NORTH COUNTY SUPES PART 1: How would they lead, make a difference and build community?

Justin Cummings, Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Ami Chen Mills are the 3rd District candidates.

With longtime politico Ryan Coonerty bowing out from his duties overseeing most of Santa Cruz and areas north such as Bonny Doon and Davenport, three new, diverse faces are vying for the chance to replace them. Lookout asked them to respond to a wide-ranging set of questions, so you can compare them as we go to the polls on June 7. In Part 1, the three candidates for the District 3 Supervisor seat talk about their leadership skills.

In the blink of an eye, the governing body that guides the future of this unique swath of seashore, redwoods and farmland will look much more like the community it serves, one that is 34% Latino and 50.5% female.

There hasn’t been a female member of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors since 2014; that could change with two candidates who are women in District 3.

3rd District Supervisor Race

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson

Age: 44
Place of birth: Sari, Iran
Years in the county: 24
Party affiliation: Democrat
Homeowner/renter: Homeowner
Family: Married to Brian Johnson. Two sons — Shyon, 12; Darioush, 14
Education: Bachelor’s in psychology and French from UCSC; master’s in social work from San Jose State
Occupation: Direct service provider, community organizer, grant writer, project manager and facilitator in the fields of public health, education and social services. Santa Cruz City Councilmember since November 2020.
Website: https://www.shebreh.org/

There hasn’t been a person of color on the board since 2010, and that will change, as all three 3rd District candidates are diverse, as are the majority of candidates in District 4.

It is heartening news for each of the 3rd District candidates, who hope to govern the majority of Santa Cruz city and the North Coast, and will ultimately serve as a consolation to the two who don’t win.

As Ami Chen Mills, Justin Cummings and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson expressed in first-person opinion pieces for Lookout, their diverse experiences will help match the county dynamics of the moment.

Chen Mills is an avid climate change crusader who has also worked extensively in mental health and homelessness in the public sector. Cummings, an environmental scientist at UC Santa Cruz, is the most experienced politician, joining the Santa Cruz City Council as the highest vote-getter in 2018 and serving as mayor during a tumultuous 2020. Kalantari-Johnson parlayed a career as a doer in the public health, education and social services worlds into a seat on the council in 2020 and has cast herself as more of the centrist among the three.

And on the campaign trail, with less than four weeks until the June 7 primary, the three candidates are staying active. They will take the dais together in person at the Hotel Paradox on Thursday night in a candidate forum hosted by Lookout that will also be available via Zoom. The event (6-8 p.m.) will also include a forum of the candidates for the State Assembly District 28.

As for the three Democrats vying for the job of the departing Ryan Coonerty, it is Kalantari-Johnson — who was the first to declare her candidacy — who has won the fundraising game. Her $44,862 in campaign contributions to date more than doubles Cummings’ total ($21,295), and Chen Mills, who was a late entrant to the race, has tallied just $9,648.

The Kalantari-Johnson awareness factor is highest, given her spending ability. And her supporters say they’re confident because of the quality of campaign she has run and the fact the environmental-heavy slates of Cummings and Chen Mills might be working against one another.

But yard signs, pamphlets and websites never tell the whole story. So in advance of Thursday night’s forum, Lookout asked each of the three candidates to answer a slate of questions to help voters better understand the choice they will make June 7, one that is expected to send the top two vote-getters into a November showdown (unless one candidate procures more than 50% of the vote, which isn’t considered likely).

All responses have been edited for equal length and clarity.

WHY ME?

What makes you the right person for this moment?

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson

My extensive public health background and work in this community sets me apart. For over two decades, I’ve worked to address the very problems that the board of supervisors is tasked to solve, such as homelessness, a lack of behavioral health and health care options, a flawed criminal justice system. I stand out because I have shown time and again that I am willing to make the tough choices and tackle the toughest issues. I have shown this by leading the Santa Cruz City Council to pass the campaign services and standards ordinance as well as the oversized vehicle ordinance. These measures will help get the homeless off our streets, into shelter, restore open spaces and neighborhoods, and ultimately save lives. My opponents have both opposed and criticized these ordinances while offering no constructive, workable alternatives.

3rd District Supervisor Race

Ami Chen Mills

Age: 53
Place of birth: Coral Gables, Florida
Years in the county: 30
Party affiliation: Democrat
Homeowner/renter: Homeowner
Family: Married, with a husband and two teenage daughters
Education: Bachelor’s in communications, Northwestern University
Occupation: Nonprofit director, educator, author
Website: https://www.amichenmills.com/

Ami Chen Mills

The U.S. military is now predicting a certain amount of “collapse” in the United States by mid-century, as are leading climate scientists. That is in 20 years. Supply-chain disruption is also related to the ongoing climate emergency, and food crops are beginning to fail. A courageous and emotionally prepared leader must look clearly at these issues and steer this community in the direction of profound physical and emotional resiliency. Unless we turn our global ship around quickly, we are going to go through some things. I have specific expertise in emotional resilience around the climate crisis, as well as community mental health, and have extensively researched the preparation we can do now, including: promoting regenerative agriculture, community energy microgrids (local power independence) and securing local food and water resources. We need activist and advocate energy toward Sacramento to move away from fossil fuels for the sake of our children and grandchildren. The person in this race who can do all of this now is me.

