Election Reaction: Let’s take back our progressive identity — real progressives advocate for change

Debra Feldstein campaigns actively for candidates she considers true progressives.
(Via Debra Feldstein)

Community activist, longtime resident and Democratic fundraiser Debra Feldstein is tired of the way the word “progressive” gets batted about in Santa Cruz County. She says a coalition of activists and politicians has claimed the progressive identity for themselves and “act as though they are the guiding force for change and the keepers of community justice.” In fact, she writes, “they are not pushing for real change.”

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Let’s take back our progressive identity — real progressives advocate for change

I consider myself (very) far left in my politics.

I care about racial, gender and LGBTQ+ equity and inclusion, climate change, reproductive justice and serving the most underserved and at-risk members of our community. Professionally, I have worked for almost 30 years as a nonprofit executive and consultant focused on organizational development, leadership coaching, capacity-building and diversity, equity and inclusion.

I’ve been a Santa Cruz resident for more than 20 years, have raised my two kids here and am deeply committed to some of our area’s top concerns: housing and food insecurity, transportation, child advocacy rights for undocumented residents, supporting fire survivors and dismantling structures and systems built on a racist platform.

Still, some in our community believe I am not left enough.

That’s because in Santa Cruz, we have a “progressive paradox.”

What I mean is, there is a coalition of activists and politicians who claim the title and role of “progressives,” and act as though they are the guiding force for change and the keepers of community justice. The problem is, they are not pushing for real change.

Quite the opposite, actually.

I have chosen not to align myself with this group for many reasons — my experience of antisemitism and racism within this community, their patriarchal leadership style, rigidity, abuse of power and privilege, and, most significantly, their inability to work with others or to affect short-term or sustainable change.

Many of them have been blessed with inherited wealth and assets acquired through marriage, giving them the privilege of spending their days “advocating.”

The reality is that the goals and values of “the progressives” in Santa Cruz and those who have been labeled as “not progressive,” “moderate,” or even “conservative” are aligned.

No one wants to see human suffering on the streets and parks of our community. No one wants to live in a place where our teachers, public sector and nonprofit employees and service workers cannot afford to house or feed their families or where those in need of mental health support or services do not have access and cannot afford to get it. The “progressive community” resorts to mischaracterizing and mislabeling candidates who are not on their slate.

Some examples of this include: calling other candidates “racist” while also denying their cultural identity, labeling candidates “anti-homeless,” when they have spent decades working to systemically support the unhoused members of our community, including raising millions of dollars to ensure services for them. These supposedly “anti-homeless” candidates also routinely vote for — not against — affordable housing options.

Other examples include saying candidates are “shutting down” shelters and excluding to mention alternatives offered to the unhoused that are, in fact, safer for the people, the environment and the rest of the community. And still more include publicly accusing candidates of approving construction of a seven-story building downtown, when a proposal for such a structure doesn’t even exist.

I am also tired of hearing criticism about Santa Cruz City Councilmember Renée Golder’s meeting attendance. Regardless of whether you agree with her politics, Renée is a principal of Bay View Elementary School, serving some of the neediest families in our community. Sometimes, in order to be of greatest service, Renée is late to meetings or misses votes because she is working. We can’t only have independently wealthy councilmembers who don’t have other commitments, or those with the luxury and flexibility of self-employment.

Debra Feldstein is a longtime Santa Cruz resident and Democratic activist.
(Via Debra Feldstein)

My experience is that the candidates who are so often mislabeled are true progressives and public servants who work in nonprofits, education, health care, advocacy, and volunteer leadership roles. They are hard-working, with full-time jobs, in addition to their (low-paid) elected positions.

The difference is in their process.

My focus is on candidates who I believe can and will make transformational change in our community. They do their homework; they are able to both work with and serve Santa Cruz’s diverse population; they think about the larger context in which decisions are made. They lead with compassion, kindness and humility. They understand the importance of compromise, see beyond themselves and their own interests and connect beyond our local community to regional, state and federal leaders to ensure access to resources and knowledge about opportunities to benefit our community.

They run campaigns focused on issues and policies, without resorting to public personal disparagement of other candidates.

To me, when one resorts to fabrication, vitriolic personal attacks, mischaracterization of opposing candidates’ leadership and voting records and destruction of property, it speaks to character and demonstrates a lack of the sort of leadership qualities I value.

In terms of various measures placed on our ballots recently, including Measures N and O, I understand the problems they attempt to solve.

However, the measures are too often not well-executed, are unrealistic, unsustainable or have costs that are not obvious.

In terms of housing, there is often a conflation of the issues related to our unhoused and the challenges of affordable housing. Those who are unhoused often need mental health and addiction support, access to employment and other support and services.

Separately, we have the challenge of affordable housing that affects multiple populations — seniors, educators, service-workers, farmworkers, nonprofit and public employees and others who cannot afford housing. There is a long and complicated history that involves UC Santa Cruz and student housing and requires a comprehensive, countywide analysis and plan.

While “progressives” claim to want more housing, they attempt to block almost every proposed opportunity to build it. They inhibit progress if every aspect of a project doesn’t suit their individual interests. This wastes everyone’s time, energy and money on fighting progress.

As this election cycle comes to an end and we look toward our future, I challenge those of us committed to change and forward movement to reclaim our political identity as true progressives and to “be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Debra Feldstein is a nonprofit executive and consultant. She has a law degree from Northeastern University and a master’s degree in business from Brandeis University. She has lived in Santa Cruz for more than 20 years and is an active Democratic fundraiser, member of the Jewish community and parent leader. She recently volunteered on Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson’s campaign for District 3 county supervisor. She is committed to helping build a more vibrant, meaningful, inclusive, creative and compassionate world.

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