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Voter Guide: Santa Cruz City Council

A guide to candidates running for the Santa Cruz City Council

This is part of our voter guide coverage for the fall 2020 election.

VOTE FOR UP TO FOUR

This year’s Santa Cruz City Council race is an all-women field with two incumbents. 

Councilmember Martine Watkins, 40, is running for reelection after working on housing affordability as part of the Housing Blueprint Subcommittee, which made dozens of recommendations in a 51-page report, before a change in City Council leadership. Watkins, who served as mayor last year, has also worked to create a new Health in All Policies framework, which has in part nudged the city staff to move away from a siloed approach to long-term planning and to get staff to weigh health outcomes in all its agenda reports. “A subtle shift could have transformational impacts,” she says.

As the city recovers from the pandemic-induced recession, she wants to see the city support local business wherever possible and work to rebuild its reserves to make it more resilient to natural disasters. 

Fellow Councilmember Sandy Brown also served on the housing committee, although she has since distanced herself from some of the recommendations. She has taken the stance that Santa Cruz can get more affordable housing by forcing developers to make 15% to 20% of their units affordable in every housing complex, although economic analysts predicted that the change would lead to fewer affordable units. She says she’s been hearing lots of concerns from voters about homelessness. “It’s time that the city fessed up to the fact that what we have been doing is not working,” she says. She adds the city should try to expand safe-parking and managed encampments spread across the city, without shoving all the impacts into any one neighborhood.

Project manager and consultant Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, 42, says she knows the challenges that lie ahead in the wake of the pandemic will be tremendous. But given her work on community-based organizations, Kalantari-Johnson says she’s up to the challenge. She’s helped bring in funds and formed partnerships to address issues like immigration rights, juvenile justice, youth homelessness, and substance abuse prevention. “Finding and securing resources is something I’ve done for the last 15 years,” she says. “I’ve done it successfully. I’ve brought in over $30 million to address challenges in our community.” 

Sonja Brunner, 50, is the operations director for the Downtown Association, giving her firsthand experience with community relations and working with small business. She also serves on the Housing Authority of Santa Cruz County Board of Directors and has seen what the housing crisis and a shortage of housing do to struggling families, she says. 

Santa Cruz, she explains, needs to build a variety of types of housing. “We have several hundred individuals with Section 8 vouchers in hand that are not finding rentals. That’s an issue. We’ve been able to increase vouchers and increase support on that end. Now, we need to increase on the other end with housing,” she says.

The city is projecting that its budget crisis will last several years. Nonprofit executive Kayla Kumar, 31, says the city needs to prioritize compassion in its budgeting process. She says the city needs to remember that the pandemic causing fiscal shortfalls is the very same one having a disproportionate impact on people of color, essential workers and low-income families. “Every time this happens, people put social program funding on the chopping block first, and I would not co-sign that approach,” she says. She believes she can use her budgeting experience to cut and reorganize administrative costs. 

Kelsey Hill, a nonprofit media and intern director, says the city should take this opportunity as it recovers from the pandemic to focus on growing more sustainably and focus resources on active transportation and environmental causes. She gives the example of the block of Pacific Avenue that is currently closed to cars. She would like to see that continue when things return to normal. “One existential crisis—Covid-19—doesn’t stop or slow the other existential crisis that we’re facing, which is climate change,” Hill says. 

Those initial six candidates lead the race in fundraising hauls and in some of the high-profile endorsements. Watkins, Kalantari-Johnson and Brunner drew endorsements from Think Local First and from the Democratic Women’s Club. Brown, Kumar and Hill earned endorsements from the People’s Democratic Club and the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation.

Maria Cadenas, the executive director for Santa Cruz Community Ventures, is a few thousand dollars behind those candidates in fundraising totals. 

Cadenas, 42, who has spent her career focusing on equity issues, explains that the existing which-side-are-you-on binary of local politics—embodied by election fights over the past four years—doesn’t serve the working people of Santa Cruz. She says the infighting mirrors the yelling discourse at the federal level. It’s a trend that concerns her because the area of agreement among Santa Cruzans is actually very broad, so she feels leaders need to take a different approach. “It doesn’t mean you don’t raise different policy approaches, but we’re looking at a severe budget deficit. We’re looking at a crisis that’s coming head on to our region,” she says. 

Elizabeth Conlan, a housing advocate, is running a pro-housing campaign, with a vision for expanded renter protections and “gentle density” in more areas around the city. Conlan, 32, hopes to make Santa Cruz more all-around welcoming. “I want to make Santa Cruz attractive for people who want to build a business or an organization,” she says. 

Homeless activist Alicia Kuhl, 41, lives in an RV in Santa Cruz with her three kids and her partner. She was commuting to Santa Clara County several days a week before the pandemic started, and she’s looking for work again—although she doesn’t know if she’ll make enough to move into a house or an apartment. “I bring the perspective of someone who has both been housed and unhoused in Santa Cruz. I know what it’s like to be a working person in Santa Cruz who still can’t afford rent,” she says.


Click here to see all of our ongoing 2020 election coverage.

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