A (very) early general election preview: 4 things to know about the November battles ahead

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Election season may be in a lull, but it’s not over. In fact, a few political showdowns are still heating up. Here’s what you need to know as the Nov. 8 general election draws closer.

It might feel like we just got out of the hectic primary election landscape, with the Santa Cruz County Clerk’s office releasing the official results Tuesday afternoon.

And it’s true.

However, for a few political battles that will carry over into November’s general election, the real competition is just beginning.

In crucial races that will see two of five county supervisor seats turn over in November, the 3rd and 4th district jobs will go to final head-to-head runoffs. Same for the newly-drawn State Assembly 28th and 30th districts, where the march to the Nov. 8 general election begins now.

The District 3 race will see Santa Cruz City councilmembers Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Justin Cummings facing off, while District 4 pits two former Watsonville city councilmembers and mayors in Felipe Hernandez and Jimmy Dutra.

As for Assembly, longtime Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin will go up against former Monte Sereno city councilmember Liz Lawler in District 28. District 30 will be a showdown between Morro Bay city councilmember Dawn Addis and Monterey-based nonprofit director Vicki Nohrden.

Santa Cruz City Councilmember and county supervisor candidate Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson
Santa Cruz City Councilmember and county supervisor candidate Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson led Justin Cummings (behind her) in primary voting.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Then there’s the brand-new race — and, in fact, the first of its kind in Santa Cruz history.

With the passing of Measure E, Santa Cruz will choose its first directly-elected mayor, ending the 74-year tradition of a rotating mayor position within city council.

The city’s districts will also be organized into six zones, creating a system with six councilmembers overseeing those specific neighborhoods with oversight from a directly-elected mayor who will serve a four-year term. (There is an expected favorite for that unique role, who will likely announce his candidacy soon.)

The four months between now and the general election on Nov. 8 will fly by quickly, which is why those involved are not kicking back on the beach. Here are four things to think about as the next election season looms in the not-so-distant future.

How key will a four-year mayor be? Depends who wins

Historically, little thought has been given to the largely ceremonial mayoral position in Santa Cruz, especially by the public. The mayor, during their one-year rotation, has traditionally acted more like a super city councilmember than a political leader.

The new system will not technically change that role — it will still be a “weak” mayor system with a mayor earning part-time pay — but will require someone to remain in that role for a full four years.

Former Santa Cruz mayor Cynthia Mathews sees finding the right fit for the job as the new system’s main drawback.

“The positives are the stability of leadership in the position, and the fact that they’re elected at-large means their charge is to represent the whole city’s interests,” she said. “But the minus is, plain and simple, it depends on who that person is.”

Add in the fact that the position is a heavy lift and still considered a part-time position, it’s entirely possible that there could be a small number of potential candidates in November.

However, in the new system, candidates for city council could show a different story.

Local veteran politico Fred Keeley (the one considered a heavy betting favorite to throw his hat into the mayoral mix) said that with districts of about 10,000 people electing councilmembers, the candidates may be more in tune with their constituents’ issues than ever before.

“They’re going to be, and I mean this as a compliment, neighborhood politicians. These are going to be folks that really know their neighbors, small businesses, local schools, and where the problems are,” he said. “It may be these folks’ first time elected to office, and certainly the first time they’ve been elected by a district, but I think they are going to pick it up really fast.”

District 3 race: Too close to handicap this one

What was already a slim margin between Kalantari-Johnson and Cummings — 6,308 votes to 5,823, respectively — is likely to get even tighter with the votes that went to Ami Chen Mills presumably up for grabs with the two final candidates.

Keeley says that the 2,436 Mills votes came from a number of sources, making it difficult to determine how things will play out in November.

Santa Cruz City Councilmember and county supervisor candidate Justin Cummings
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“She got some from climate change and some from her long-standing work in her direct neighborhood with her children, schools, and other folks in her neighborhood,” he said, adding that Mills’ charges of campaign violations against Kalantari-Johnson likely excited some around her campaign as well. “All of that together contributed to her vote, and I think that’s why it’s not easy to say where those votes will go.”

Mathews agrees, and says that will probably remain the case no matter what happens between now and Nov. 8.

“It’s going to be very close, I think that’s pretty obvious,” she said. “I’m sure they’re both thinking about how the voter base will differ from the primary and how they want to position themselves, but undoubtedly it will be close.”

District 4 race: Can the Caput factor play big for Hernandez?

Jimmy Dutra, in his third supervisor run, came out on top in the primary, garnering 3,003 votes to Hernandez’s 2,539. Though that unquestionably boosts his confidence, a certain county supervisor could give Felipe Hernandez a significant boost.

Greg Caput, in the twilight of his 12 years on the Board of Supervisors, supported Hernandez in the primary. If that continues, Dutra’s leading position could become increasingly precarious.

4th District Supervisor candidates Ed Acosta, Jimmy Dutra and Felipe Hernandez partake in a candidates' forum.

“He [Caput] is beloved in his district, and does that kind of old school thing of shaking hands and kissing babies, so he’s viewed as a very nice person in the district,” said Keeley. “I think that if he chooses to become more involved than he was in the primary, he could be the deciding factor.”

Keeley also said that it may not take much extra from Caput to make this hypothetical a reality.

“If he ups what he did by just 25% over what he did in the primary, that would mean Felipe’s maybe got some advantages going into the general election,” he said.

Ed Acosta, despite only receiving 962 votes, has also supported Hernandez. If much of the Acosta vote moves to Hernandez, his chances at an upset only get better.

Assembly races: Democrats in the driver’s seat

The Assembly races look a bit different than those for county supervisor, not only because they are statewide offices, but because they are each between a Democratic candidate and a Republican candidate.

However, for that reason, the big ticket race may have actually happened on June 7.

Senator John Laird said, at this point, it is likely that the Democratic candidates will win.

“Now, it’s a partisan split between Republicans and Democrats, and both areas are strongly Democratic,” he said. “The Republican candidates got into November because the Democratic vote was split due to the number of candidates.”

Even so, Laird thinks that the favored candidates should not take their foot off the gas just yet.