Last hurrah for the ‘head of democracy and love’: Gail Pellerin bids her adieu
THE HERE & NOW: Longtime Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin exits stage left after 27 years of elections, marriages and chasing down signatures.
Like a grand opera or a well-scripted summer blockbuster, the final act of Gail Pellerin’s long career as Santa Cruz County Clerk was the most dramatic.
After more than 27 years — the last 16 of them in her current position — the woman who oversees the county’s elections is looking back at the wild election season of 2020 with lots of satisfaction and a little surprise as well.
“It was crazy,” she said like someone who just stepped out of the Boardwalk’s Giant Dipper, “but the November election was my dream election.”
With insanely high turnout of registered voters (more than 85 percent), few problems and a clean count, the 2020 election would have been a triumph for Pellerin and her staff and volunteers under normal circumstances.
But, of course, nothing about this year was normal. The election was held under the strictures of a rampaging pandemic, and against a backdrop of the kinds of conversations about democracy and legitimacy of voting that Americans usually avoid.
It made for an ideal time to go out on top for Pellerin, 58, who announced her retirement from her position the week after the election, effective this week.
“People were so engaged and interested in voting,” she said. “Voting was actually cool. People were talking about it wherever you went. It was this hugely popular thing. Anyone who didn’t vote were kind of in the fear-of-missing-out category where they regretted it. I love it.”
Sure, elections are the killer app of Pellerin’s job, the thing she’s most remembered for, but there are other duties too, like officially presiding over weddings.
“This is a job that I have loved,” she said, in a break from cleaning out her office at the county building, where she also showed off her flare for creative head decor in a final masked photoshoot. “I’m the head of democracy and love.”
As for the latter, I saw for myself a little about what she’ll do in the name of love. In the winter of 2017, my longtime friend Tana Butler was dying of cancer. The man she loved and with whom she lived for two decades had proposed marriage to her 23 years earlier, but they had never gotten around to tying the knot.
In Tana’s last days, all she wanted to do was marry Bob. I wrote a story about it, and Gail Pellerin — who didn’t know Tana — was on the phone with her the next day, offering to come to Tana’s bedside to seal the deal, which she did, quoting from Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind” in the wedding ceremony. And that wasn’t the only time she made those kinds of house calls.
Pellerin got her start in public service alongside the legendary pol Willie Brown as part of his staff when Brown was Assembly Speaker. She had grown up in Los Angeles and went to school at Cal Poly, and had been in the work force since was 13. “My dad didn’t believe that women should be educated and I wanted to go to college so I worked as a motel maid and in restaurants to pay for it.”
At the age of 23, she found herself in Sacramento working for Assemblyman Rusty Areias when she was recruited to drive Brown to the airport. Brown, who had never met the young woman, was glad-handing at an event and generally ignoring Pellerin’s gentle proddings.
“Finally, I went over to him and said, ‘Mr. Speaker, put a match under your ass now. Get in the car, we’re leaving.’ And he did. Then, he hired me after that.”
She came into office in Santa Cruz in 1993 working on the staff of County Clerk Richard Bedal.
When Bedal retired in 2004, Pellerin took the job. In her years working local elections, she has collected the kinds of stories that retirees can look back on and laugh about: the election that ended in a dead tie, the time she had to call one candidate who assumed he’d won and tell him otherwise, the tedious tracking down of voters who may have not signed their mail-in ballot through phone records and social media, the confrontations with irate voters, some of whom are convinced that the vote count is squirrely or there’s a vote-stealing conspiracy afoot.
Though her default response is to show anyone who is curious exactly how vote-tallying works in her office, she has been in screaming matches, with unappeasable voters and protesters, sometimes employing her “mom voice.”
Through it all she’s made some real innovations, leading a movement to change from the punch-hole “chad” system to a mark-the-vote method (though many voters kept trying to punch holes in their ballots long after). She established the county election portal at www.votescount.us. She helped Santa Cruz County become one of the first jurisdictions to post results on the Internet.
And all of her work in elections culminated in 2020, a year with a new moved-up primary (March instead of June), a deeply unpopular president on the ballot (at least in Santa Cruz), and with op-eds and Sunday think pieces consistently ruminating on such subjects as the Electoral College, voter suppression, the sanctity of the vote, and the precarious state of American democracy.
All this elevated interest in voting came amidst a pandemic that made mail-in balloting essential for millions, turning the post office, of all things, into a hot-button political issue.
On the ground, said Pellerin, the election worked like a well-executed dance. “The campaigns, the voters, the poll workers, my staff, everyone worked together to make sure our election was accessible and secure and accurate. It was a beautiful thing to watch.”
Though she’ll be scarce around the county building, Gail Pellerin won’t be fading into the paneling. Two years ago, her husband Tom died by suicide, and since then, she has been working to become an activist in suicide prevention and mental-health awareness.
One of her first projects will be to work with county officials to post suicide hot-line information in every public restroom. She is even more acutely aware of the dangers of mental illness during the pandemic.
Her retirement interests may lead her to something even more high-profile than being County Clerk. She laments the fact that Santa Cruz County has never sent a woman to elective office in Sacramento, and she’s outspoken about the need for women to be more representative in higher office locally.
She is noncommital about her own potential candidacy, but she did mention that Assemblyman Mark Stone is termed out in 2024 and “that’s an opportunity for a woman to take that seat.”
Pellerin’s daughter Emily Chaffin produced a tribute video to her mom which clocked in at three hours and featured testimonials from a wide number of admirers, including Willie Brown. Part of that video tribute featured a few people once suspicious of and even antagonistic to Pellerin who have over years become close friends.
“That’s really what democracy is about,” she said, “having people with different opinions and different backgrounds coming together and finding common ground.
“I was very blessed to be born with a positive attitude,” she said. “I guess I’m always looking at the glass half full. It drives my kids nuts.”