Santa Cruz elections turned out well for pragmatic progressives

Fred Keeley, Gail Pellerin, a No on Measure O sign, Justin Cummings
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Mike Rotkin explains why he felt better coming out of Santa Cruz’s November 2022 elections than he did going into them. Most of the candidates he supported won, with the exception of Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson in the District 3 county supervisor race. But, he writes, he feels good about Justin Cummings as a leader and about his “evolving politics.”

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Mike Rotkin

I cannot claim that every reasonable Santa Cruz County citizen should be pleased with the outcome of this recent November election, but this is an opinion piece and, as a pragmatic progressive, I certainly am.

With the notable exception of the District 3 county supervisor’s race, where the candidate I endorsed (Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson) lost, but the winner (Justin Cummings) is a decent and thoughtful supporter of progressive values, virtually every candidate and issue I supported was successful at the polls.

Once again, Santa Cruz County had a better turnout rate (63.56%) than most of the country, demonstrating the engagement of our local citizens in the democratic process and their commitment to participation in decisions affecting the future of our community.

The Santa Cruz County Clerk’s office finished its vote count on Tuesday and certified the results of the Nov. 8...

On the most controversial Santa Cruz County issues, local voters once again expressed their understanding of the practical impacts of their votes. In the most expansive political picture, the local electorate voiced their continuing and absolute rejection of the irrational conservative candidates supported by former President Donald Trump’s MAGA base and movements that have come to threaten our democracy at the national level.

In races for local representatives for California Assembly seats, where there were actual Republicans in the race, local voters in Santa Cruz, along with the other counties that the districts cover, elected Democrats, including Gail Pellerin, the first woman to represent Santa Cruz in the California legislature.

The defeat of Measure O — which would have killed a modern library project that has been in the works for several years — saw city voters deciding to support the best outcome for our library system, sweetened by the addition of an affordable housing project, over an inferior library project, an empty promise to pursue affordable housing with no concrete plans (pun intended) and an uncritical nostalgia for the status quo. What exactly made the Yes on O position “progressive” continues to escape me.

Measure N, the proposal for an empty home tax, was soundly defeated by the opposition of many voters who would support such a concept if it had been soundly drafted in a way that didn’t threaten to harm the city’s general fund or confuse working-class homeowners with the ruling class or the wealthy elite.

In fire and water district races too numerous to detail here, voters returned to office incumbents who had proved their commitment to sound fiscal and environmental management over opponents whose campaigns emphasized saving ratepayers’ money without considering the negative impacts on the actual operation of their systems. A good example is the victory of the incumbents in the Soquel Water District who have supported the Pure Water Soquel project crucial for defending against saltwater intrusion against those who simply would like to see cheaper water rates in the short term, even if it means the destruction of the groundwater aquifers upon which the district’s supply depends.

Precinct-level data reveals the disparities and similarities among the voting preferences of Santa Cruz neighborhoods on...

I was also pleased to see that local voters upheld our local tradition of supporting needed tax increases by passing both school bond measures on the ballot and the City of Santa Cruz measure for an increase to the transient occupancy tax.

In Santa Cruz City Council and the mayoral race, local voters went with experience and pragmatic choices over challengers who tended to focus more on aspirational goals without providing much in the way of specifics on the policies they would pursue if elected. Even if it’s less than fully fleshed out, the view that the city council’s initial attempts to actually do something to move people into real housing and shelter versus just respecting their “right” to live on the streets got a strong endorsement from local voters.

New mayor Fred Keeley’s legislative connections at a time when we desperately need state financial support to address our homeless crisis and his experience in “herding cats” will come in handy in presiding over a new council that will be increasingly elected in separate districts.

County supervisor candidates Justin Cummings (left) and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson at a Lookout forum.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

To conclude with a closer look at the extremely close race for the District 3 county supervisor, I think voters chose Justin Cummings over Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson for a number of reasons. Apparently her advantage with respect to experience and knowledge of public policy issues related to social service delivery to youth, the poor, and other disadvantaged groups was less important to many voters than Cummings’ ability to project a vision of a better society — even if it was more abstract than pragmatic progressives might have liked.

My analysis is supported by Cummings’ success in the UC Santa Cruz campus precincts and among other idealistic supporters in the community. His success was certainly also boosted by his stronger support for slow- or even no-growth politics in general — a view many of his supporters have voiced during and after the campaign. Because his politics on this issue have been evolving, it remains to be seen how he will address the issue of affordable housing versus slow growth in January.

So, all things considered, and with exceptions noted, I felt better coming out of the November 2022 local election than I did going into it. And that is always a good feeling.

Mike Rotkin is a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, a former five-time mayor of Santa Cruz and a lifelong union activist. His previous piece for Lookout, “UCSC workers are on strike. I wish they would tell me why,” ran in November.

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