It’s election season: Let’s respect our public figures and their privacy at home

Donna Meyers, the former Santa Cruz mayor who still serves on city council.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Donna Meyers spent a year as mayor of Santa Cruz and had angry protestors surround her house and scream profanities at her family. She wants the public to be more respectful of the public-private divide and remember that our behavior reflects our values as a community.  

Community Voices election 2022

When I was invited to help inaugurate Lookout’s Community Voices section, I planned to write about my experience as Santa Cruz mayor from 2020-21 and what it means to be a public figure. I thought I’d write about how big goals are often hard to accomplish, and the toll public life took on me and my family.

Being mayor of our small, seemingly mellow town is delightful. But it’s also hard. Much harder than I imagined.

I never imagined, for instance, I would have protesters surrounding my house at 10 p.m. shouting insults or making accusations about who I am, who my wife is and what they think we believe.

But it happened.

People stood at my door with bullhorns accusing me of lack of compassion, of “not caring” and of “only being in it for the money and control.”

While I respect the right to free speech, when it lands on your front doorstep, it is invasive. In my situation, the demonstrators were not interested in discussing who I am and what I value. No one wanted to hear my policy or talk to me. They just wanted to yell.

I asked myself — why would anyone target an elected official’s family? To what purpose? What happened to the lines between public and private life that define a civil society? What happened to mutual respect?

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As I think about these questions, I also think of the Ukrainian mayors I’ve been reading about in news stories. Every day, they are confronted with the unfathomable.

Their stories obsess me. Instead of planning summer festivals, worrying about infrastructure and talking to civic groups as they likely planned, they are making lists of the dead and missing. They are ordering coffins, digging graves, taking up arms. Some of them are even dying.

Olga Sukhenko, mayor of Motyzhyn, literally died because she was mayor. Residents said she refused to collaborate with invading Russian soldiers and the soldiers executed her, her husband and their 25-year-old son.

I can’t imagine what I would do faced with such horror in my town, such sudden brutality. It’s the ultimate obliteration of public and private, of everything we value.

I ask myself what lessons I can take from their courage. What does it mean to show up in the toughest moments? And, blessed with peace, how do we here in Santa Cruz tackle our problems and guide long-term change?

What I learned as mayor

Leadership is key. For me, three main characteristics define a strong leader: A solid moral compass; a “make change happen” attitude, and a 365-day work schedule. Mayors, I learned, never get a day off.

Let’s start with that moral compass.

When I ran for office, a former elected official took me aside and said, “Homelessness is a loser. Don’t go there — you can’t fix it.”

But when you have a humanitarian crisis happening in front of you, you have to act. When you see 100 people sleeping at River Street and Highway 9 — the busiest intersection in town — inches away from cars going 40 mph, you have to help your people. You can’t let that be “normal.” In my case, we also had hundreds of residents writing to the city asking us to take action on the camp.

Highway traffic speeds by a homeless encampment on the state right-of-way on Feb. 11, 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

We did.

We moved it.

We also initiated systemic change for those experiencing homelessness. We got $14 million from the state to tackle homelessnesss and the county initiated a new governance structure. To me, that felt like a positive change.

To the protestors who came to my door, it did not.

They accused me of “criminalizing” homelessness, which was not what I was doing. But my intent did not interest them.

Right now, yard signs are popping up like spring wildflowers throughout neighborhoods and on roadways. It is a democratic right to express your support for candidates and measures at your doorstep. Let’s not forget that.

Let’s honor and respect it.

Let’s also remember those places are sacred. We have spaces where democracy happens, like city hall, that serve as points of access for debate. Not someone’s home. Not someone’s front yard or neighborhood. Not past reasonable working hours, even for a mayor.

Mayors work hard. As I said, you never get time off. On Easter weekend 2021, I spoke to 700 people, to convince them to pass a camping ordinance. And during COVID-19, no public officials got a day off.

Donna Meyers in Santa Cruz City Council chambers.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I took office nine months into the pandemic, when we had some of our highest case counts to date and vaccines were a far-off unknown. People were losing jobs and businesses and hope.

Here, instead of pulling apart, a wondrous thing occurred. Four mayors — me, Capitola’s Yvette Brooks, Scott Valley’s Derek Timm and Watsonville’s Jimmy Dutra — came together with county public health experts and offered a united front to our community.

The experience buoyed my hopes and made me love Santa Cruz more deeply. I felt the goodness in us all. I was proud to be mayor.

So, indeed, despite the disturbing, ugly moments of public life, there are also remarkable times of commitment and pride.

A friend of mine reminds me that mayor is a title few in the world get to have. It is an honor and it carries weight and connection across the world. It binds me to all mayors everywhere, particularly those in Ukraine right now.

We are poised as a community to vote, to choose future leaders, even to decide about how many years our mayor will serve.

We are lucky to have so many qualified people willing to represent us.

Let’s treat them with the public and private respect they deserve. Let’s not let our political passion make us lose sight of our humanity or civility.

Donna Meyers is a 35-year resident of Santa Cruz. She is a UCSC alumna who works in water and environmental protection. She served as mayor in 2021 and is a current member of the Santa Cruz City Council.