Former Santa Cruz county clerk Gail Pellerin
Gail Pellerin retired from her position as county clerk in December 2020 and is now running for office.
(Kevin Painchaud | Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

‘What about me?’: She wanted a Santa Cruz woman in Sacramento, so veteran politico Gail Pellerin called her own number

Recruitment of others led Gail Pellerin to the revelation that no one has better qualifications for the California State Assembly than herself. That’s why the noted advocate for voting rights and mental health awareness is attempting to become the first area woman to ever earn an elected seat in state government.

As a staunch advocate for bringing more women into the political arena, Gail Pellerin spent many hours recruiting prospects for the state assembly seat it was assumed Mark Stone (D-Santa Cruz) wouldn’t relinquish until he termed out in 2024.

Former Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin

Every time she asked someone if they would be interested, she got the same reply: “What about you?”

Eventually the longtime public servant and elections boss, who spent 27 years in Santa Cruz County government after beginning her political career working for the larger-than-life Willie Brown in Sacramento, took a long, hard look in the mirror and asked herself the same question. Why shouldn’t I be the first woman from Santa Cruz County to hold office at the state level?

“I had to ask myself, ‘What about me?’” she said. “‘What about me stepping up and taking this important role?’”

Only she didn’t anticipate the opportunity arriving two years early. When Stone called her several weeks ago and said he was planning not to seek reelection after a decade of service, Pellerin had to make a swift decision.

She chose to ramp up her campaign planning, get a website together and throw her hat into the ring for what will become a newly configured 28th District, overseeing parts of both Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. It’s a district formed out of locally controversial, census-driven redistricting, and one that splits up the district held by Stone, which has been a Central Coast-centric one ranging from Monterey to Boulder Creek.

The new lines will make it so that roughly a third of the district’s constituents live in a zone from Boulder Creek to Eastside Santa Cruz, with two-thirds living in a zone from Los Gatos to Morgan Hill.

Stone’s is one of many endorsements for Pellerin on her site. In very quick order — a sign of the close-knit Democractic politics of Democrat-dominated Santa Cruz County — Pellerin’s other early endorsements already include State Sen. John Laird, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, former state Assembly member Fred Keeley, former U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, state Assembly member Robert Rivas and a who’s who of Santa Cruz County and city politicos whom she worked closely with as Santa Cruz County Clerk. Seemingly overnight, she’s become the anointed successor to Stone, at least on this side of the hill.

The only Santa Clara County candidate to file thus far is Liz Lawler, a Republican from Monte Sereno. The deadline to file for the seat is this Wednesday at 5 p.m.

Pellerin retired from local office after an exhausting November 2020 election season to focus on a continuing healing process — and to begin a process of mental health advocacy — after her husband Tom took his own life in 2018.

Lookout caught up with a busy Pellerin on Monday morning before she drove over the hill to file a candidate statement with the registrar’s office in Santa Clara County. She talked about the ongoing voter suppression fight nationally, the reasons she chose to run for such a demanding job, the real story behind the 408 cellphone number she has and how her labradoodle, Darwin — born on the first anniversary of Tom’s death — has been the godsend to get her through the past two years.

Well, congratulations. You announced on Saturday. Has is it already been a whirlwind, 48 hours in?

I’m enjoying getting out there and talking to people. We’ve got a whole new district here that’s facing enormous challenges. So I want to get up, hit the ground running and talk to folks and find out what the issues are and how we can address them together.

There’s a big chunk of Santa Clara County in that district. You do have a 408 number, after all …

It’s funny that you say that, because when cellphones first came out, we were 408 here in Santa Cruz. And I still have it. My husband used to work over in San Jose. I’ve spent a lot of time over there. I’ve got family and friends over in the Santa Clara County area … and I do a lot of shopping over there. (laughs) But yeah, I’m definitely the person from Santa Cruz County asking for their vote.

What will be the key there?

I think if they look at my history, and how I’ve conducted myself here as county clerk, that they’ll see that I’m someone who’s fair, open, honest, has got great integrity, and I represent everybody. I don’t want to be Santa Cruz-centric. I’ve got this new district that includes probably some of the most talented and creative people in the state and we’re gonna work together.


Assemblyman Mark Stone's statement to Lookout

“I’ve served in the Assembly for nearly ten years and have accomplished much of what I came here to do, including preserving our natural environment, protecting California’s most vulnerable kids, and making government work for the people of the 29th Assembly District. I am incredibly grateful for the experience.

As I considered the remainder of my term, I felt it would be inherently unfair to run and represent an entirely new district for the very short period of two years. The people of the newly drawn 28th District deserve the opportunity to choose continuous representation.

As such, it’s time for me to move on. I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family in retirement.”

Explain your path to this role a bit.

