John Laird, California’s outgoing natural resources secretary and Santa Cruz’s former state assemblymember, has announced today that he’s running for the California Senate’s 17th District in 2020.
It’s a seat currently held by state Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel), who’s terming out. If elected, Laird hopes to help lead on a variety of daunting issues, ranging from the state’s growing threat of devastating wildfires to questions about housing affordability.
“There are a lot of challenges facing the Central Coast—in housing, in education, in healthcare and the environment. I have the energy and experience to lead on each of those issues,” Laird says.
Laird, 68, just wrapped up an eight-year term as secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency under Gov. Jerry Brown. Still, he says that his energy levels show no sign of waning, adding that his mother, who’s nearing her 95th birthday, still reads the newspaper everyday and emails him often to ask if certain things are true.
In the Brown administration, Laird oversaw a $10 billion budget and 25 statewide departments, commissions and conservancies, including the departments of water, state parks, fish and wildlife, and Cal Fire, as well as the California Coastal Commission.
Many challenges that lie ahead for the state are unique to California, Laird says. And some, he feels, are exacerbated by a lack of leadership at the federal level. For example, fighting fires and reducing fire risk would be more manageable if California had a partner in the White House more willing to help, rather than criticize, he says. Already, California helped create the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification in 2016, working around the feds in a wide-ranging collaboration to combat the effects of climate change.
Laird, a UCSC grad, got his start politically on the Santa Cruz City Council, where he served as one of the first gay mayors in U.S. history. Coming out wasn’t easy at the time, he says. “I knew it was the right thing to do, but I didn’t know if I was going to be on the right side of history,” Laird says, adding that he now knows he undoubtedly was.
Laird later spent six years in the state Assembly representing Santa Cruz County, before terming out in 2008.
After that, he ran for the state Senate in 2010 against Sam Blakeslee, during a special election to fill a vacant seat. Laird says the old senate district, which stretched from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara County, was drawn to elect a Republican. After an independent redistricting commission re-drew the boundaries, Blakeslee announced his retirement in 2012. That opened the door for a run from Monning that same year. Laird is now running for that same seat.
Laird—who, if elected, plans to work full-time out of Santa Cruz—is married to water colorist John C. Flores. Laird finds himself continually impressed with his husband’s serene paintings of nature, but his own shifting political schedule has required adjustments locally.
“He’s getting used to having me at home more,” Laird says, “which is another story.”
Update: Jan. 18, 2019, 12:11 p.m. — The original version of this story misspelled John C. Flores’ name and misreported the budget size for the California Natural Resources Agency. We regret the errors.