The news shows on Kristina Quilici’s television have been saying the same thing for months: “Voters are angry.” “Incumbents are in danger.” “Democrats are done.” She’s watched the rise of the Tea Party and the ouster of longtime pols in brutal primaries. But when she turns off the TV and steps out of her Bay Street home to talk about what issues are important to her locally, pragmatism trumps ideology. What matters to her is what kind of education her three children will get and what jobs will await them when they graduate. It’s the same for Bridget McNeil, Mark Statson and Kathy Donovan, three more working Santa Cruzans. Respectively they list “jobs,” “public safety” and “social services” as their top issues.
“I’m interested in competence,” says Quilici, co-owner of Quilici Gardening in Santa Cruz. “I want my kids to be educated and to do well, and I want a leader who can get things done.”
In coming weeks they’ll vote for three of eight Santa Cruz City Council candidates, each with a different view on how to make the city safer, greener and more prosperous. There’s insurance executive Kevin Moon, Valley Transportation Authority manager David Terrazas, retired San Jose firefighter Ron Pomerantz, garden designer and incumbent councilmember Lynn Robinson, executive assistant Gus Ceballos, grant writer Steve Pleich, Karon Properties real estate broker Hilary Bryant and Capitola housing planner David Foster. For most, it’s their first venture into politics. And for all, actually winning will be a massive hill to climb.
Consider that in the 2008 Santa Cruz City Council election, David Terrazas, running for his first time, received 11,320 votes and still lost, placing fifth overall in the race for four open seats. His vote total was nearly four times as many as were cast in the entire 2008 Watsonville City Council election combined and nearly 2,800 more than it took to elect Monterey Mayor Chuck Della Sala that same year. Santa Cruz city politics may be small-ball in the grand scheme, but it doesn’t get much more competitive.
This is also an election unlike any Santa Cruz has seen in years. The old guard of slow-growth progressives that for decades dominated local politics and saw signs of breaking up in 2006 and 2008 could see its last days as a young, pro-business, tech-savvy movement gains traction with voters.
Nationally, the GOP is veering toward the right, while disillusioned Democrats criticize their party’s compromises on major legislation as proof of weak leadership. But in Santa Cruz, the middle is alive and well. And come November, it may be a revolution all its own.
The signs started popping up like mushrooms on lawns around June. No one, however, started earlier than Hilary Bryant. A real estate broker and co-owner of the Westside Animal Hospital, the tall, athletic Bryant began raising money early, pitching her pro-growth, pro-social services message right away. It’s translated into an early lead in fundraising and coveted endorsements from the Democratic Women’s Club, Santa Cruz Police Officers Association and four current councilmembers: Ryan Coonerty, Cynthia Mathews, Mike Rotkin and Lynn Robinson.
“I think if we don’t get our economy going again we won’t be able to effectively handle our public safety issues, our environmental issues or anything else,” says Bryant. “A strong economy is crucial because these things are going to require resources.”
David Terrazas, who serves on Santa Cruz’s transportation commission, is a familiar face after his narrow loss (45 votes) to Councilmember Tony Madrigal in 2008. The raven-haired, jowly hopeful kept his yard signs and his connections and is running strong in this election with a nuanced platform that’s big on economic development and public safety.
“We need to be focused on reviewing policies that help local businesses,” says Terrazas. “We need to look at new partnerships with UCSC and engage local contractors and trades people to tie infrastructure improvements to local businesses.”
Up for reelection is Councilmember Lynn Robinson. Robinson gained a reputation on the council for relatively conservative positions and for championing development projects like the mixed-use Westside citadel, 2120 Delaware. She’s promised more of the same.
Kevin Moon is the first GOP candidate to run since development tycoon Louis Rittenhouse was elected to the council in 1990. The smartly dressed 33-year-old is a lifelong Santa Cruzan with roots among Westside surfers. His candidacy has thrilled the local Republican Party but has seemed to wear on Moon himself, whose mood at the few forums he’s show up for has come off as somewhere between “I’ve been up for days” and “my dog just died.” His campaign, according to most recent disclosures, has largely been funded by donors from outside Santa Cruz, and his policies, which include inviting big-box stores like Target to the city, de-funding homeless services and privatizing parts of the police force, have found sympathetic ears among a small but passionate local base.
“My top priority as a member of Council will be protecting the citizens of Santa Cruz,” writes Moon in an e-mail to Santa Cruz Weekly (he refuses to answer questions on the phone). “I will do everything in my power to prevent the spread of gang violence and the drug trade, and address the problem of vagrancy and panhandling downtown.”
