Cutting through the ‘style differences’: Kalantari-Johnson, Cummings in a battle for what defines progressive

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson (left) and Justin Cummings
Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson (left) and Justin Cummings, members of the Santa Cruz City Council and candidates for District 3 county supervisor.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In many ways, the battle between Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Justin Cummings for 3rd District county supervisor is helping define the modern makeup of Santa Cruz’s progressiveness, and whom the voters choose will ultimately help shape the story of its future. Homelessness, affordability, public safety and more are issues that drive their campaigns — but it’s also their style and pace that differentiates them.

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson is selling action with a capital A.

Justin Cummings is also big on action … but with just a slight bit more nuance, consideration and public inquiry, he maintains.

For the 56,000 residents of Santa Cruz, Davenport and Bonny Doon who make up Santa Cruz County’s 3rd District, the choice will obviously come down to key issues. But since the candidates aren’t far apart on many of those, it could become a question of which supervisorial action figure is more your style.

“They are pretty similar on the issues,” said one knowledgable source who knows both well. “There’s more of a style difference than a substantive one.”

Their voting records in Santa Cruz city government bear that out. Cummings has been less bullish on many of the actions Kalantari-Johnson has gone full speed ahead on, largely on the two biggest issues facing the 3rd District: homelessness and affordable housing.

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

The truth is that the two city councilmembers vying to take over Ryan Coonerty’s 3rd District county supervisor seat next month — either one representing a historic demographic change to the board — aren’t that far apart in what they want to see happen in their home district. But how they want to get there is framed by who they are.

Cummings, 39, is a climate-passionate environmental scientist with a Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz. He is methodical, thorough and thoughtful by nature. He is a longtime renter, and also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Kalantari-Johnson, 44, is a neighborhood/social activist, a grant writer, a mom, a homeowner and an Iranian immigrant whose parents fled to the U.S. when she was just 7. Her demeanor can be described as passionate, don’t-take-no and unapologetically impatient.

And this being modern-day Santa Cruz, where the affordability struggle has never been so real, the gap between haves and have-nots so vast, they also have garnered support from different constituencies that straddle the owner/renter compendium and tend to nudge them toward slightly different agendas.

Kalantari-Johnson’s approach appears to appeal strongly to those who live in family-oriented neighborhoods like the one she inhabits with her husband and two teens. Many supporters are homeowners, most of them tired of seeing progress stall on the interconnected three-pronged issues of the moment: homelessness, mental health and public safety.

They’re also on board with making up for lost time on housing, maximizing growth opportunities in downtown Santa Cruz, helping kick-start the local economy for small business owners — even if it means that housing projects proceed, even if the number or percentage of affordable units is not ideal.

Santa Cruz City Councilmember and county supervisor candidate Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cummings, a longtime renter in the city who shares housing with roommates like many struggling post-college millennials do, wants a future for Santa Cruz where more working-class people can afford to live. He wants UCSC grad students who enter the workforce making $35,000 a year like he did, in 2013, to still have a chance at the Santa Cruz dream.

On development such as 831 Water Street and the Riverfront housing project, he has been willing to push for a higher percentage of below-market-rate opportunities. He’s also hypersensitive about paying close attention to the input of his constituents.

The immediately apparent differences between career politician Fred Keeley and political newcomer Joy Schendledecker...

Cummings has been more measured in his approach to how homeless encampments are disbanded, whether an oversized vehicle ordinance was appropriate and whether those potential legal entanglements represented prudent moves for the city.

Kalantari-Johnson said as a former community organizer, she is all about public engagement and consensus-building. She also believes Santa Cruz is playing a game of catch-up that can’t afford to hit pause.

“Community input is absolutely essential. But to use that as an excuse not to take action because you’re afraid to make the hard decisions … that’s unacceptable in leadership,” she said. “We’re put in places of leadership so that we can make those hard decisions. I am ready and able to do that. I haven’t seen that in my opponent.”

Santa Cruz City Councilmember and county supervisor candidate Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cummings believes that Kalantari-Johnson’s majority voting bloc on the council — it includes Donna Meyers, Renee Golder, Martine Watkins and sometimes Sonja Brunner — has acted or voted without transparency or public input too often.

He cited the now-infamous acronym TOLO (temporary outdoor living ordinance), which was a short-lived, outcry-inducing plan to create camping areas in industrial areas around the city, many close to tight-knit neighborhoods, including Seabright.

“People had no idea that was coming and it was obviously a big mess,” Cummings said. “In order to take the action, we need to make sure that we’ve gone through the process of hearing from the community first.”

Kalantari-Johnson outpointed Cummings by just 500 votes in the primary in June. Ami Chen Mills, another member of the Democratic Socialists of America, garnered 2,000 votes. Cummings believes he’s poised to collect most of those and become the first Black supervisor in county history.

