Supporters of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. march in the World's Shortest Parade in Aptos on July 4.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Will Santa Cruz County be open to what RFK Jr. is selling?

Anti-vax crackpot with an antisemitism problem or an antidote to a Democratic establishment intent on power and under the sway of Big Pharma and other moneyed interests? His position as a member of a grand political family gives Robert F. Kennedy Jr. instant name recognition, but whether a Santa Cruz County that has a history of supporting insurgent candidacies will back him in his challenge to President Joe Biden is an open question.

On one level, it was a scene straight out of a Frank Capra movie: a small-town Fourth of July parade, bursting with red, white and blue, full of marching bands, grinning local pols, and decorated fire trucks. In that milieu, it’s perfectly appropriate to have a couple of dozen friendly local folks marching alongside a giant banner promoting a candidate for president. Give the director bonus points if that candidate is from a grand political family known to just about everyone and deeply embedded in American history. Lights, camera, action!

On another level, this was no movie. It was the annual “World’s Shortest Parade” in Aptos, an Independence Day tradition that this year featured a small group of locals marching behind a “Kennedy for President” banner. But despite the wholesome optics, in the America of the 2020s, we’ve all learned that political activism of even the most traditional kind is too often tied to a funhouse mirror of manufactured hostility and wild ironies that are wholly a phenomenon of contemporary, post-truth times.

Into this environment comes a new candidate, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the well-known and accomplished environmental lawyer and son of one of the most famous political figures of the 20th century, not to mention nephew of an even more famous former president. RFK Jr. is indeed running for president in 2024, just as his uncle did in 1960 and his father did in 1968. But a more appropriate comparison might be with yet another super-famous political relative, his uncle Ted Kennedy, who ran for president against a sitting incumbent from his own party in 1980. That’s what RFK Jr. faces next year when he will stand as a challenger for the nomination of the Democratic Party against President Joe Biden. And he’ll likely have some support locally.

Santa Cruz artist Russell Brutsche has created a series of posters promoting Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s campaign for president
Santa Cruz artist Russell Brutsche has created a series of posters promoting Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s campaign for president in 2024.
(Via Russell Brutsche)

Santa Cruz artist and musician Russell Brutsche was one of those marching beside the Kennedy banner in Aptos. He’s used his artistic skills to create posters supporting the campaign, including one with Kennedy’s head on the famous West Cliff Drive surfer statue.

“I would only ask people to try and hear as much from him as about him,” said Brutsche. “At least, give him equal time.”

Even though he has no prior experience in public office, if Kennedy were running a conventional political campaign, in line with his famous forebears, that could still be big news; his name might guarantee that. But, that’s not the case. This Kennedy campaign is a new creature altogether, forged in the podcast era and running on issues that his long-dead political relatives wouldn’t even recognize.

In Santa Cruz County, there now appears to be only a small core of activists who are beginning to organize through, for instance, tables at local farmers markets, though they plan to ramp up their activism and their numbers in the months ahead. To those supporters, Kennedy is an unifying figure, being portrayed as a crackpot only because he’s going after Democratic Party taboos about power and money, most notably the influence that the pharmaceutical industry, Big Pharma, exercises on a “captured” political infrastructure and media ecosystem.

To his detractors, though, Kennedy is a conspiracy-theory crank, an anti-vax standard bearer whose ideas about everything from COVID to wifi are not only wrong, but dangerous. The resistance to Kennedy has even, curiously, come from his own famous family. And to put one big bizarro cherry on top of the cake, this attack on the Democratic power structure is coming from a man whose father is nothing less than a martyred saint of that party.

Even Frank Capra wouldn’t dare write that script.

As is typical these days, Kennedy is not presented as merely another political option. He is either the poison or the antidote, depending on where you’re standing. Since he announced his candidacy in April, he has polled as high as 20%. But that was before the latest flap when Kennedy was caught claiming that COVID was designed to attack only certain racial groups, and “the people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.” Afterward, Kennedy pushed back hard against charges of antisemitism.

Santa Cruz County has historically been receptive to both third-party candidates and insurgent candidates within the Democratic Party, scoring higher than the national or state averages on such candidates as Ralph Nader in 2000, Barack Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders in 2016.

