Local cred in the spotlight: Takeaways from Tuesday’s South County candidates forum

Candidates
Assembly District 30 candidates, top row: Dawn Addis, Zoë Carter, John Drake, Vicki Nohrden, Jon Wizard. 4th District County Supervisor candidates, bottom row: Ed Acosta, Jimmy Dutra, Felipe Hernandez.

While Assembly District 30 contenders spent much of their time showing that they know this place where none of them resides, the homegrown District 4 county supervisor hopefuls differed mainly on their priorities and truly diverged on only one big issue. Hint: It involves the future of train transportation in Santa Cruz County.

“Gayle’s,” Jon Wizard said unflinchingly.

“Well, Jon took mine,” said Zoë Carter, two seats to Wizard’s left. “But there are a couple of really great wine bars in the Santa Cruz area I like.”

Wizard’s quick, easy one-word answer, naming the famous Capitola bakery as one of his favorite destinations for a bite in Santa Cruz County, was part of the fight for local cred points in Tuesday night’s State Assembly District 30 candidate forum at the Watsonville Civic Plaza Community Center.

Why the sharp focus on Santa Cruz County knowledge? All five candidates for the seat live outside this county, yet the winner will be responsible for representing our interests in Sacramento, thanks to the redrawing of state and congressional maps late last year.

The new Assembly District 30 stretches across three counties.

The District 30 forum included Dawn Addis (“Lots of great coffee shops near Aptos; can’t just name one”), Vicki Nohrden (“Shadowbrook”) and John Drake (“There’s this great taqueria that I can’t remember the name of”). All five candidates are vying to represent the new district that spans a massive territory including San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

It replaces what is now District 28, represented by Mark Stone, consisting of most of Santa Cruz County and the coastal area of Monterey County. The new District 30 will span most, but not all, of the Pajaro Valley and continue north until it hits a border that runs southeast from the Santa Cruz Harbor toward the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. It encompasses all of mid-county, including Capitola, Soquel, Aptos and La Selva Beach.

Lookout’s content partner CalMatters created a great tool to help identify whether a specific address now sits in a new district or remains where it was.

Following the Assembly forum, a second one featured the three candidates competing to replace Greg Caput as 4th District Santa Cruz County Supervisor, a key position that represents the Watsonville area’s interests at the county level.

Jimmy Dutra, a former Watsonville mayor and current council member, Felipe Hernandez, a Cabrillo College trustee and former Watsonville mayor and council member, and Ed Acosta, recently elected to a four-year term as a trustee on the county’s board of education, gently sparred and batted around topics ranging from Measure D to jobs to affordability to water.

4th District Supervisor candidates Ed Acosta, Jimmy Dutra and Felipe Hernandez.

Unlike their Assembly hopeful counterparts, the three Watsonville natives needed little time to convince anyone about their jurisdictional knowledge. But their plans to lead it, and the vision behind it, varied in complexity and detail.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights from the forums that were moderated by the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s Steve Bennett.

Supes race is a battle among born-and-raised locals

All three candidates quickly ran down their Pajaro Valley roots — and all three are well known in local political circles. Dutra, a third-generation Watsonville native in his third attempt at becoming a supervisor, talked up his time serving as mayor during the pandemic and his commitment to swerve from the status quo.

Caput served three consecutive four-year terms after beating out Dutra and Hernandez for the seat in consecutive elections.

“I will fight for us to actually get the resources and funding that we deserve — it has been too long for us down here in South County,” Dutra said. “I’m going to be different than every other candidate. I am not going to be mirroring the current supervisor. I’m going to be bringing my own style into this position.”

Several of his main initiatives: continuing the success Watsonville has found in raising additional tax dollars through downtown Watsonville hotel development, fighting to distribute affordable housing projects throughout the county and not just in South County, and making sure mental health and other social service programs get priority.

Hernandez, like Dutra a two-time council member, cited his family’s humble beginnings — “My parents were farmworkers here,” he said — his time in the U.S. Army during Operation Desert Storm, returning to get his education at Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz, and then digging in as an active member of the community.

“I want to make sure that Watsonville gets its fair share and make sure that we build consensus with our other supervisors,” said Hernandez, who targeted deferred maintenance on rural roads, new businesses to replace ones recently lost such as West Marine, and “keeping a hospital in Watsonville” as key issues.

Acosta, whose answers were shorter and broader than his opponents’, said he works in agriculture and management, adding, “I’m here because I love our district, and I love the city of Watsonville and our community.”

Political experience sets Wizard, Addis apart

The political experience of Wizard and Addis, both city council members (Seaside and Morro Bay, respectively), stands out among the District 30 candidates. Each leaned on what they say are track records of consensus-building and results.