Kalantari-Johnson, who has outraised Cummings by more than a 2-to-1 margin and has been feverishly knocking on doors, believes the momentum is hers and that she is on her way to becoming the first female supervisor in more than a decade and the first Iranian American to ever serve as a county supervisor in California.

As we head into Thursday night’s Lookout debate between the two candidates, here’s a closer look at where the two stand on key issues.

Santa Cruz police and other officials began the process of clearing the Benchlands homeless encampment Tuesday
An American flag flies over the Benchlands, Santa Cruz County’s largest homeless encampment.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)


There is no single issue more important for the 3rd District supervisor, and both candidates are well aware of this. It’s also the topic Kalantari-Johnson and Cummings have sparred the most over — notably in the previous Lookout debate, in late May.

She believes the city has taken far too long to clear out encampments that have sprung up in visible locations over many years. She has been a vocal proponent for the current clearing of the Benchlands and calls the steps being taken to set up temporary transitional shelter at the Armory at DeLaveaga Park and at 1220 River St. key progress toward getting the county’s 2,299 unhoused into shelter.

She also believes the county — which truly owns the issue even though the majority of the visible homeless are in the city — needs to do more than it has on the day-to-day. She believes that a systematic focus on “housing first” is great for “down the line, but what’s left behind is the crisis we see on the streets.”

“The county has not stepped up to provide transitional emergency shelter,” she added. “The county has not stepped up to provide a safe parking program.”

Santa Cruz police and other officials began the process of clearing the Benchlands homeless encampment Tuesday
An estimated 250-plus people have been living in the Benchlands.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She said she is proud that the city of Santa Cruz, with a $14 million infusion of state funding, has chosen to enforce camping bans along the San Lorenzo River, is finally doing something about the Benchlands and has pushed forward with its oversized vehicle ordinance (OVO).

“The city stepped up and said, ‘All right, this is our community, and we’re going to do something about it. Now we have our limits,’” she said. “It’s a great start, but it’s a drop in the bucket. The county has to pick some of that up. Providing for more emergency shelters, providing for more safe parking program and not having it always be focused in the city of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz has borne the burden of having to address the homelessness needs in our community.”

She said she believes that the proof is in the progress.

“In less than eight months, we’ve housed 12 individuals,” she said. “In less than eight months, we’ve temporarily sheltered over 150 people. In less than eight months, we’ve provided safe parking for 25 to 30 vehicles. So as we see this success, I think the momentum will be there.”

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson during a county supervisors candidate forum
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Kalantari-Johnson also believes that vocal homelessness advocates have made the problem far more difficult for the city. It’s a key dividing point between her and Cummings. He believes those advocating on behalf of the unhoused, saying there is inadequate places for them to go beyond encampments like the Benchlands, have a point and should be listened to — both for human and legal reasons

“A lot of the activists in this community have actually been working to try to hold the city accountable when it comes to, ‘Hey, what’s going to happen to these people?’,” he said. “With the various lawsuits, people have been winning when they’ve sued the city on these issues. They’ve actually oftentimes been in the right to say, ‘You guys are violating Martin vs. Boise (a rebuke of the Idaho’s city’s anti-camping ban) if you don’t have a place for these people to go.’”

Cummings said that is why he wasn’t in support of clearing the Ross Camp as quickly as other councilmembers and why he’s watching the Benchlands situation with cautious optimism.

“Not everyone chooses to accept that shelter space, and so that’s where the challenge comes in,” he said. “That’ll be challenging when we get to that point and folks refuse to go to shelter. It will be a public safety issue.”

Ex-Santa Cruz Mayor Justin Cummings and Abi Mustapha, founding member of the Santa Cruz Equity Collaboration.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cummings said the bigger picture of solving Santa Cruz homelessness will involve a collaborative approach that many feel has been developing between the city and county since COVID-19 threw both into crisis mode.

“What really needs to happen is that the city and the county need to start working in collaboration on ways to address this issue that isn’t the typical ‘Just move them somewhere else and no one’s gonna stop us,’” he said. “Because the laws have changed since 2018, and we really need to start figuring out how we can address homelessness in a way that allows us to comply with the laws that are before us.”

Affordable housing

While he understands the county’s crisis that has put it 12,979 units behind its state-mandated goals, Cummings is adamant that not all housing is good housing and will help solve the affordability crisis that is pricing out renters like himself.

“We need to build housing that’s going to meet the needs of the community, not just attract people with higher wealth to a place already struggling with housing,” he said. “I’m looking forward to pushing on our state elected officials and our federally elected officials because this notion of any housing is good housing and building market rate will lower prices, it’s just not true. We’ve actually just seen the opposite.”

That’s why Cummings is sensitive to the reaction he hears about the building spree rising up from lower Pacific Avenue downtown. And the continued push for more that could involve a new, permanent Warriors arena and 1,800 units of more housing.

