‘New voices, new perspectives’: What will a board of supervisors shake-up in the June election bring?

A meeting of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors .
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

With now two open seats, diversity and change overall are in the air. How much change, led by whom and to what kinds of new spending and policy priorities, will be key questions to follow as both races heat up. It was just last week the second open seat appeared, as South County District 4 Supervisor Greg Caput surprised many by saying he wouldn’t run for reelection after 12 years in the job.

Go back to 2012. That’s the most recent time Santa Cruz County voters saw two open seats for the Board of Supervisors.

Go back eight years in 2014. That’s the most recent time a woman, Ellen Pirie in the Second District seat now held by Zach Friend, sat on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors.

Go back to 2010. That’s the most recent time a person of color, Tony Campos in the Fourth District seat now held by Greg Caput, sat on the board.

With a filing deadline of March 11, the June 7 election will produce change, and with five white male supervisors in 2022, many have pointed to the board’s out-of-step-with-the-times complexion in a county that counts itself 34% Latino and 50.5% female. That composition also contrasts completely with the Santa Cruz City Council’s seven members, currently made up of six women and four people of color.

How much change, led by whom and to what kinds of new spending and policy priorities, will be key questions to follow as both races heat up. It was just last week the second open seat appeared, as South County District 4 Supervisor Greg Caput surprised many by saying he wouldn’t run for reelection after 12 years in the job.

City of Santa Cruz-based District 3 opened up last fall, as longtime Santa Cruz politician Ryan Coonerty announced a return to private life.

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Justin Cummings
Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Justin Cummings

Further, Manu Koenig — who last November defeated 12-year incumbent John Leopold for the District 1 seat — is still a newbie, just into his second year on the board. All totaled, as Santa Cruz County government, with a budget of$864 million for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, confronts the winds of change, partly blown in by the Blank Swan of a pandemic and partly pre-existing.

The supervisors’ seats are the most prized ones in local politics, full-time jobs paying a base compensation of $134,709, with full-time staff. In their purview, these five supervisors determine spending priorities for the county as a whole and for all-important programs, like public health, homeless relief, public safety and more.

It has been 10 years since two seats opened up at the same time for the board. And the most recent time it happened before then was 1980. Incumbency has its rewards.

Fred Keeley, longtime officeholder and a Democratic party leader in a county that counts four times more declared Democrats than Republicans, knows that well.

“If you want to get a seat on the board of supervisors, you better go get it when it’s open because that’s not very often,” Keeley said.

The candidates are lining up.

Who wants the jobs?

Two Santa Cruz city councilmembers — Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Justin Cummings — are actively campaigning, lining up supporters and funding, to run for Coonerty’s seat.

In South County, Jimmy Dutra, a Watsonville city councilmember, and Cabrillo College trustee Felipe Hernandez jumped into the race for Caput’s seat soon after his recent announcement. Both Dutra and Hernandez had run to unseat him previously. Dutra ran in both 2014 and 2018, coming in third and second, with Hernandez placing third in 2018.

Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra
Jimmy Dutra
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

If any of those four end up winning office, the board will become more diverse. Those four announced candidates include an Iranian-American woman, an African-American man, an openly gay Latino man and a Latino man.

Expect to hear a familiar call to arms for “a fresh start,” as Dutra calls it, from all the challengers. “For too long, I feel like our voices have not been fully represented,” he said.

Says Cummings, “This provides an opportunity for new people to step into that position of leadership … there’s a lot of opportunity for new voices and new perspectives to be heard,” Cummings said.

Kalantari-Johnson told Lookout that the two seats opening in tandem would allow the board to focus on community well-being, and the need for more representation.

“There’s a lot of diversity and unique voices and perspectives that are of our community — for a community and a county that authentically prides itself on inclusivity and diversity, it’s important to have that reflected in our elected officials,” she said.

“The next generation will have their hands full, believe me,” Caput explained.

Caput’s district includes Watsonville and a large portion of unincorporated South County. His representation has meant a focus on housing production and including his area in funding priorities. That work has included bringing more county offices and facilities to South County. He also worked to advance the Pajaro River Flood Risk Management Project, a $420 million project to create flood protections along floodplains in South County.

Who else may step up to run for his seat, in addition to Dutra and Hernandez?

Watsonville-based Digital Nest founder and CEO Jacob Martinez said there has been talk among civic leaders like himself, trying to identify more candidates who fit the moment.

“It is a critical time for our end of the county,” he said.

Keeley, whose long career included an eight-year stint on the board of supervisors in the 1980s, said he is surprised that the opportunity in South County is not being seized by more candidates. He said he believes either Hernandez or Dutra will provide a more proactive approach to shaping policy than Caput has done.

Keeley has endorsed Hernandez for the Fourth District and given a joint endorsement to Kalantari-Johnson and Cummings in the Third.

Felipe Hernandez
Felipe Hernandez
(Via Cabrillo College)

The Third District seat that Coonerty is vacating deals more than any other of the districts with the worsening issue of homelessness. “That’s really the primary job of the district supervisor,” Keeley said. “It’s the county seat. It’s where homelessness manifests itself in the most visible ways. And so the Third District supervisor has a lot of responsibility there.”

Kalantari-Johnson and Cummings are both well equipped to take their city-level experience to the county, he believes.

The start of a shake-up

Cynthia Chase knows many of the players well. She’s a former Santa Cruz mayor, who served on the city council from 2015-18. A social worker by trade, she’s considered by her peers a savvy observer of the political scene. She moved to Oakland in 2020 — otherwise, she might well have been a leading candidate for Coonerty’s vacating position.

Chase quickly endorsed Kalantari-Johnson, largely because of their shared experience as county-embedded social workers and because she’s “trying to bring diverse perspectives together.”

“And so I’m excited for that,” she said. “I’m excited for a female leader to be in the race for board of supervisors, which has been absent for a very long time.”

While saying she has heard good things about Justin Cummings, she knows firsthand about Kalantari-Johnson’s consensus-building background.

“She knows the context of so many different departments within the county, what they’ve been struggling with,” she said. “She’s helped to write grants, she’s helped to facilitate conversation. That’s just so much of what happens in politics and policymaking — it’s relationships. And so having those and being able to bridge those gaps, I think is really critical.”

She notes Koenig’s election as the beginning of perhaps-significant change.

"[The election in November of 2020] was a surprise to some folks, starting a shake-up,” she said. “I think it was really healthy for the community.”

Our politics, she believes, can be insular: “We are slow to move and it’s been a huge detriment. We kind of get myopic in our viewpoints.”

“I think that we should be challenging ourselves to not kind of stick with the status quo,” she added.” It’s problematic that we haven’t had a female on the Board of Supervisors in a long time and I think having also a female of color is great for the community to see and to have that perspective is going to change the way those conversations happen and policies are made — and I think it’s time.”

Coonerty, who will leave his role when his term expires in January 2023, agrees. It’s a “moment of change.”

“Overall, it’s a good thing that the county board of supervisors will look more like the county,” he said. “By bringing new voices on, there will be more diverse experience brought to public policy decision-making.”