Why does no one want to run for office in Santa Cruz? Future leaders are likely to lack experience

Mike Rotkin is a former five-time mayor of Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Mike Rotkin, former five-time Santa Cruz mayor, is predicting a new trend in Santa Cruz politicians. Low pay, less expensive district elections and increasing abuse from the public are, he writes, causing many experienced leaders to bow out. He thinks Santa Cruz will likely see younger, less experienced city councilmembers and mayors in the future.

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In the June election, Santa Cruz City voters created a new electoral system that divides the city into six neighborhood districts. In November, voters will — for the first time — elect an at-large mayor for a four-year term.

Mike Rotkin

That mayor will still be “weak” because our new mayor will not have a budget or a dedicated personal staff, as mayors do in “strong mayor cities” like Oakland and Fresno.

This fall, council voters will also fill two of the new district seats and elect a mayor. The first interesting thing to note is the paucity of candidates in all the races. One of the open council seats has two candidates, while the other has four candidates. This is a sharp decline from the large number of candidates — often more than eight to 12 — who previously ran in at-large elections.

The city instituted district elections for this fall because of a lawsuit arguing such elections would increase voter participation, citizen involvement and the number of diverse councilmembers.

None of this appears to be the case. So far, anyway.

Only one Latino candidate, Hector Marin, and only one woman, Renée Golder, are running. All the other candidates in the November election are white men.

Part of the problem with attracting a more diverse candidate pool is that Santa Cruz does not have a district with a large enough number of registered Latino voters to create a critical mass from which many Latino candidates might emerge. Of course, candidates with more diverse racial backgrounds can emerge without a critical mass of voters with similar backgrounds, as they have in the past, but it appears no more likely that they will do so because of the new district election system.

In 2024, the remaining four districts will elect new council members.

This change will certainly bring a dramatically new dynamic to city politics.

It also creates questions about who will run.

The annual pay for the mayor’s position is $27,000. Essentially it’s a thankless, “weak” position that comes with no staff support and is poorly paid.

Compare that to the city manager, who gets $266,000 a year or $22,167 a month.

How will the city attract high-caliber mayoral candidates with such a bad job description and compensation?

In addition to low pay, we are increasingly facing a world in which public servants are often met with less than civil responses and actions — including protests outside their homes — from constituents.

It is not a coincidence that an increasing number of councilmembers in Santa Cruz decide not to run for a second term and that none of them — or any former councilmembers or former mayors — have opted to run for mayor.

It’s an increasingly thankless job.

On the other hand, the cost of running for a district election targeted to a small number of voters will be lower than it has been for a citywide election. Candidates will need to raise less money. This will make it easier for newer candidates who have less of a track record, and for lower-income candidates to run.

Pay for councilmembers and the mayor is not a new issue.

Fifty years ago, council and mayoral service was considered a part-time activity. For my first 10 years on the council (starting in 1979) and during my first two terms as mayor, councilmembers received $50 a month and the mayor got $100 a month. Councilmembers who took the job seriously, as most do, worked an average of about 20 hours a week, and the mayor’s position, which rotated annually, generally required over 40 hours a week.

Consequently, most tended to be either retired, independent businesspeople or relatively well-paid professionals who could afford to adjust their schedules to do this part-time public service — or just tough it out through a one-year mayoral term. Given the economics of race in the United States, it is not surprising — if I recall correctly — that almost all candidates were white.

This dynamic wasn’t significantly changed when Santa Cruz voters twice raised pay for city service to the current level of $1,250 a month for councilmembers and $2,250 for the mayor. With few exceptions, this was still not an attractive opportunity or even an affordable one for most blue-collar or service workers. And given the demographics of who holds various positions in the workforce, the council tended to have older members relative to the average age of citizens and voters.

Perhaps of even greater concern, at least in the past, it was very difficult for most lower-level employees to take four or eight years out of their career for public service when there was certainly no guarantee that they could return to their former jobs or keep their seniority if they did.

Both of these dynamics might be changing.

Fewer members of the workforce expect to have an unbroken career with one employer. Given the downwardly mobile status and reduced real wages of much of the working class in the U.S. since 1970, a surprising number of young people might now consider a councilmember paycheck of $1,250 a month an acceptable wage for a half-time job, even if it is far below what most of us would consider a living wage.

That might begin to explain why two of the four candidates for council District 4 seat — Hector Marin and Bodie Shargel — are either in or barely out of college (Shargel is a 19-year-old music major at UC Santa Cruz) and have thin political and service résumés compared to past councilmembers.

Of the six people running, only Golder has ever held elected office. Sean Maxwell, who is running against Golder, is a carpenter who runs Cornerstone Construction. He has served on the planning commission since 2020, but has never been elected by voters.

When I first was elected to the city council in 1979, there were 18 other candidates. I was considered kind of a surprising and unknown upstart because I had never served in any public office or even on any city boards or commissions. However, I had been teaching at UCSC for 10 years, was elected to 10 years on the executive committee of the Central Labor Council, served as president of two large nonprofits and had been the primary organizer of a neighborhood group with thousands of members.

No candidates for this November’s city election have anything approximating that kind of track record, which was not at all atypical among candidates in prior decades. And it seems that facing the likely prospects of becoming the target of often more hostile than appreciative responses from the public for being willing to engage in public service is not a significant deterrent for these younger and less experienced candidates.

Of course, there are two exceptions to my generalizations here.

Both Fred Keeley, who is a highly experienced political leader, and Golder, who is an incumbent councilmember and who has a day job as the principal of an elementary school, are willing to step up. Keeley is running for mayor against Joy Schendledecker, who, whatever her other virtues as a candidate, has no electoral experience, just like Maxwell. When it comes to having previous political experience, Keeley and Golder might be, metaphorically, a dying breed.

We will know more about how these trends play out after we see who is willing to run for council seats in November 2024, when there will likely not be candidates with previous council experience running and four council seats open.

At this point, we can expect our future city councilmembers will be younger and have less professional or public life experience.

Only time will tell if that is a good or bad thing.

Mike Rotkin is a former five-time mayor of Santa Cruz and a lecturer and director of the Merrill College Field Study program at UCSC. He has lived in Santa Cruz for 53 years. His previous piece for Lookout, “If Santa Cruz wants more accountability from police, we need to repeal state Peace Officer Bill of Rights,” appeared in July.

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