District 3 forum fireworks: Sparks fly as Kalantari-Johnson, Cummings spar on homelessness, districting

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson looks toward Justin Cummings and moderator Jody K. Biehl on Thursday night at Hotel Paradox.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As the June 7 election nears, the three candidates vying for the county supervisor seat that covers most of Santa Cruz and the North Coast — Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, Justin Cummings and Ami Chen Mills — engaged in a spirited, pointed back-and-forth Thursday night. Meanwhile, four candidates — Liz Lawler, Gail Pellerin, Rob Rennie and Joe Thompson — for the newly redrawn State Assembly District 28 talked through a wide range of state-meets-local topics, and on where to spend California’s $68 billion surplus.

As things heated up on the Hotel Paradox stage where she sat next to Ami Chen Mills and Justin Cummings on Thursday night, Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson had Michelle Obama on her mind.

“When they go low, you go high,” the Santa Cruz County Supervisor hopeful said firmly to the assembled crowd, punctuating her answer to a question about personal inspirations.

It elicited a few cheers — perhaps even small fist-pumps — from her supporters seated in the live audience of 75 that had turned out for a candidates forum moderated by Lookout’s Community Voices editor, Jody K. Biehl. The audience also included about another 75 attendees via Zoom.

Both the in-house and Zoom audiences actively engaged, offering more than a dozen questions in an event co-sponsored by Lookout, the Santa Cruz County Business Council, the Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, Santa Cruz Works, Downtown Santa Cruz and Hotel Paradox.

Justin Cummings, Ami Chen Mills and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The two-hour forum first focused on the race for the newly drawn State Assembly District 28 and its four candidates, then on the District 3 County Supervisor contest that will determine who replaces Ryan Coonerty and looks out for the interests of most of Santa Cruz, Bonny Doon and Davenport.

The 3rd District discourse confirmed that tensions have reached a steady simmer in a race pitting two front-runners who have been sometimes on different sides of the voting aisle on the Santa Cruz City Council the past year and a half. Lookout’s coverage of the race includes a two-part series of response to key questions, here and here.

While Kalantari-Johnson has nearly doubled Cummings’ fundraising efforts, and veteran local politicos believe that the progressive slates of Cummings and Chen Mills could be competing for the same voting bloc, no one denies that both city councilmembers are strong candidates for the position, and that the June 7 primary is far from decided.

So with just more than three weeks to go before votes are counted, it’s little wonder things are heating up. A live moderated event that emphasized time for rebuttal differentiated this forum from others, all candidates agreed afterward.

“It’s never been this intense,” Cummings said. “But it was great.”

“I welcome it,” Kalantari-Johnson said. “It was healthy.”

“I’m just glad I don’t have a voting record,” joked Chen Mills, who sat between the two, a well-placed buffer amid some of the more heated exchanges.

Chen Mills spent much of her time addressing the pressing concerns of climate change, going as far as to say she wouldn’t travel to her dream destination, Bali, because of the carbon emissions required. She also strongly urged more action on the lowest end of the affordable housing crisis.

“We’re in the middle of a housing emergency,” she said. “I think that the county should declare a housing emergency and then act with all haste to try to house as many workforce-level people and low-income people and provide permanent supportive housing to people who are already here. That would be my priority.”

The main categories of contention between Kalantari-Johnson and Cummings: homelessness response and city redistricting.

While Cummings has been in the council’s minority voting bloc on issues related to the oversized vehicle ordinance and moving encampments such as the controversial Ross Camp that overtook the area where the San Lorenzo River meets Highway 1, voting against those responses that critics label as “criminalizing homelessness,” Kalantari-Johnson has made action on those issues a major part of her slate.

She criticized Cummings for voting against clearing the Ross Camp multiple times in 2019 while he was vice-mayor. Cummings said there were issues with where to safely move people and cited multiple legal stipulations. Kalantari-Johnson said there remains no excuse.

“The crisis has been growing and growing, and there are no solutions being put forward,” she said. “ It’s just, ‘Let it be.’ That’s not acceptable — especially for the people living in those conditions.”