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Justin Cummings during a county supervisors candidate forum
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I’ve been listening to residents there, and a lot of people are really upset,” he said. “I asked at a city council meeting why it is that we need to build 17- and 15-story buildings and put 1,800 new residents in that area to build a new Warriors arena. That just does not make any sense. We need transparency around what’s going on down there and that’s lacking. If we don’t get that I think that a lot of people are going to oppose that project.”

Cummings wants to push for more Section 8 housing in a county with a chronically backlogged waitlist — “There are 10,000 people on that list,” he said — and he wants to increase the county’s inclusionary percentage of affordable housing units from 15% to 20%. He said that is something he and fellow councilmember Sandy Brown, also a renter, have fought hard for in Santa Cruz.

Kalantari-Johnson said she believes there is only one speed for Santa Cruz County to make up for its housing deficiencies and that is turbo.

“It’s the way of thinking by a lot of my opponent’s supporters, and past policies, that have put us in this mess where we’ve lost so much local control,” she said. “So we’re getting projects that don’t feel like they have the integrity of what we want for our community. I think the way to gain back local control is to meet our housing goals.”

She said those RHNA (regional housing needs allocation) goals “weren’t just pulled out of the air — they were created because there’s a need.” She believes the example Santa Cruz has set by adding 867 units since 2015 to its stock is something that the whole county needs to step up on.

“Like homelessness, I think the city of Santa Cruz has borne the burden of trying to build and provide housing,” she said. “So as a supervisor, I will want to spread the love.”

Justin Cummings, Ami Chen Mills and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson at May's candidate forum.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She said her approach to projects during her two years on council was to keep an open mind, meet developers, meet with community members, talk with city staff about what’s feasible and what is not. “Some of my other colleagues will just kind of shut the door immediately without doing the work,” she said.

She says updating the county’s housing element — essentially the blueprint for utilizing land — will be an essential tool for smart growth.

“There are transit corridors along urban areas in our unincorporated areas,” she said. “It’s how we get local control back and grow the community in ways that maintain this beautiful beach town with all of its outdoor space.”

Other key topics

Mental health

Kalantari-Johnson says resources must be bolstered and her experience writing grants and advocating can help: “We don’t have the treatment resources for those who are chronically suffering from it and we don’t have the treatment opportunities for teens, either.”

She said the biggest single problem is simple: “We don’t have enough beds.”

Cummings is pushing for a 24/7 mental health liaison so that police response is not relied upon for those experiencing a crisis. And after hearing concerns from high school students about flaws in the county’s MERTY (Mobile Emergency Response Team for Youth) system, he also wants to see more counselors in high schools dedicated to mental health.

But, like Kalantari-Johnson, he knows that providing enough beds for those in need has got to be the top priority.

“I’ve reached out multiple times to Congressman (Jimmy) Panetta ‘s office because there are some changes that can be made at the federal level that would help facilitate that,” he said.

The amount of fentanyl that it takes to overdose is very ittle.

Public safety

What scares the mother of two teen boys the most?

“Drugs and mental health. There is a culture of tolerance and acceptance in this community around drugs,” Kalantari-Johnson said. “It’s all intertwined, what we see with street homelessness is unmet mental health and substance abuse needs. And it’s not to put the blame on these individuals who are suffering from these illnesses.”

The infrastructure of safety is also part of that, she says.

“My kids ride their bikes to school every day. They ride their bikes to soccer practice, like all the way across town to Harvey West,” she said. “Neighborhood safety, community safety is my No. 1 priority.”

Cummings said building out relationships between the community and police officers is key. And he thinks the 24/7 response could play a big factor.

“The county does have some services but we know that officers are responding to calls for homelessness and mental health,” he said. “We should have people who are trained professionals, social workers, mental health clinicians, who are responding to those more so than officers.”

A burned chair frame is left after the CZU Lightning Complex fire crept on to Amber Turpin's Bon Lomond property.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

CZU recovery

Cummings said he recognizes people in Bonny Doon — as well as the San Lorenzo Valley — are still struggling to rebuild from the 202 CZU fires. He wants to streamline the permitting process, help people who have been abandoned by their insurance companies and look at ways to be better prepared for future events.

“What is our plan for the future in terms of engaging with the insurance commissioner to better understand how, at the state level, are they going to work to protect people who are impacted by natural disasters?” he said.

Kalantari-Johnson agrees that “outdated state policies with so much red tape” are largely to blame for the strict rebuilding regulations faced by those choosing whether to rebuild their lives. But she said she’s also acutely focused on the ways in which the response by Cal Fire and other local agencies can work more smoothly the next time around.

“The response was inadequate,” she said. “I think our efforts for fuel mitigation and fire prevention have been spotty, and there’s a lot more to do there.”


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