruz history, enters 2021 alongside the city’s most diverse city council ever — and one that is 86% female.
“We have in place on our city council what many communities around the country seek to achieve,” she said in her first mayoral remarks.
As she sat in front of a Zoom background of an ocean wave crashing, she thanked council members and city staff for their service during a turbulent time.
She thanked a broad swath of community leaders — including Dr. Gail Newel, the county’s public health chief — along with educational leaders and essential workers, for how they’ve led Santa Cruz through multiple disasters in 2020. And she thanked her wife.
“The work ahead is enormous and daunting for our community as well as for the state of California, but I know I have a remarkable team in this city council,” she said. “It’s just an outstanding group of people.”
With her background in science, land use policy and conservation, Meyers will be charged with leading the city through intense recovery from COVID-19 and the CZU Lightning Complex Fires.
“We are a very strong community and I know we will pull together now to help each other,” Meyers said.
But she also has her eye on the long haul, and wants to figure out how to crack the city’s housing affordability crisis and how best to prepare Santa Cruz for climate change.
In the months and years ahead, Santa Cruz will have to rehabilitate the thousands of forest acres that have burned, safeguard water systems and neighborhoods threatened by sea-level rise.
“Our success relies on this green economy now, and it will into the future,” she said. “I think the future is bright and the possibilities are enormous.”
Sonja Brunner, a first-time city council member, was elected vice mayor of Santa Cruz. She received the highest percentage of votes in the November election (14.6%).