Under the new Homelessness Response Action Plan enacted by the Santa Cruz City Council in March, Kalantari-Johnson said it’s being proved that measures to move the homeless population inside can work. “Not one person has been criminalized, but they have been moved off the streets and into safe spaces,” she said.

Justin Cummings answers a question Thursday night.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cummings’ biggest jab at Kalantari-Johnson’s record focused on the final redistricting maps that were voted upon in April. The intent of redistricting, which was forced upon Santa Cruz via threat of lawsuit, was to create equitable voting blocs that would encourage more minority candidates.

He said that his no vote on the final six-district map chosen related to the fact that Beach Flats — where he once rented — was broken off from Lower Ocean and other contiguous “neighborhoods of interest” that have higher Latinx populations.

He cited a similar breaking up of the Asian American population by splitting UC Santa Cruz on the map. The most recent census data shows UCSC with 4,135 students of Asian descent, making up 21.6% of the population.

“Something was going on there,” Cummings said, suggesting that politics dominated the final mapping decision over equity.

Both during the forum and afterward, Kalantari-Johnson lashed back at what she called “ludicrous accusations of gerrymandering.” She cited her work as a grant writer and social worker in underserved, minority-populated communities.

“I’ve done more work for the Latinx community than either of my opponents. That I’m here to squelch Latino votes, that’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard,” she said afterward. “My challengers are really grasping at things.”

It underscored a tension she said has been growing between the candidates.

“It’s been hard, I’m a human being and when people make those kinds of false accusations … I aim higher,” she said. “But I need to remember who I am and why I do this and it’s because I love this community.”

* * *

The Assembly District 28 candidates are vying to oversee a newly rejiggered geography that covers a diverse range of two counties: Santa Cruz north of the harbor up the North Coast and Bonny Doon; the small towns of the San Lorenzo Valley and Scotts Valley; and a Santa Clara County zone that includes Los Gatos, Monte Sereno and small parts of San Jose and Morgan Hill.

A crowd watched Liz Lawler, Gail Pellerin, Rob Rennie and Joe Thompson answer questions from Jody K. Biehl.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The candidates from Santa Cruz County are longtime Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin and UC Santa Cruz student and union activist Joe Thompson. The Santa Clara County candidates are Los Gatos Mayor Rob Rennie and former Monte Sereno Mayor Liz Lawler, the only Republican among the four.

Lawler diverged from her competitors mainly on usage of the $68 billion surplus the state finds in hand. While Thompson proposed a universal basic income that would pay every California resident $1,000 per month and provide free preschool and college for every Californian, Lawler said she would focus on owner-occupied housing, water infrastructure and building facilities to address mental health, homelessness and addiction — “especially for our adolescents.”

“It would be lovely for taxpayers to get refunds,” she added. “But that’s wishful thinking right now.”

As three Santa Cruz Starbucks stores lead much of the chain unionizing in California, local leader Joseph Thompson cites...

The candidates also addressed a slate of questions from Biehl that ranged from affordable housing to climate change to mental health.

And while all four candidates presented well, it was Thompson, the 19-year-old barista fresh off a big unionizing victory a day earlier, who garnered the most buzz.

Thompson noted without any hint of bravado or disdain that the youngest among these challengers, Lawler, has 37 years of life experience on him. But it didn’t show Thursday evening. Thompson used no notes and addressed the crowd most directly while holding court on all topics thrown their way.

“He is impressive,” said Pellerin, who has garnered the big-name endorsements in the race.

Mental health was a major topic of discussion, and while Pellerin has been an obvious outspoken advocate on the topic given that her husband, Tom, died by suicide, Lawler spoke openly to the struggles of a younger generation, including in her own family.

She said her daughter was 5150’d — the legal term for a 72-hour psychiatric hold — giving her a firsthand look at the state of the youth behavioral health system.

“They are woefully underprepared for adolescents who are really struggling,” she said. “I’ll tell you, it’s scary. You don’t know what to do for your child. So being able to have those resources and the support is critical to ensure that our young kids will be healthy in the future.”

Visit Lookout’s Community Voices for op-eds written by each of the candidates above.


Stay informed on local elections with the latest political news delivered straight from Lookout Santa Cruz’s newsroom. Story and event alerts are sent throughout the week. Sign up here or below.