After Ryan Coonerty announced he will step back from the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors in 2022, the race is on for the Third District seat he’s held since 2014. Two current Santa Cruz city councilmembers, Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Justin Cummings, have announced their intent to run for the position; here’s what each plans to bring to the role.
The election for a soon-to-be-available seat on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors isn’t for another year, but two of Santa Cruz’s city councilmembers have already thrown their hats into the ring.
Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson launched her campaign for the Third District seat — occupied by Ryan Coonerty since 2014 — in early September, with an official campaign launch event last Thursday at the Santa Cruz Lighthouse. On Tuesday, Councilmember Justin Cummings announced his candidacy for the role, with plans in motion for a campaign launch event in the coming weeks.
In April, Third District Supervisor Coonerty announced that he would not seek a third term in 2022. Coonerty continued the legacy of representing the district — which spans from the North Coast to Seventh Avenue in Live Oak — from his father, Neal Coonerty, who served District 3 from 2006 to 2014.
Here’s a look at how both candidates view their approach to the position.
‘How do we anticipate and prepare for whatever comes our way?’
Kalantari-Johnson has worked throughout the county over the past two decades, with a primary focus on public health and social services issues — both of which she said she believes are vital areas of concentration for the board of supervisors.
“I’ve worked with the board of supervisors in the past, and this is a place I know I could contribute my background and expertise to help work toward community well-being,” she said.
As an Iranian American immigrant, working mother and wife, Kalantari-Johnson thinks her experiences in post-revolution Iran would help to shed a light on equity locally. The UC Santa Cruz grad acknowledged that women’s and immigrants’ voices have been underrepresented at all levels of government nationally, and said her election would be a great and necessary step for the county to showcase more voices.
On top of her work — with a master’s in social work from San Jose State University and work experience in areas like San Francisco’s Tenderloin — Kalantari-Johnson cites her major platform priorities as climate change and action, unhoused community members and the manifestation of substance abuse, CZU rebuilding, workforce development, and housing development.
Since launching her campaign, she has made inroads with community connections, spending time with residents of the Third and Fifth Districts, members of the lumber industry, and reconnecting with members of the cannabis industry. She aims to dive deeper into the community, and both ask questions and build coalitions.
“That has to be a priority, to be accessible and to be a space where people can come to share their grievances and find solutions together,” she said. “How do we anticipate and prepare for whatever comes our way? When and if I get elected, I’m not doing this in a vacuum.”
Kalantari-Johnson listed endorsements from four of the six other Santa Cruz city councilmembers, the mayors of Capitola, Watsonville and Scotts Valley, and organizations including Santa Cruz Together.
“Each of the supervisors, I have respect for and really value all of the amazing work and sacrifices they have made,” she said. “As a woman and a woman of color, I can bring a new perspective ... I can see multiple perspectives, be pragmatic, and enter spaces with compassion. My approach to policymaking is reaching across the aisle.”
‘We create a process to work on the issues’
Cummings has worn many hats across Santa Cruz since coming to the area 20 years ago: a middle-class resident, a renter, a union member, a scientist, a UCSC student, a city councilmember, and the city’s mayor during “one of the most challenging times for the city of Santa Cruz,” he said, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, with hopes of becoming Third District supervisor, he aims to bring positive and effective change to the community at large.
“I decided I was going to put together a campaign and start hearing what people had to say,” he said. “Ultimately, I decided to throw my hat in and give it a shot.”
Cummings acknowledged that his perspective through all of his roles in the community — as well as being an African American male — would help bring fresh eyes and broader community representation to the board of supervisors. He has already received endorsements from former Third District Supervisor Gary Patton, Vice Mayor Sonja Brunner and former Santa Cruz Mayor Katherine Beiers.
On top of showcasing his own experiences in the position, Cumming said, he would aim to provide “ongoing attention” to the families of the North Coast and Bonny Doon who are still looking to rebuild a year after the CZU Lightning Complex fire. Additionally, Cummings wants to bring a scientific perspective to the rebuilding efforts, with a goal of ensuring that community members reduce the risk of losing their homes again amid ongoing climate change.
“We really need to make sure, locally, to make the process efficient, so people can rebuild quickly and make it safe,” he said, further noting the need for more efficient communication systems and power grid improvements in advance of future trouble microgrids.
Another major issue Cummings said he intends to push is the creation of not just more affordable housing, but connecting with industry partners and educational institutions to ensure career growth pathways for Santa Cruzans. He also aims to tie those needs in with serving the county’s communities of color, and connecting them to the resources they need most.
While there’s no way to solve every problem in the first year in the position, Cummings said he hopes to continue his work with city and county staff and community members to move forward on important issues. In his current role, he cited the Black Lives Matters mural, removing the mission bells, and increasing inclusionary housing by 20% as positive policy changes for community members.
“Over the past four years, people in the community bring me items they want me to work on, and we create a process to work on those issues,” he said. “I’ve been effective at doing that ... as we’re trying to address all of these issues, we can create timelines and priorities for when things can happen.”
Cummings said he believes his election to the board would help represent community members who’ve felt overlooked by the county. If elected, he would be the only renter on the board.
“We want to ensure that when we talk about what types of programs we want to create, we have people who have used those programs — I can bring those voices forward,” he said.