Through the grapevine: Potential Santa Cruz County supervisor vacancies stir political intrigue for 2024

District 5 Supervisor Bruce McPherson.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

November 2024 is still a ways out, but a list of names of potential candidates among the three supervisor seats up for election in Santa Cruz County has already begun to emerge.

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The Nov. 5, 2024, election is still 608 days away. Although change is a safe bet within any 608-day period, and Santa Cruz County and its cities have yet to wash away the taste of the tense 2022 election season, the grapevine is beginning to blossom with names of potential candidates running in the three supervisorial districts on the ballot next year.

It was not even four months ago that the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors was a dais occupied by five white men, four of whom had served multiple terms. Victories by newcomers Justin Cummings and Felipe Hernandez in November brought a welcomed refresh. More change could be on the way.

At this early stage, no candidates have made any declarations about a 2024 campaign; nor have incumbents announced intent to step down or seek reelection. However, the rumor mill has been picking up speed.

Lookout spoke with 11 people across the county whose jobs and/or political ambitions require their ears to be tuned to these kinds of developments. Through those conversations, a list of recurring names and plans emerged.

District 5

Most of the early activity is happening in District 5, which stretches north from the city of Santa Cruz to the Santa Clara County boundary. Formally, incumbent Supervisor Bruce McPherson said he has not decided on whether he will seek reelection to a fourth consecutive term. However, many believe McPherson, who is approaching 80 years old, is ready to retire from his supervisorial career.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart and Monica Martinez, chief executive at nonprofit Encompass Community Services, are the two names that most often come up as possible candidates to replace McPherson. Hart, a Scotts Valley resident in his ninth year as sheriff, and Martinez, a San Lorenzo Valley resident in her ninth year leading the county’s largest health and human services nonprofit, represent a wide range of choices. The pair each confirmed they have been approached about running and are exploring the possibility but have made no decisions yet.

Monica Martinez of Encompass Community Services.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I’m taking the calls for a change and a fresh voice seriously,” said Martinez, who began thinking about a supervisor run after what she called a frustrating county response to the CZU fires in 2020. “My career and life’s work has been helping others and putting public resources into the hands that need it most. Is there a way to continue to serve in that capacity? I’m in the exploration phase right now.”

Hart said he was “mulling around” the idea of running, but emphasized his plans would depend on what McPherson decides to do. Hart, who pulls a salary of roughly $291,000 per year, would see that cut by more than half if he transitioned to supervisor, where the salaries are just under $140,000 per year.

Sheriff Jim Hart.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I’ve lived in the 5th District for most of my life. I’m interested in the issues of the 5th District, it’s just a matter of where I want to continue my public-service career,” Hart said. “I don’t even know what [McPherson’s] plans are, though. I would never consider running against Bruce.”

Ben Lomond resident Jayme Ackemann, a member of the San Lorenzo Valley Water District’s board of directors, said she is also considering a run. Ackemann, the public-affairs director for renewable-energy utility MCE and a board member of the Santa Margarita Groundwater Sustainability Agency, said she is motivated by what she sees as infrastructure and disaster-recovery challenges in the San Lorenzo Valley.

“It’s early days, but I’m putting together a campaign team and talking to people about the issues,” Ackemann said. “I’d like to see the San Lorenzo Valley have more of a voice on the county level. I don’t think there are many people in the 5th District who understand the unique infrastructure challenges in the way I do.”

Scotts Valley City Councilmember Derek Timm and Santa Cruz City Councilmember Martine Watkins have also come up as people to watch. Timm said he does not have any plans to run, and Watkins did not return Lookout’s request for comment.

District 2

The scene in District 2, which encompasses Capitola and Aptos and stretches to South County to include parts of Watsonville, will depend on incumbent Supervisor Zach Friend’s plans. Although he has kept his campaign account open — a prerequisite of a possible reelection run — Friend said via text he has not made a final decision. Although people I spoke with feel confident McPherson is not going to run despite not making any formal decisions yet, Friend’s plans are more of a mystery. Many point to the fact that Friend’s wife, Tina Friend, moved to San Diego County to take a job as Coronado city manager, and Friend could forgo a fourth term to be with his family.

Yvette Brooks was elected in November to a second four-year term on the Capitola City Council.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

If Friend does vacate the seat, three names have consistently come up as possible replacements. Capitola City Council members Yvette Brooks and Kristen Brown have apparently expressed strong interest in running if the seat is available. Brooks said she is focused on Capitola for now and is “awaiting to hear back the results from the [California] Coastal Commission.” Brooks was nominated as a possible appointee to the influential statewide body last month, but the decision will ultimately lie with California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who is expected to make an appointment this month.

Lookout was unable to reach Brown. Pajaro Valley Unified School District Area 1 Trustee Kim De Serpa is also rumored to be running. De Serpa did not return Lookout’s calls for comment. John Mulry, a stay-at-home father and lead organizer of several affordable housing and transit-focused advocacy groups, told Lookout he is running for District 2 supervisor.

District 1

Incumbent Manu Koenig, who unseated longtime Supervisor John Leopold in 2020, said via text he plans to seek reelection. However, his work to dismantle the county’s plans for a light rail project during 2022’s Measure D could attract at least one motivated challenger. Lani Faulkner, founder and director of nonprofit Equity Transit, has come up as a potential opponent in the county’s political grapevine. Faulkner did not return Lookout’s multiple requests for comment.

FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to reflect that John Mulry is running in District 2.

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