Justin Cummings

I have the experience and have kept my commitment to serving my community as a former vice mayor, former mayor, and councilmember. It is evident through my actions that when I say I am going to do something I follow through with it till the end. As a renter, working middle-class professional, environmental scientist, workforce developer, fluent Spanish speaker, educator, African American, and having served as mayor during one of the most difficult years in the history of our community as we addressed the onset of COVID-19, social unrest after the murder of George Floyd, and the CZU fires, I have the experience our community needs to bring us together and get things done. As we continue to navigate mitigating the impacts of climate change, increasing diversity and inclusion in our community, providing truly affordable housing for our workforce, workforce development for future generations, rebuilding after the CZU fires, and uplifting people from poverty, I believe that I have the skills and experience to help address these challenges.

DIFFERENCE-MAKING

If elected, what will you do differently than your predecessor and what problems need more critical attention?

Kalantari-Johnson

I have the endorsement of Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, who has done an exceptional job. My background in public health and social services will continue to shape my approach to policy development and governance. Some of the challenges that need critical attention: unmet mental health and substance abuse needs that impact some of the unhoused populations; homelessness and the variety of needs and challenges among the various populations; inefficiencies within our planning systems that prevent us from meeting our housing needs (including rebuilding after the CZU fires); and climate response — including water, transportation, coastal adaptation. As proved by the pandemic and fires, there will inevitably be new issues that crop up that will require steady leadership and immediate responses. Supervisor Coonerty leaves very big shoes to fill, but I have both life and work experiences — and the heart and drive — to meet whatever challenges arise.

Chen Mills

I will be more of an advocate and educator on climate, mental health and homelessness, as well as being more “hands on” in terms of county coordination of homeless and mental health services. I have worked with the unhoused and “barely housed” with positive outcomes for decades, as well as with nonprofits, schools, counties and cities in the Bay Area and nationally — including mental health staff, educators, inmates and corrections staff. I will seek new forms of mental health education, more easily deliverable to the unhoused and ordinary residents and youth — as we provided in Santa Clara County. Promoting mental health can be as simple as a caring feeling, a kind word and quiet listening. Professional services are necessary, but I see mental health as a public health issue. Building community and listening to constituents, offering resources and ensuring that county clients receive the best care available, as well as encouraging volunteering, are all part of my platform.

Cummings

I will not only push programs that provide support for children and families, but will put significant amounts of attention on supporting young people who are transferring into adulthood. This will require supporting programs that get young people on a path to joining the trades and into careers that are sustainable for living in our community. I will also prioritize affordable housing by increasing the inclusionary percentage of affordable housing in new developments from 15% to 20%, and will push for more affordable housing production when new developments are proposed. I will continue to push for expanded 24/7 non-law enforcement alternatives for mental health emergency crisis response, and will bring the perspective of an environmental scientist to the decision-making process to ensure that we are prepared to face the challenges of climate change. We will need to start by ensuring that people are able to rebuild from the CZU fires, but will need to learn from those lessons and prepare for the future. Most important, I will make sure the community is a part of the process.

INVOLVING YOUNG PEOPLE

What actions can you take to get more people — especially young voters — involved in the processes that shape the future of their community?

Kalantari-Johnson

I have a track record of working toward investments in youth engagement. I championed Santa Cruz passing the first city-led children and youth bill of rights, which creates opportunities for youth in our community to directly engage with elected officials and sets an expectation for city departments, committees and commissions to seek youth feedback. The county is considering following the city’s model and passing a similar bill. Youth are often overlooked by candidates and elected representatives because they are not voters. Ultimately, I believe that education is the best investment a nation could take to ensure an educated and engaged electorate to ensure our democratic principles are upheld. I will support our county clerk partnering with our education institutions to instill the importance of not only exercising your right to vote but also be engaged in civil service.

Chen Mills

A youth climate corps will help young people engage in climate resiliency and mitigation efforts so they can be engaged in creating a more positive, more resilient future for themselves. (I set up a youth volunteer center when I was teen program coordinator for the cities of Los Altos and Mountain View.) Climate and racial and social justice are all issues our young people already feel deeply about. We must harness these feelings and guide youth toward civic participation. Having also been a recent course assistant at UCSC, I now have several students on my campaign team. I have written a self-help book for youth, and worked with young people from the junior high level to collegiate level for most of my life — engaging youth is a major part of my platform.

Cummings

I will continue to meet with high schoolers and college students to educate them about the process and uplift their voices in the decision-making process. I will engage with youth to see where they may see themselves being most effective and push forward policy that would allow their voices to be included. Currently the only commission that emphasizes this is the juvenile justice and delinquency commission. I’d also partner with the Santa Cruz County Office of Education to see what we can do to create a pipeline for students to get involved in local decision-making from the youth-led leadership alliance.

