A Lookout View: Vote Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson for District 3 Santa Cruz County Supervisor

County supervisor hopeful Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson at a Lookout candidate forum.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout Endorsement: No matter who becomes the next District 3 supervisor, Santa Cruz County will benefit. The Lookout editorial board likes both candidates, but endorses Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson over Justing Cummings because we think she has the momentum the moment requires. We believe she will do the hard work and be the consensus-builder our community needs to address pressing issues of affordable housing, homelessness, mental health and climate change.

Editor’s note: A Lookout View is the opinion of our Community Voices opinion section, written by our editorial board, which consists of Community Voices Editor Jody K. Biehl and Lookout Founder Ken Doctor. Our goal is to connect the dots we see in the news and offer a bigger-picture view — all intended to see Santa Cruz County meet the challenges of the day and to shine a light on issues we believe must be on the public agenda. These views are distinct and independent from the work of our newsroom and its reporting.

Here’s the good news: District 3 voters will have an excellent, well-qualified Santa Cruz County Supervisor, no matter how the vote turns out on Nov. 8.

Both candidates running — Justin Cummings and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson — have proved themselves dedicated public servants and local leaders. They are people to be watched, and our community is lucky to have them.

Both have worked hard on the Santa Cruz City Council — an increasingly difficult job that demands stamina and personal courage. Councilmembers work long hours (often more than 20 hours a week; meetings often stretch until late into the night) and we are seeing a disturbing increase in personal attacks online and in public. It’s also a job that is severely underpaid ($20,524.20).

Kalantari-Johnson has spent close to two years on the council, while Cummings is finishing his fourth year, including a stint in 2020 as mayor. His service then — during both the height of the pandemic and the CZU fire — distinguishes him, particularly. He showed himself to be a compassionate leader, and he used his considerable personal charisma to help families deal with terrible loss, both from COVID-19 and from fire. He has also been unafraid to take a stand on the council and has the support of unions and several Democratic and progressive organizations.

He’s an environmental scientist who works at UC Santa Cruz (where he got his Ph.D. in 2013) and who brings experience mitigating climate change.

He has brought diversity issues to the fore on the council and has pushed for accountability on the police force, where, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, he successfully worked to ban chokeholds and predictive policing. If elected, he would be the first Black man on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors.

That’s important, and he has campaigned on a platform of diversity and inclusion for minority groups, but also for renters, like himself, who struggle with our area’s skyrocketing prices. We take that campaign seriously and recognize how much work our community still needs to do to make everyone feel welcome.

Kalantari-Johnson, too, brings diversity. She would be the only woman on the board, the first woman since 2014 and the first Iranian woman. She showed compassion and dedication during the CZU wildfire and has made fire safety a hallmark of her mission. She is a strong advocate for youth and has valuable experience as a social worker and working with the unhoused in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

Both are excellent candidates, and we wish we could advocate for both.

But elections require choices, and here, our decision hinges less on the personal traits or voting records of the candidates (which are, on the whole, not remarkably different), but on who is the leader this moment requires.

We think it is Kalantari-Johnson.

We think she has the momentum. That includes the backing of most county officials, including outgoing District 3 Supervisor Ryan Coonerty and her fellow city councilmembers. She will need to work closely with these electeds and find openings to connect city, county and state programs and funding streams to tackle the biggest issues now confronting us like affordable housing, homelessness, climate change and mental health.

County supervisor candidates Justin Cummings (left) and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson at a Lookout forum.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In our ongoing coverage, we have been startled to see how little communication exists among our city, county and state officials. We think Kalantari-Johnson is a unifier and consensus-builder who can initiate those vital links.

That ability would be tested. Whoever wins this office faces multiple challenges. Those include smartly building a record number of affordable homes to meet state mandates, shoring up our coastline to prevent erosion and finding lasting solutions that deal with burgeoning numbers of unhoused and mentally ill.

While those issues prominently face us, we at Lookout are also eyeing pesticide use in the Pajaro Valley, our burgeoning fentanyl crises and the conditions in our jails. We plan to push these issues with whoever is elected in November and to get greater accountability and transparency — and creative solutions — for you, our readers.

Kalantari-Johnson would bring experience in grant-writing and a background in public health and human services, both vital especially over the next several years, to the board of supervisors. One catchphrase of this election, now increasingly used to help differentiate the roles of councilmembers and supervisors, has become “cities build things and counties provide services.”

We think Kalantari-Johnson has the expertise to know how to best navigate delivering services to our most vulnerable.

We like the fact that she is taken strong, public stances, most immediately on Santa Cruz Measure O and Measure N and, over time, on clearing out the Benchlands, which we support for health reasons and because the land is located on a flood plain, and the rains are approaching.

But we also want our elected leaders to spend more time talking to the people living without permanent shelter and offer better, more permanent solutions to their plights. We want to see them communicate with the unhoused and with the public more openly about options.

Kalantari-Johnson is a hard worker who always comes prepared. Those who work with her repeatedly laud her work ethic. Our small, underfunded county needs that sort of dedication and selflessness.

Like all politicians, Kalantari-Johnson has grown — and is growing into — her public role. She is becoming a more relaxed public speaker, less dependent on facts on the page than what she knows and feels. Her first instinct is to unify — to get consensus in a room. We applaud this trait and believe it will serve her — and us — well. We also look forward to her taking charge and proving herself as a strategic thinker and leader.

Again, this was not an easy choice.

We applaud both candidates and feel lucky that in this race, our community will benefit, no matter the outcome.

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