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Wizard cited his close proximity to Santa Cruz County and his years of work helping build affordable housing with Live Oak-based Habitat for Humanity Monterey Bay for local cred beyond his Gayle’s affection. It was also the place he earned his associate degree in criminal justice: “I didn’t just attend Cabrillo College, I graduated from Cabrillo College.”

Addis, who had to join by Zoom due to a “COVID situation” in her household, spent time connecting her work as a teacher and council member to many of the same issues facing the other two counties.

Nohrden, the one Republican in the race, is from Monterey and has worked in the nonprofit sector. Carter is director of operations at the Monterey County Business Council. Drake describes himself as a “young, queer, immigrant” (of Latvian descent) who has grown up in California, attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is dedicated to helping solve the housing crisis.

Drake also happens to be good friends with District 28 candidate and fellow young student activist candidate Joe Thompson.

Key Assembly candidate topics: housing, water, tourism

The District 30 candidates were pressed to show their handle on key local topics, none more important than the housing shortage.

Nohrden talked about the need, based on recent examples brought to light with CZU fire victims trying to rebuild, a streamlining of the permitting process. “We really need to look at these rules and regulations that they have,” she said. “It’s much more expensive to build today.”

Addis echoed those sentiments and said she has had demonstrable success with housing. “There are things that take political will to get done, being able to collaborate with peers to turn policy into reality,” she said. “Which is what I’ve done on my own city council where I have the support of the majority, and we have built the first affordable housing in the last 30 years. We’ve moved forward water infrastructure projects, we’ve decreased the cost of living, and we’ve streamlined the permitting process.”

Farmworkers adjust sprinkler coverage south of Bakersfield.
Agriculture is one of the many areas crucial to water resources in California.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

While transportation needs were a major topic, each candidate also hit hard upon the need for water resources, not just in sustaining the agricultural economy of the Pajaro Valley, but also in building new housing units.

“I have had the opportunity to not just talk about increasing water supplies, but to actually increase water supply with recycled water,” Wizard said of his Seaside experience. “In my city, we don’t just talk about it. We are about it. We are going to build those homes. We’re going to accommodate our workforce. And we’re going to support our local economy by creating the affordable housing that we need to support those workers living because homes are where jobs go to sleep at night and if you’re not building homes, you don’t have a community.”

Nohrden talked about her keys to a vibrant tourism economy: “We have to make sure that the streets are safe … the homeless situation … I think we need more mental health outreach into the community so we can make sure that as the tourists are coming into our communities, they also feel they’re safe. That we have our police department available as well because crime has been on the rise in California.”

The third rail that is Measure D

Among District 4 candidates, only Hernandez is against Measure D (Acosta supports it; Dutra remains neutral) and aims to push forward with a plan for light rail transportation.

“We have to have ways to get the workforce there,” he said. “So I’m going to make sure that we do have a rail system. I think that the rail trail plan really protects our local economy, our local jobs and our freight customers.”

Satellite view of the rail corridor in Santa Cruz County.
(Via Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission )

Hernandez has made this a clear dividing line between him and his opponents and says he believes a future with rail options is more important to South County residents than just a trail.

“We’re only going to have more people on Highway 1 so we need multiple solutions,” he said. “People in the community of Watsonville have spoken. They want a sustainable electric train with trail. They want auxiliary lanes. They want bus on shoulder. They want all three.”

Hernandez was referring to plans already underway via funds raised by the previous Measure D, a sales tax initiative that passed in 2016, which added traffic solutions to the Highway 1 plan.

Neither Dutra, who abstained from voting when the Watsonville council approved a resolution against Measure D, nor Acosta wanted to go into their positions on the Greenway initiative. But both said there needs to be more investment in Metro service first and foremost.

***

Correction: An original version of this story misstated Dutra’s stance on Measure D. He clarified Thursday: “I have always taken a neutral position on Measure D. It is up to the people to decide if light rail will be the future of transportation in our county. I serve the people and will support what they decide this June.”

***

Among the five Assembly candidates, only Wizard and Drake took official stances, with a no on D. (Addis said she was leaning toward a no vote; Drake admitted he had more research to do on the topic.) The others said it’s good for the public to have its say on the subject. They added that then ultimately the go-forward decisions will be in the hands of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.

Even though it’s solely a contentious Santa Cruz County issue, Morro Bay’s Addis, who noted she’s the lone candidate to get an endorsement from the state’s Democratic Party, said she sees lessons for everyone in Measure D.

Considering the drive from San Luis Obispo to Santa Cruz, she said, “this district is four hours of coastline and every community in this district is going to face the climate crisis and sea-level rise and other issues. So we have to be looking at expanded transportation options. I also believe that California needs to be investing much more and supporting infrastructure for alternative transportation such as rail, and I would support what the local voices and what the people decide with this measure.”



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