COMMUNITY BUILDING

For an area that prides itself on open-mindedness and inclusiveness, many topics have fractured this community and made it feel not so much different than the rest of the country the past few years. How would you go about trying to mend some of those fissures and bring people together?

3rd District Supervisor Race

Justin Cummings

Age: 39
Place of birth: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Years in the county: 13; August 2007 - October 2013; November 2015 - present
Party affiliation: Democrat
Homeowner/renter: Renter
Family: Jacqueline Wilson (mother); Kenneth Cummings II (brother); Kenneth Cummings (father; deceased)
Education: Bachelor’s in Spanish and bachelor’s in biology from Eastern Illinois University; Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from UC Santa Cruz
Occupation: Environmental scientist and conservation program head at UCSC; city councilmember since December 2018.
Website: https://www.cummingsforsupervisor.com/

Kalantari-Johnson

One of the best things about Santa Cruz is that we have a very engaged and committed constituency. We have a community that cares. I share this love of Santa Cruz. In order to shift the paradigm on a number of these large social and environmental issues before us we must find areas of commonality and seek to compromise. Future generations depend on our ability to work together to ensure our incredible region is healthy and thriving for generations to come. We must move from tribal politics toward compromise and action. This is how I approach community solutions on the city council and will continue this approach in my capacity as supervisor.

Chen Mills

For 25 years, I have taught basic principles of “deep listening” and have been an advocate of “cross-divide dialogue” in politics since 2016 and before. I engaged in many dialogues with Trump supporters in 2016-17, and a recording of one is available to view on my YouTube channel (see my website for link: www.AmiChenMills.com). I have facilitated meetings of inner-city residents and community police with outcomes of increased trust, and reduced property and violent crime. I advocated for “wisdom councils” and new forms of dialogue from my seat on the city’s Advisory Committee on Homelessness, and have personally engaged in trainings in dynamic facilitation, restorative circles, nonviolent communication and some emergent facilitation. These are all crucial dialogue “technologies” we must use in order to get past stuck and hostile places on homelessness and even public health (vaccines).

Cummings

Coming into my position as mayor during 2020, during a highly divisive recall election, my priority was trying to work collaboratively with all councilmembers to work toward compromise. As 2020 progressed, we were faced with the onset of COVID-19 and the impact that brought to our community, social unrest after the murder of George Floyd, and the CZU fires. Along the way, I reached out to groups throughout our community, regardless of past disagreements, to ensure that everyone was heard and we were meeting the needs of our entire community. By creating an inclusive process around difficult issues and bringing in the voices of diverse stakeholders, I was able to reduce opposition and be effective at passing policy and meeting the demands of the community.

BEYOND SANTA CRUZ

What national or global issue do you think Santa Cruz County citizens should be most highly focused on?

Kalantari-Johnson

There are threats to civility and democracy across our nation, with cybersecurity and technology being tools of foreign interference. The tactics of fake news and polarized politics perpetuate these threats. Creating civil unrest, distrust and wedge political issues undermine the core principles of our democracy. Unfortunately, we see impacts of this locally. These threats keep us from reaching our individual and community’s full potential. Local residents must also continue to be active around the threats to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. The draft Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade would tell women of America that they are not legally entitled to control their bodies. Locally, we can support the governor’s efforts to ensure that California is a sanctuary of freedom, personal liberty and basic human rights of all women. The most existential threat to our global health is climate change. As supervisor, I will work with the community and my colleagues to continue our efforts as national leaders around climate action.

Chen Mills

While we should all be focused on climate, it is honestly difficult to look at the climate crisis and impacts. If you elect me — someone who is willing to do this “looking” for my constituency — perhaps the community itself could relax a bit, while each of us do our personal parts. National midterms are on the horizon, and this is both an opportunity for our young people to get involved in get-out-the-vote efforts and to participate widely to protect the right to choose (under attack), LGBTQ+ rights (under attack), and journalism and democracy (under attack). With a GOP still engaged in climate denialism and a Democratic party that seems unwilling to make the transition toward a livable future on this earth, we have much to track and to push for at the national and global levels. It is imperative that we get out the vote. I will lead on this.

Cummings

Climate change is affecting everyone globally at different scales and impact. As an environmental scientist, I know the call to address the issues related to climate change has been going on for decades, and given the lack of action, we are now in a position where we must prepare for the impacts ahead and continue to do our part to reduce our carbon emissions. We also live in one of the most expensive housing markets in the world. Nationally, the middle class keeps shrinking, and as someone who has created and directed multimillion-dollar nonprofits, has a Ph.D. and multiple bachelor’s degrees, I can barely survive in this town, and I know that our service workers, teachers, city and county workers, nurses, essential workers, seniors and families with and without children are barely able to survive here or are being displaced. These issues are interconnected, because if someone who works here can’t afford to live here, it means they are commuting, which means that they are further contributing to increased carbon emissions if they have to drive from far away.

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