When I got involved with the group Breaking The Glass Ballot, it was because we noticed there’s just not enough women in elected office. So we started working toward encouraging women, giving them the tools to run for office so we have equal representation. We were really successful and now the Santa Cruz City Council is a majority women and Capitola City Council is a majority women. So we really made great strides. We looked and saw that Mark Stone is termed out in 2024. So that was our goal and our target to have a woman run for that seat. So as I talked to women and said, “Hey, are you interested in running for Mark Stone’s seat?” And they’re like, “No, I just really can’t do it. But what about you?” And then I go the next woman and say, “Hey, have you thought about running for State Assembly?” And they did the same thing: “What about you?” Eventually, I realized that yes, I’m getting that call. I’m asking myself, “What about me? What about me stepping up and taking this important role?” And the reality is I’m well qualified for it. I have the training on how Sacramento works, how to move legislation, how to develop policy and successfully get things enacted into law. So I can hit the ground running.

Did you consider running for the 3rd District Supervisor job instead?

The reality is that we’ve elected amazing women to the [county] board of supervisors, and there are a lot of women who are prepared to do that. I felt that a better fit for me would be the state assembly.

Gail Pellerin in her final days before retiring as county clerk in December 2020
Gail Pellerin in her final days before retiring as county clerk in December 2020.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

How is it joining a party after so many years of non-partisanship?

I’ve actually been doing some work with the (Democratic) party. In my role as county clerk, of course, I remained nonpartisan and part of my legacy is that I reached out and worked with all political parties. I really felt like I was someone who could bring all those different ideas together. And I was always very transparent as far as how we were conducting elections and invited everybody to come in and observe. When I retired, I was able to take on a partisan role with the Democratic Party as a consultant for their state elections. And then when the recall came around, I trained all their poll monitors and phone-bank folks. And what I was really impressed about was the desire that every vote counts, that every voter should have access. That’s the beauty of democracy when everybody who’s eligible registers and votes.

How scary are the voter suppression efforts still taking place in this country?

Extremely. When people put up barriers to other people voting, that’s not a democratic thing to do. We need to make sure every voter has access to a ballot. But I believe in voters, and I believe they’re resilient and whatever it takes to get out there and register and vote, they are going to do so.

THE HERE & NOW: Longtime Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin exits stage left after 27 years of elections, marriages...

How did you find out Mark wasn’t going to seek reelection for that final term?

We’ve been talking probably the last couple weeks and he was really on the fence. It was a profoundly personal decision — and that’s his story to tell. But, you know, at one point he says something like, “You know, I don’t have the heart and soul to do this again.” He basically said, “I want to endorse you, I want you to be my representative.”

Were you caught off guard? Were you ready?

I had to go close myself in the bathroom and take some deep breaths. I just was way overwhelmed. It was pretty late in the process, and this was a big personal decision. The people serving in our state legislature, and there’s only a few of them — 80 in the Assembly, 40 in the Senate — these are people who live significantly different lifestyles where they are going to Sacramento four days a week and then they’re in the district. I mean, they’re constantly out there serving, meeting with people, talking to people, bringing groups together. It is a full-time, 24/7, 365 job. And it has a lot of impact on families and friends and your own health and well-being. I mean, I’ve just noticed in the last couple of days I really have to take some time out for me. You know, I put my Peloton meditation app on and took 10 minutes just to sort of be present in my own body, in my own head because it’s intense.

You’ve been on your own journey of healing the past few years. Are you ready for this?

I am ready for it. And I have an amazing support system. You know, I got a dog who’s near and dear to my heart in Darwin. And that was one of my first questions to Mark is if I get elected, can I take Darwin to Sacramento. And he’s like, yes, people bring their pets. So Darwin will hopefully go to Sacramento and he’s been a great support for me over the last you know 48 hours.

Woman sitting with a blonde dog
Gail Pellerin says her dog, Darwin, has been a “huge source of emotional support” over the years.
(Kevin Painchaud | Lookout Santa Cruz)

So Darwin is a key team member? And your kids are how old?

You know, that also uniquely sets me up. I have a 24-year-old daughter who is living and working in San Francisco. And my son is soon to be 27 and he is living and looking for work in El Cerrito.

So you have midway points between here and Sacramento.

Yeah, and I have a father-in-law who lives up in San Rafael and he’s gonna have a 95th birthday coming up in April. So I’m planning on celebrating that with him.

Mental health has probably never been more front and center. How important of a mission is that for you?

Extremely. It’s one of my top priorities. And you know, we had the rollout of the 988 emergency medical number for people with mental health emergencies. It’s gonna have some bumps along the way getting that rolled out and I really want to be a champion of making sure that it is implemented successfully, that people get the services they need. I think the last two years has impacted everybody on the mental health side of their overall health and well-being and there’s a whole new focus and desire. There’s just so many places where we need to spend time, money, resources, people, be creative, and come up with a solution to address our mental health crisis. And I think we all get it now after the pandemic. If anyone has had smooth sailing without a moment of sitting, being scared, wondering what’s happening, or that feeling of stress and anxiety and having it impact your ability to carry on with your day, you’re a superhero human. I don’t know how you got through two years not having those moments.

Was this role something that you and Tom had ever discussed?

You’re making me cry now. I think he always felt that I could do big things, that I could do hard things, and I’ll carry that with me through this campaign. He would be really proud of me.