Quick Take:

The 2024 elections are more than a year away, but the race for District 1 Santa Cruz County supervisor is already heating up. Incumbent Manu Koenig and challenger Lani Faulkner both accuse the other of being single-issue candidates. That single issue? The long-envisioned coastal passenger rail line connecting Davenport and Watsonville, known as the Coastal Rail Trail project.

The race for District 1 Santa Cruz County supervisor might be about many things, but if you ask the two people running for the seat, they will promise that, unlike their opponent, they are not “a single-issue candidate.”

And despite the many challenges around housing, homelessness and the climate, that single issue, which both incumbent Manu Koenig and his challenger, Lani Faulkner, try to get away from, seems to always bubble up when discussing the District 1 race: the long-envisioned coastal passenger rail line connecting Davenport and Watsonville, known as the Coastal Rail Trail project.

Before his election to supervisor in 2020, Koenig served as executive director of Greenway, the anti-rail organization that helped put the Coastal Rail Trail referendum, known as Measure D, on the ballot in June 2022. Instead of rail, Koenig strongly supported a vision for a multimodal hike and bike trail connecting Santa Cruz and Watsonville. That very vocal position, and his work with Greenway, has, for many, painted him as a hyper-focused foil to the region’s passenger rail ambitions, even after county voters overwhelmingly supported the rail project in the 2022 June primary.

“The current supervisor was very clearly a single-issue candidate,” Faulkner told me over coffee in August. Faulkner has long been strongly in favor of the Coastal Rail Trail project, and helped lead the rail campaign in the Measure D fight. “Some people say they don’t understand that there is still an issue. It is alive, it is still being talked about because the representation is not there. But I think it’s one of many issues in this race, and I am not a single-item, single-platform candidate.”

During Faulkner’s rally in Live Oak on Sept. 19, she and her supporters called out a variety of issues, from climate change to housing, but still, Koenig’s and Faulkner’s positions on Measure D made their way into more than one stump speech.

“Lani was a leader in the fight against Greenway and Measure D,” said former District 1 supervisor John Leopold, who has endorsed Faulkner. “That ill-conceived initiative would have robbed us of future transportation solutions. … From day one, Lani will be a county supervisor who’s ready to tackle the transportation questions facing our community.”

The race has grown surprisingly competitive. With Leopold’s endorsement, Faulkner also announced she had received an endorsement from Assemblymember Mark Stone, who spoke at the rally. However, Stone lives in Scotts Valley, and said that while he was “supporting Lani,” he said Leopold is who got him there.

“John is supporting her, so I want to help him help her,” Stone told me. “John is a friend and we had a strong working relationship on the board. These connections really matter.”

The better measure of competitiveness can be shown in the fundraising. Koenig raised $27,170 from January and through June; Faulkner was only $51 behind, with $27,119, a strong showing for a first-time candidate up against an incumbent.

A section of the rail line near La Selva Beach
Credit: Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz

On Friday, I asked Koenig what he thought drove Faulkner’s challenge, to which he sighed and replied, “It’s clearly about the [Coastal Rail Trail], once again.”

“I think it’s an issue that a lot of people have built an identity around and have gotten emotional about,” Koenig told me over the phone. “Frankly, we’re seeing a lot of the vitriolic politics seen at the national level embodied locally in this issue.”

Koenig contended that he’s followed the will of voters who supported the Coastal Rail Trail by advocating for funding at the state level for passenger rail and voting to advance feasibility studies; however, Koenig was one of three Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) members in May to oppose accepting the project’s environmental review for a critical segment of the project between the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Aptos. In his vote, he pushed his belief that the rail project was less feasible than Greenway’s vision for a hike and bike trail.

Koenig said he wants to focus his campaign on “larger issues” such as fire safety and disaster response, and mental health programs and homelessness.

However, Koenig, like Faulkner, agreed that the Coastal Rail Trail project issue remains a live wire and not a foregone conclusion. He said the person who wins the District 1 supervisor seat next year will ultimately affect whether the community moves forward with the Coastal Rail Trail, since the District 1 supervisor has a vote on the RTC, which owns the votes on the project.

“At this point in the situation, we are moving forward with pursuing rail and trail,” Koenig said. “If that were to change, it would be because more people than just me decided they wanted to change, including pro-rail people. But if we have a clear pathway through funding and usage to build a train, then I’m all for it.”

Suzanne Doty, a member of the Mid-County Democratic Club, said she sees Faulkner’s challenge as a rehashing of Measure D. Doty, who emphasized she was speaking for herself and not the club, said she supported Koenig’s opponent in 2020, incumbent John Leopold, but planned to back Koenig in 2024.

“Why else would you challenge an incumbent? I think the rail trail is with us, and this race will be another referendum on rail,” said Doty, who aligns with Koenig on the issue. “I think Faulkner’s side is really wedded to the rail trail issue, that’s their focus, but we have other things to worry about.”

Doty said she was also backing Koenig because if Faulkner wins, the longest-serving supervisors on the five-member board will be District 3’s Justin Cummings and District 4’s Felipe Hernandez, each only midway through their first terms. She said “institutional knowledge” is an important attribute, especially for such an inexperienced board.

Barry Scott, secretary for the Mid-County Democratic Club, said he sees the candidates’ stances on the Coastal Rail Trail as indicative of larger distinctions between Faulkner and Koenig. Scott admits he was “dismayed” to see the once-executive director of Greenway earn a seat on the board of supervisors. Faulkner, he believes, is “exceedingly aware of housing issues as well as transportation, especially for our most underserved in our community.”

Scott hopes rail trail will be “a catalyst for conversation” but mostly used as a pivot point to discussions around other issues.

“It’s getting to the point where it’s unfortunate that the rail trail is such a big thing,” Scott told me over the phone Friday. “We need to know where they stand on public transit more broadly; where they stand on climate change, and food security, and education. Where do they stand on local coastal policy and managed retreat? What about vacation rentals?”

Scott said he expects the Mid-County Democratic Club to endorse a candidate in January, two months ahead of the March 5 primary.

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Over the past decade, Christopher Neely has built a diverse journalism résumé, spanning from the East Coast to Texas and, most recently, California’s Central Coast.Chris reported from Capitol Hill...