Hey Santa Cruz, let’s take a break from writing political measures and jump into each others’ bathtubs

A collage of yard signs for Measures N, O and D

Recent ballot measures have pitted neighbor against Santa Cruz neighbor with totally unnecessary political vitriol and expense, former mayor and outgoing county supervisor Ryan Coonerty writes. It’s no fun to take a metaphorical bath with people you disagree with, but it’s an absolutely necessary, perspective-broadening step that leads to greater understanding on all sides.

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Santa Cruz needs to break up with the alphabet. Specifically letters M, D, N and O. It is not them. It is us.

Since 2018, those letters, in initiative form, have collectively cost us more than $1 million, ruined friendships, sucked the oxygen away from all other issues, and been completely unnecessary knock-down-drag-out political brawls.

After copious time, money and spilled ink, all of them did not change one policy or improve one life in our community. Zilch.

I don’t blame those letters themselves exactly, but I’d be grateful to not see a sign with a yes or no in front of them for a decade or two. There is a better way.

First, a quick background: Since 2018, there have been four major citizen-led initiatives in Santa Cruz. These are not the tax measures that local governments put on the ballot to get the required voter approval. Measures M, D, N and O were placed on the ballot after local citizens gathered the required signatures, often at farmers markets and Safeways — maybe a dude in Birkenstocks calling out, “Hey, do you have a moment …” as you gathered your reusable bags rings a bell?

All of these measures had laudable goals — reducing rent increases, building a trail, taxing empty homes and remodeling the library. All of them had significant flaws. Those flaws initiated a firestorm of resistance and, eventually, all the measures were soundly defeated … at a tremendous cost to our community.

If you are on the losing side of any of these measures, it is tempting to blame the proverbial bad guy(s) — developers, Westsiders, homeowners, etc. You’d say voters were manipulated or bought. Those excuses might resonate once, but they don’t hold up after the fourth election unless you believe that your neighbors are stooges.

I’d propose the following explanation: Each time, the organizers guzzled their own bath water. They sat in rooms with their friends and convinced themselves of their moral superiority. They drafted the uncompromised measure that they wanted. They campaigned believing that they had written a perfect measure because their echo chamber said so. Then, they were shocked when it didn’t work.

In every instance there was a way to accomplish some of what these measures proposed. But it required the authors of these measures not only drink their own bath water, but also get into others’ baths. Suds it up with their enemy.

Being an elected official is about spending your career in metaphorical baths with strangers and people with whom you disagree. Trust me, it’s not comfortable or fun, but it is necessary. On every issue, someone — my colleagues, staff and public — raises a point I hadn’t considered. It doesn’t mean I will agree or make the change, but it gives me a perspective broader than my own.

In recent years, there has been a welcome focus on thinking about the people not invited into baths at all. That exercise has made policymaking even better.

“But, Ryan, that would mean we’d have to compromise,” you say. “We have a moral imperative to stop-build-tax-and-spend something right now.”

“Fair enough,” I will reply, “but 40% of something is better than 100% of nothing.”

People underestimate how incredibly valuable that 40% is. First, it keeps your issue in the conversation. Once the opposition is created and an issue is made toxic by a campaign, it’s politically hard to even propose it again. That 40% can also demonstrate that the world won’t end if 100% of the policy is eventually enacted.

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

People want change, but they don’t want big change fast.

Finally, while the initiative process was created to circumscribe the legislative process, it doesn’t mean it should. All of these measures would have benefited from a public hearing before the final language circulated. Problems would have surfaced. Some concerns could have been addressed.

And, it’s not for nothing we have elected officials. They are, by definition, representative of a majority of the community. If you don’t have someone like Vice Mayor Martine Watkins on your side, you likely won’t have a majority of voters, either.

It’s easy to impress your friends by giving them everything they want, but as a professor once told me, the definition of leadership is creating change by disappointing your supporters at a rate at which they tolerate.

The next citizen’s initiative will need disappointed supporters if it wants to break the trend and become law.

Ryan Coonerty is a former mayor of Santa Cruz and soon-to-be-former Santa Cruz County supervisor. He is the host of “An Honorable Profession” podcast. His previous piece for Lookout, “Who will be Santa Cruz’s George Washington and three other election hot takes,” appeared in June.

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