Supervisors look past labor opposition, pick Rotkin over South County rep for transit board seat

Mike Rotkin survived a push to remove him from the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District board of directors.
Mike Rotkin survived a push to remove him from the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District board of directors.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Mike Rotkin, a UC Santa Cruz politics lecturer and longtime labor advocate, survived a campaign to paint him as anti-labor and unseat him from the influential Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit board. Labor’s choice, former Watsonville mayor Daniel Dodge, said status quo politics “once again showed its ugly head.”

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Despite a 10-day opposition campaign from some of the region’s most powerful labor organizations, county supervisors voted to reappoint former Santa Cruz mayor and UC Santa Cruz politics lecturer Mike Rotkin to an influential public transit board rather than labor-favored South County leader Daniel Dodge.

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to hand Rotkin the four-year seat on the 11-member Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit board of directors, a seat he has held for the past eight years. Supervisors Manu Koenig and Zach Friend voted against Rotkin in favor of Dodge. The METRO board essentially acts as the city council for the region’s public transit system, which is approaching a pivotal moment as public mobility becomes a pressing issue for the growing county.

Labor groups such as SMART Local 23, which represents public transit bus drivers, SEIU 521 and the regional umbrella organization Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, worked to paint Rotkin as anti-labor despite his decades as lead negotiator for the UCSC lecturers union and organizer for the university’s teachers federation. While they accused Rotkin of repeatedly coming out against labor and striking workers, they pushed for Dodge, a former Watsonville mayor and MBCLC’s president. They said Dodge, who is also Latino, would offer a needed South County voice on a countywide board where nine of the 11 members represent areas north of 41st Avenue.

Former Watsonville mayor Daniel Dodge.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

James Sandoval, chair of SMART Local 23, said supervisors received over 160 emails opposing Rotkin and supporting Dodge. He said the opposition against Rotkin was “purely business” and pointed to a stance Rotkin took earlier this year against transit employees joining the Public Employment Relations Board — essentially a human resources department run by the state — to receive additional protection during disputes with management.

Rotkin told Lookout he felt strongly that METRO employees, management and the board could solve their conflicts internally without getting the state involved and wrapping the issue under layers of bureaucratic red tape. Rotkin said he is “baffled” by the effort to paint him as anti-labor.

“Honestly, I don’t know what this is really about,” Rotkin said. “I talked to James [Sandoval]. We shook hands and agreed to meet. I want to be a labor advocate and hope I can reestablish a positive relationship with them.”

Supervisors Bruce McPherson, Greg Caput and Ryan Coonerty — the latter two in their final meeting as supervisors — made up the majority who pushed the Rotkin reappointment through. Coonerty, a lecturer at UCSC, said Rotkin, as the union representative for UCSC lecturers, has always fought on the side of labor and better wages. Caput, who represents South County on the board of supervisors, publicly told Rotkin he considers him “a friend,” before saying he would vote for him.

Supervisors Ryan Coonerty (left) and Manu Koenig disagreed on whom to appoint to the METRO board.
Supervisors Ryan Coonerty (left) and Manu Koenig disagreed on whom to appoint to the METRO board.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’s certainly disappointing that Supervisor Caput voted against South County representation,” Dodge told Lookout. “Status quo in Santa Cruz County once again showed its ugly head.”

County supervisors get to appoint two supervisors and three representatives from the public to the Metro board of directors. Koenig criticized his colleagues for the fact that all of their appointees were white, and none of them came from South County. Friend, the District 2 supervisor who joined Koenig in supporting Dodge, said although he felt Rotkin was being unfairly painted as anti-labor, the supervisors were failing by not appointing a South County resident to the METRO board.

Rotkin told Lookout he, in part, agreed that the board needed more diversity.

“One could make an argument that we should have had a Latino on the board, but I think I’ve served the Latinos in Watsonville well,” Rotkin said. “There is an underrepresentation of South County. It’s a principled stand and I wouldn’t have been shocked if they gave it to Dodge because of regional representation. But I am shocked about the labor stuff.”


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