After months of inactivity, a city council seat in Santa Cruz suddenly becomes highly competitive
Three candidates — Gabriela Trigueiro, David Tannaci and Jasmeen Miah — have so far thrown their hats into the ring to represent District 1, in the northeast section of the city of Santa Cruz. Each spoke with Christopher Neely about why they’re running in the March 5 election.
For much of the year, the ballot for the Santa Cruz City Council District 1 seat drew no candidates despite having a termed-out incumbent and a wide-open race. Then, suddenly last month, the district became one of the most competitive open seats in 2024.
It’s the first election for the First District after Santa Cruz residents voted to move to district-based representation via referendum in 2022. In 2024, incumbent Councilmember Martine Watkins will be finishing up the final year of her two-term limit. Watkins was toying with a possible run in the crowded District 5 county supervisor race, but told me Friday that she will not be seeking a supervisor seat next year.
At roughly 60,000 people across less than 16 square miles, the city of Santa Cruz, until 2022, had seen its elections play out on a citywide stage, where candidates courted majorities throughout the city’s boundaries. Now, with district-based elections, local voters will get a chance to hear about district-specific issues. The three residents who have so far thrown their hats in the ring to represent District 1 say hyperlocal issues abound in the city’s northeast section, but they frame them as microcosms of the whole.
Bounded north and south by DeLaveaga Park and Water Street, respectively, with a western border that follows the San Lorenzo River, District 1 surrounds the city’s only homeless shelter at the armory and the sprawling DeLaveaga Park, packed with redwoods and wildfire risk. It also hosts the county’s jail and its Emeline Avenue behavioral health campus, San Lorenzo and Grant parks, and a few of the city’s main corridors in Soquel Avenue and Ocean and Water streets, which have renewed focus as part of the city’s task to permit about 3,700 new housing units by 2031.
District 1 joins Districts 2, 3 and 5 as the open city council seats next year. The city’s two-term limit has forced out the incumbents in Districts 1 and 5, clearing the way for at least two new faces to join the dais. Although only one candidate has filed to run in District 5 — UC Santa Cruz student and organizer Joe Thompson — District 1 has drawn three active candidates: Gabriela Trigueiro, David Tannaci and Jasmeen Miah.
A fourth candidate, Laura Booth-Knobel, filed papers expressing an interest to run, but told me last week she dropped out of the race. Four, or even three, candidates raises the likelihood that none will earn more than 50% of the popular vote in the March 5 primary and win the seat outright. Booth-Knobel foresees the election spilling over into a November runoff race between the top two vote-getters. With a 3-year-old toddler, she said a long campaign would cost her too much.
Incumbent Manu Koenig is facing a challenge from pro-rail Lani Faulkner in District 1, while the retirement of Zach...
Trigueiro, Tannaci and Miah each agree that the larger challenges in Santa Cruz, from mental health and homelessness to affordable housing and public safety, are keenly felt in their district.
“The longitudinal issues of the city match the districts,” Trigueiro told me. “There isn’t a district that doesn’t talk about homelessness and housing. That doesn’t go away across district boundaries. But the district has acute issues that we are readily prepared to come together over and make better.”
As executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Monterey Bay and a member of the city’s Commission on Prevention of Violence Against Women, Trigueiro says she has an intellectual understanding of local issues, as well as personal experience to lean on as a renter and single mother. She’s worked on Planned Parenthood’s public policy team, and consulted for Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission. She said she will make youth mental health, especially following the pandemic and winter storms, a foundational piece of her still burgeoning platform.
Trigueiro told me she also sees a “starvation of inclusion” across the city.
“A big part of my job is to educate people, and that goes to public safety, gun safety and dialogues with the police department,” Trigueiro said. “The experience of being othered is a difficult thing. I feel like I can bring voices together that haven’t been brought together, and raise voices that have been quieted in conversations around health care, homelessness, housing insecurity and families who are on the brink.”
Tannaci similarly talks of raising voices that have been left out; however, he views this largely through the lens of development, and wants to expand the forums for community members to engage in the planning and project proposal process. He believes the city needs to increase its requirement on developers to include affordable housing in their multifamily developments. In his work as an engineer with Santa Cruz’s water department, Tannaci said he’s had a front-row seat to discussions among city staff and developers in negotiating levels of affordability — something he said needs improvement if the city is going to maximize affordable housing development.
“We need to see an increase in the affordable housing rate. My day-to-day is seeing people trying to mitigate that requirement,” Tannaci told me. “How we manage and manipulate those numbers has a lot of room for improvement. Developers are only going to do what is required of them.”
Last year, when city employees threatened to strike over poor working conditions and diminished staffing levels, Tannaci became an informal spokesperson for the SEIU 521 union, penning an op-ed and frequently appearing in the media. Married with pets, and an uncle to a few nieces and nephews, Tannaci said he wants to be the “champion for working families” the city needs. He wants to overhaul how the city and city councilmembers engage the public.
“What we need is a champion for working families, not someone who is going to go through the normal, formal process of public engagement,” Tannaci said. “It takes stepping out of that process and engaging the community where they are. I want to set up small forums and invite the public to come speak. Give me half an hour, let’s have conversations that aren’t at city council meetings during hours when working people cannot show up.”
When Miah talks about her reasons for entering the race, she speaks about large issues and the challenges of societal strictures. She’s a licensed marital and family therapist, proudly on the autism spectrum after a diagnosis at age 34, and has organized for social justice in the community.
“I want to see change and I want the systems at play to shift. We need a social contract in which we all agree that everyone has the right to exist,” Miah told me. “Abolition [of existing systems] is that path. Let’s build up systems of care so that we don’t need prisons, we don’t need police.”
Miah acknowledges those ideals are larger than a single, two-termed city councilmember. But as a councilmember, she said she would push the city to invest in deescalation training. She wants the city to require developers to reserve at least half of new units for income-restricted tenants. Miah is firmly against the city’s oversized vehicle and camping bans, which manifest along and within the district’s parks and open space. She said she is “really disappointed” in the existing city council’s treatment of the unhoused.
“What they’re offering is not meeting what is needed,” Miah told me. “I would choose bringing services to the people. I hear compassion for the houseless, but I don’t see it in practice. We need to ask why people are not taking our services.”
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