Ryan Coonerty
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Government

Coonerty won’t seek reelection: After ‘very difficult’ year, supe says it’s time for a new face to ‘step up’

As recently as about two weeks ago, Ryan Coonerty said he was planning to run for reelection for one more term to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors — and said he was confident he would succeed, feeling closer to the community than he ever has. But in more recently reflecting on the work of the past year, he’s had a change of heart.

Santa Cruz County Third District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty won’t be seeking reelection for a third term next year, setting the stage for potential candidates to jockey for an open seat on the five-member county board.

Coonerty, a former two-term mayor of Santa Cruz, was first elected to the board in 2014 and then reelected in 2018. His district stretches from 7th Avenue in Live Oak through the city of Santa Cruz and up the North Coast, including the communities of Davenport and Bonny Doon.

“I’m hoping by the end of 2022 the community will have recovered from COVID and be well on the way to recovery after the fires, and it will be a good time for both the community and for me to step away and do something different,” Coonerty, 47, told Lookout.

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As recently as about two weeks ago, Coonerty said he was planning to run for reelection for one more term and said he was confident he would succeed, feeling closer to the community than he ever has.

But he now says that the events of last year — navigating multiple crises at the same time, including a devastating fire and ongoing pandemic — was “very difficult.”

“And it, without a doubt, took its toll,” said Coonerty, who in a recent article he penned for an Irish-centric website opened up about the anxiety and worries he experienced. “I’m normally a very steady, you know, optimistic person. But this ... is a very difficult time to try to govern and make hard choices.”

After talking with his family and his longtime aide Rachel Dann, it became apparent that it was time to step away, Coonerty said. Not only did the CZU Lightning Complex Fire and the pandemic provide a double whammy of stress and heartbreak, but so did the sudden loss of his other full-time aide at the time, Allison Endert. A friend of Coonerty’s since college, she was killed last June while walking in Seabright when a man officials say was driving under the influence struck her with his car.

To respond to crises while also mourning the death of a friend and worrying about her kids “certainly” had an impact, Coonerty said.

Aside from those factors, Coonerty said he also feels like there is “real political talent” in the community, particularly women, who he thinks “can do a good job and bring their energy to the board.” The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors is comprised of five white men.

There are “very capable people who are ready to step up,” he said.

When asked if he has anyone in mind, Coonerty said it wouldn’t be his place to pick a successor — and that he won’t be endorsing anyone until a couple of weeks after the filing deadline next March. “We’ll see who wants to do it and who the voters choose,” Coonerty said.

His term will formally end in January 2023, after the November 2022 election.

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Coonerty said he is proud of getting the community through a pandemic, the CZU fires and “four years of threat to our democracy.” He also hopes that he helped effectuate some lasting changes, including the Thrive by Three program, which creates new resources for low-income mothers and their babies, and the creation of “real data-driven” government through budgets and performance measurement, among other things.

“Those are some of the things that I’m most proud of and I hope will have a lasting impact,” he said.

One of his colleagues on the board, Second District Supervisor Zach Friend, said Coonerty “always pushed the board to understand the human impacts of policymaking and what our actions, or inactions, would mean in people’s lives.”

“He is guided by a framework that lifts up the needs of those that rarely have a voice in the process and ensures that all decisions focus on equity and social justice,” Friend wrote in an email to Lookout.

As for what’s next, Coonerty said he hasn’t given it any thought yet, in part because he just came to this decision and in part because he still has more than a year left in his current term. “I still have I think 19 more months, with a lot of work to do,” he said. “So I’ll start thinking about that a little while in the future.”

Coonerty succeeded his father, Neal Coonerty, on the board of supervisors. Neal Coonerty also served two terms as the supervisor for the third district before stepping down in January 2015.

The younger Coonerty also hosts a podcast called “An Honorable Profession” where “rising Democratic leaders” share their personal stories and talk about ways to restore trust in government. Coonerty was the cofounder of NextSpace Coworking + Innovation, a coworking space now owned by Pacific Workplaces, and was a lecturer on law and government at the University of California Santa Cruz.

When asked if he has reached a point where he is done with politics, Coonerty said he hasn’t ruled anything out — but for now is looking forward to spending time with his family.

“I was sworn in three days after my son was born, and he’s now six,” Coonerty said. “So my kids have essentially never known me when I haven’t been in office and going to community meetings, and responding to emails. And I’m looking forward to spending some time with them just as a regular person for a little bit.”

Contributing: Isabella Cueto

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