Ron Pomerantz and his supporters have fought the impression that he’s an old-school progressive primarily interested in the environment and slowing growth. The fatherly 58-year-old, who is married to former Santa Cruz Mayor Jane Weed-Pomerantz, is the most ardent union supporter in the bunch and takes in a pension of $124,487 per year from his days with the San Jose Fire Department. He calls himself a “big D Democrat and a little d democrat” and says he’s ready to trim the budget “starting at the top.” He also says he’s ready to fight the thorny battle of raising the city’s bed tax as a way to increase revenue.
Housing planner David Foster brings undoubtedly more knowledge to the subject of affordable housing than any other candidate. The stocky recumbent bike enthusiast made his name in 2002 when he helped forge new rules allowing granny units to be built for family members to use. He’s also taken a stance on transportation issues.
“One (issue) that hasn’t got enough discussion in the forums so far is where we’re going in terms of alternative forms of transportation. Is it King Street (proposed “bicycle boulevard”), personal rapid transit, highway widening?”
Running in the back of the pack, but nonetheless, running hard, are part time Santa Cruz AIDS Project grant writer Steve Pleich and executive assistant Gus Ceballos. Pleich, who finally bought a cell phone this month and typically shows up to forums in a dark hoodie, shorts and high tube socks, has strong stances on homeless rights, (he opposes the camping ban), a gargantuan tally of volunteer hours logged at local non-profits and a mind to put a per-pack tax on cigarettes.
Ceballos, a Latino born and raised in Santa Cruz, made waves earlier in September when he was forced to change his campaign logo that had mimicked the Santa Cruz Skateboards dot logo. Not shy about the $0 he’s raised so far, or about saying “I don’t know much about that subject” when he doesn’t know much about that subject, Ceballos says he plans to be around in Santa Cruz politics for years to come. “A vote for Gus, is a vote for us,” he rattles off in candidate forum closing statements, often to the cheers and chuckles of his fellow candidates.
Local politicos talk about this year’s city council election as a “turning point” and a “wake-up call.” Hearing the rhetoric, one might think they’re at Republican fundraiser or a Tea Party rally. But in the city of Santa Cruz, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than six to one, it’s both parties that are sounding the victory trumpets as they fight to claim their share of the moderate voter windfall.
“My sense is that a shift has taken place,” says architect, activist and one-term councilmember Mark Primack, who has endorsed Terrazas and Robinson. “We spent decades basing philosophies on fear—fear of growth, fear of congestion, fear of water shortages, fear of housing prices. It’s brought a fragile economy. What we’re seeing here is the last gasp of the fearmongers. Santa Cruz is always ahead of the game. I think in 2012, you’ll see the rest of the country following suit.”
Local Democratic Party Chair Zach Friend agrees with Primack that the tide is turning. His group has officially endorsed Terrazas and Robinson. Longtime progressive operative and professional campaign planner Bruce Van Allen says the city’s ideological shift toward the center is a natural evolution. But he also thinks the change will come from harder line liberals like Pomerantz and Foster.
“What we’re seeing this time is definitely part of a political evolution that started showing up last election or even the one before that,” says Van Allen. “Essentially, the progressive wing of Santa Cruz politics has been losing ground to a more conservative, business-oriented coalition. This is a historic change for Santa Cruz politics.”
For local Republicans, Kevin Moon is cause for hope: if he can win here, a candidate like him can win anywhere. “Kevin Moon is a hardworking member of the community that brings new fresh ideas to the city council, particularly in terms of public safety and fiscal responsibility,” says Republican Party Chair Susan Allen.
With the departure of council stalwarts Mike Rotkin and Cynthia Mathews, only Katherine Beiers, and, to a lesser degree, Don Lane, will be around to wave what’s left of the classic progressive flag on the seven-member body. If Terrazas, Robinson and Bryant are elected, as many believe they will be, they will form a majority with the prince of the young moderates, Ryan Coonerty, and the results will likely mean more city growth (all four have championed the 2120 Delaware mixed-use project, support the current La Bahia plans and seek a streamlined permitting process for new businesses). It will also likely include more police (all four support the proposed public safety funding utility tax hike, Measure H). And until the local economy begins humming again, it’s apt to include more cuts to some city services.
For voters like Laulette Edwards, a stay-at-home-mom who lives on the Westside, the crash course in all things city council election is just starting. With 30 days until Election Day, she’s got a stack of reading planned and list of important issues formed.
“I think a lot of politicians have a better idea of what they’re against than what they’re for,” she says as she walks her 6-year-old daughter home from school. “I’m interested in what they are for.”