Field begins to coalesce in races for three Santa Cruz County supervisor seats
Incumbent Manu Koenig is facing a challenge from pro-rail Lani Faulkner in District 1, while the retirement of Zach Friend in District 2 has so far seen three candidates — Kristen Brown, Kimberly De Serpa and Douglas Deitch — file paperwork. Monica Martinez and Christopher Bradford are running to replace Bruce McPherson in District 5, with Sheriff Jim Hart still seen as a possible candidate.
When three-term Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend announced recently that he wouldn’t seek reelection to his District 2 seat, it formally set in motion a new era for the county’s board of supervisors.
At this time last year, in progressive Santa Cruz County, the board was made up of five white men, entrenched with a combined 42 years of experience. Since then, county voters have filled two seats with Justin Cummings, a Black man, and Felipe Hernandez, a Latino man from South County. Next year, the race for three open supervisor seats so far features four women and three men, including the only incumbent, District 1’s Manu Koenig. Koenig has already drawn a challenger, which means the board could potentially begin 2025 with Cummings and Hernandez as the veteran voices. A new era indeed.
Including Koenig, eight candidates have filed paperwork stating their intent to compete for the seats, though one candidate in the District 5 race has since pulled out. The Dec. 8 deadline leaves plenty of time for more candidates, including one big potential name in the District 5 race. While the county’s regions share many of the same major issues such as affordability and transportation, the districts have their own specific challenges as well, from road improvements and water supply to disaster recovery and wildfire preparedness.
Rail-trail redux in District 1
Despite the community’s overwhelming rejection of it, last year’s vote on Measure D wrought a political battle so tense that the waters in its wake remain unsettled; just look at the race for District 1 supervisor.
Incumbent Koenig was once the executive director of Santa Cruz County Greenway, an organization focused on active transportation that led the campaign against light rail, favoring instead that the county rip up the existing tracks and instead pursue a multipurpose trail for pedestrians, cyclists and others. Although he left that position before being elected supervisor in 2020, Koenig still came out strongly against the rail/trail proposal. However, after more than 70% of county voters supported keeping the tracks and pursuing light rail, Koenig has chosen diplomacy and supported moving forward in exploring rail. His website highlights his record, including votes to add 55 housing units for the homeless population, increased transparency in the county’s permitting department, and road improvements in high-traffic corridors like East Cliff Drive and Soquel Drive.
Enter Lani Faulkner. The founder of advocacy organization Equity Transit and vocal supporter of rail has positioned herself as Koenig’s lone challenger thus far in District 1, which stretches from the county line in the Santa Cruz Mountains through Soquel to Live Oak and Capitola. Faulkner, a Live Oak resident and former biotech professional, comes to the race with last June’s Measure D defeat at the top of her political résumé. Her website lists housing, transportation and the environment as her top priorities, though her plans to improve upon those issues are as yet vague.
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New, familiar faces in District 2
With Friend’s departure, District 2, which stretches from Capitola down to the southwest corner of Santa Cruz County and out to Corralitos, will be heading in a new direction after 12 years. So far, three candidates have formally filed paperwork intending to run, and each brings their own sense of familiarity.
Capitola City Councilmember Kristen Brown formally entered the race only days after Friend announced his retirement from the board. Brown, first elected to Capitola City Council in 2016, has a long résumé of public agency experience. Her city council seat has propelled her to posts on the regional planning board Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission and the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District board of directors. As her day job, Brown serves as the vice president of government relations with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. The Cal State Monterey Bay graduate plans to target housing affordability, transit expansion and disaster mitigation as her campaign pillars.
Although she has not formally announced, Pajaro Valley Unified School District trustee Kimberly De Serpa has filed paperwork and told Lookout she intends to launch a campaign for the District 2 seat. An Aptos Hills resident, De Serpa said she understands rural issues, and is frustrated with road conditions and the lengthy commute between Watsonville and Santa Cruz. She’s had a long career in social work — she currently works as social services manager at the Salinas Valley Health Medical Center — through which she has developed a passion for expanding access for disabled residents. De Serpa said she will fight to expand mental health care services and fund programs aimed at homelessness.
Douglas Deitch enters the race hyper-focused on one issue — water supply, specifically groundwater, and how to protect it from overpumping and saltwater intrusion. Deitch is championing a more than $2 billion plan to purchase and convert nearly 23,000 acres of coastal farmland into wetlands as a natural buffer to saltwater intrusion. Deitch, who has run for county supervisor several times, is also pushing for the region to declare a groundwater emergency. The Aptos resident also plans to, again, challenge Rep. Jimmy Panetta next year for his congressional seat.
Disaster recovery and one big question mark in District 5
The Santa Cruz Mountains, which make up much of District 5, have not gotten a break from natural disaster. The CZU fire in 2020 turned more than 900 homes to ash, and this year’s winter storms brought landslides, flooding and downed trees to a community still in recovery mode.
So it comes as no surprise that recovery is the marquee issue in the District 5 race. Monica Martinez, chief executive officer of health and human services nonprofit Encompass Community Services, was the first to formally throw her hat in the ring earlier this spring. Martinez, a Bakersfield native, has called Santa Cruz County home since 2010, when she was recruited to serve as executive director of homelessness nonprofit Housing Matters. The Felton resident told Lookout earlier this year that she feels the San Lorenzo Valley has been left behind in the recovery from the wildfire and storm natural disasters. Her platform includes reactive plans — streamlining the process of rebuilding following a natural disaster — and preemptive action — incentivizing vegetation management to temper the risk of intense and widespread wildfires in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Boulder Creek’s Christopher Bradford, a CZU survivor, has said he was moved to run for supervisor after seeing how slow and painful natural disaster recovery has been in the Santa Cruz Mountains. So far Bradford, who runs his own business in real estate marketing, has focused his campaign on building resilient infrastructure in the mountain community. This includes water supply, and Bradford has been a vocal leader in highlighting the failures of Big Basin Water Company to provide water and wastewater service to its customers over the years.
Jayme Ackemann, an elected director of the San Lorenzo Valley Water District, filed her initial paperwork but has since pulled out of the race, telling Lookout the timing was not right for her.
The District 5 pool will continue to draw intrigue as the community awaits Sheriff Jim Hart’s decision on whether he will run for the seat. Hart told Lookout in the spring that he was considering a run but it would depend primarily on whether longtime incumbent Bruce McPherson would seek a fourth term. McPherson has since bowed out, and Hart has not returned Lookout’s many calls seeking clarity on his plans.
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