Progressivism and real policy solutions: Santa Cruz has neither and here’s why

Cyndi Dawson speaks on behalf of Measure N at a Lookout forum in October.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cyndi Dawson wanted to stay out of the “mud pit that is Santa Cruz electoral politics,” but recent Lookout op-eds about local progressives have, she writes, pushed her to offer context and facts. Here, she explains the history of the progressive movement and why Santa Cruz is not really “the leftmost city” it purports to be. Outside money, particularly from real estate interests, has an outsized influence on politics here, she says. She blames our elected officials for not doing enough to solve our most pressing issues of housing and equity.

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Two recent op-eds published here wax poetic about “reclaiming our political identity as true progressives” and insist ballot-measure proponents (like me) “have guzzled their own bath water.” Try as I might after the election to stay out of the mud pit that is Santa Cruz electoral politics, I couldn’t let these statements stand without some context and facts.

Both statements leave out some crucial pieces of information, and the authors either don’t know or don’t care about advancing a respectful dialogue about the state of politics and policies in our town.

You do not have to be an elected official to understand the policy process.

I worked on marine policy in Sacramento for four years and regularly collaborated with people inside and outside government to create legislative language. I am also well versed in compromise, as I have spent the bulk of my professional career in the science and policy of marine protected areas, which reduce or prohibit fishing in a defined area. This work has instilled in me a deep respect for making sure you bring everyone to the table, doing your homework (which mostly involves listening) and meeting people where they are.

Let’s first tackle this idea of Santa Cruz being a progressive town.

Somewhere in the mélange of our own mythology of being the “leftmost city,” we have ignored some key facts. I talk to folks who led the efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to establish the greenbelt, save Lighthouse Field, etc. They say all those victories were by the thinnest margin. There is no doubt the demographics have changed significantly since that time.

We all know that if you live in the second-most-expensive county in the United States, an increasingly narrow swath of people can afford to live here. That lack of socioeconomic diversity ripples across our community, excluding cultural and racial diversity. There are true progressive in Santa Cruz, but we probably never were, and certainly aren’t now, anywhere near the majority.

Progressive has a definition; the identity Debra Feldstein defines in her recent op-ed isn’t it.

Progressivism in America as a political ideology emerged between 1890 and 1920 as a response to the rapid rise of power and influence of corporations on all facets of society. Unfettered industrialization was producing political corruption, low wages, poor working conditions, child labor, unsafe consumer products … you get the picture.

Progressivism achieved political reforms that broke up the power of privileged interests and economic reforms that tried to even out the power imbalance between employer and employee. The eight-hour workday, the right to unionize, the end of child labor, the expansion of women’s rights and the initiative process all came out of these efforts. It is undeniable that progressivism is a two-sided coin of social and economic reforms; you can’t have one without the other.

I believe you cannot be a true ally for the underserved and systematically marginalized communities unless you are actively working for economic reforms to mitigate the harm of our current economic system.

BIPOC and LGBTQ+ equity and inclusion are required. But, if we aren’t also actively implementing a solution for addressing those communities’ disproportional representation in our unhoused community, we aren’t doing enough.

We want our elected officials, like Ryan Coonerty, to advance policies that work to address our most pressing challenges. When electeds fail to act, the initiative process allows a community to bring forward — after much time, effort and expense on the part of the proponents — a policy for consideration by the voters.

Most electeds and an overwhelming majority of the voters in Santa Cruz say they are socially liberal. They purport to believe in reproductive rights, justice, equity, inclusion and all the other liberal buzzwords of the day.

I have worked in the policy arena for over 10 years and had a crash course in land use and community development over the past three years as a member and chair of the city planning commission. I now know there is an often-ignored economic component to all those socially liberal beliefs. If there isn’t money to build affordable housing or provide subsidized transportation to subsidized medical care, these things don’t happen for lower-income people.

I also know there are existing policy solutions that are working right now in other communities that our elected officials have failed to implement here in Santa Cruz. Electeds have the power to advance policies that address the housing crisis. This includes implementing an empty home tax or real estate transfer tax, as San Francisco, Berkeley and Los Angeles have recently done.

Yard signs urging yes and no votes on Santa Cruz's Measure N

I can only speculate on why our electeds continue to blame everyone but themselves for their lack of action.

I cannot speak for other ballot initiatives, but Measure N was not hastily constructed.

We took months to research, talk to experts and voters across the political spectrum. We also tried to get the city council involved and to implement an empty home tax.

But we couldn’t even get the discussion on the agenda. Only two councilmembers supported listening to us. You need three to get on the agenda. So we were silenced by a moderate majority who were all actively supported in their election bids by Santa Cruz Together.

The big money that has an outsized influence in Santa Cruz politics should not be ignored. Santa Cruz Together, a political action committee (spawned from Take Back Santa Cruz) was founded in 2018 and raised over $150,000 to defeat N. Most of the money came from real estate interests.

Santa Cruz is not a progressive town if we continue to elect people who prioritize monied interests over community needs.

When the new council is seated next year, six of the seats will be filled by people Santa Cruz Together supported.

It takes extreme hubris to chastise a community for trying to fix problems electeds have failed to solve. It’s also disconcerting to have electeds “guzzling their own bath water” and splashing about in big tubs with monied elites.

I hope our community will continue to point fingers at the people in power.

Meanwhile, we true progressives will keep slogging away, building our people power, bridging across political ideologies and finding common ground to bring forward pragmatic initiatives and effective solutions.

Cyndi Dawson has been a resident of Santa Cruz since 1998 and lives on the Eastside. She is a marine scientist, small business owner, elected member of the Santa Cruz County Democratic Central Committee for District 3 and the chair of the City of Santa Cruz Planning Commission. Her previous piece for Lookout, “Vote yes on N if you care about our community,” ran in October.

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