Will Santa Cruz County have a more receptive ear to Kennedy’s campaign than the Democratic mainstream?

Phil Baer holds up a "Kennedy for President" sign at Front and Laurel streets in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Local Kennedy supporters say they’ve been surprised at the positive responses they’ve received so far. Satya Orion was one of those marching with the local Kennedy campaign in Aptos on July 4. “I was afraid that we might get harassed or shouted at,” she said, wearing the same Kennedy for President sweatshirt she wore in the parade. “But I didn’t get that. Afterwards, I even walked down to Rio Del Mar in my Kennedy shirt, and I got a lot of smiles and thumbs up.”

The campaign is still very much in the early going and local activists don’t have any hard data indicating support, or lack thereof, in Santa Cruz County. Many of them say that other people they’ve talked to are only dimly aware of both Kennedy and the controversies that have dogged his campaign so far. “A couple of people said to me,” said Orion, “‘I’ve just heard what people have said about him, but I never really listened to him before.’”

The head of the Democratic Party in Santa Cruz County, Andrew Goldenkranz, said that it makes sense that Kennedy’s message might resonate with some locally, especially given what is generally seen as 2024 rematch between Biden and Donald Trump. “When something is seen as inevitable,” he said, “people around here are always looking for another choice.”

Other factors at play, said Goldenkranz, that might translate into local support for Kennedy are the candidate’s artificially high name recognition, and how some sectors of the health and wellness community in Santa Cruz County react positively to anti-vax politics.

“There is a constituency for anti-vaccine politics in Santa Cruz,” he said. “Pre-COVID, it was pretty contained. It was pretty fringe. But then, as COVID became messier and messier — you still see once or twice a week, people with banners on the overpass of Highway 1 who are saying the vaccine is a plot and real conspiracy stuff. So yes, there’s clearly a small but meaningful and dedicated group of anti-vaxxers in town, and they will latch onto Kennedy.”

Kennedy has received kudos from the same mainstream that criticizes him, at least when it comes to his work as an environmental attorney and activist. And though he might attract many who voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020, Kennedy and Sanders are in different categories as candidates.

“It’s very different,” said Goldenkranz. “Bernie has a grasp on evidence and facts. And you can agree or disagree with his positions. But that’s shown not to be the case with Kennedy.”

But Kennedy’s supporters say that their candidate is not anti-vaccine, that he only wants more oversight and liability directed at the companies that created the vaccine. They say that Kennedy’s platform is unfairly reduced to his criticism of the COVID vaccine rollout and that it contains a lot more than that.

“Unfortunately, we have lazy politics,” said Kennedy supporter Lira Filippini. “We have a team system where you choose a team and you follow it and you don’t necessarily pay attention to what your team is doing.”

She said Kennedy is giving respect to people who are skeptical of vaccines, which the mainstream clearly does not. “Everyone who went and got vaccinated was doing so for their own health and the health of others. And yet, from his perspective, everyone who didn’t was also doing that for the same reasons. They just had different access to information,” Filippini said. “He’s very giving and understanding with how he perceives things and he wants to heal the divide.”

Supporter Russell Brutsche said he’s attracted to the fact that Kennedy, despite his name, is not a typical politician, that he does not demonize his opponents, and he gives deep thought to his positions and opinions. His father, during his fabled 1968 campaign, was often given to idealistic and even poetic language. Kennedy Jr. goes the opposite tack, diving instead into fine-print details. Much of Kennedy’s exposure thus far, in fact, has come from long, in-the-weeds discussions on podcasts with such interviewers as Joe Rogan.

“Could this be a podcast presidency?” said Brutsche. “That’s being said because he’s getting so much exposure on these longform interviews. And that’s different from what we’ve had. And that’s part of the strategy, to become a warts-and-all candidate. And I feel like I know who he is because of these long talks. Now, you can like Joe Rogan or not, but he gets at least 10 times as many hits as CNN. So people are listening.”

“I think it’s going to be a little bit of a flash in the pan,” countered Goldenkranz. “I don’t think that he’s going to have staying power. There’s just too much negative stuff that’s going to play itself out. In presidential politics, we’ve learned that a year and a half is a really long, long time. So a lot can happen. But under normal circumstances, I don’t think that he’s going to be durable.”

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.